IF SECULAR Spain has the equivalent of a sacred ritual it’s the “Ir de tapas” hours that span the time between the end of the working day and the start of the evening meal.
Tides of people are drawn by the gastronomic gravity of bar snacks that can be as simple as a disc of bread topped with serrano ham or as exotic as cow’s lips in an oily tomato and onion sauce.
Even if you’re aware of the peculiarities of the Spanish working day it can still be perplexing to be in a place where streets and bars are teeming with people one minute and then, as if by some invisible signal, empty the next.
Most Spaniards start their jobs at 9am, finish at 1.30pm then resume work from 5pm until 8pm.
Lunch is the main meal of the day, usually served around 2.30pm, so a couple of tapas might be squeezed in before then, but the main time for socializing and bar-snacking is in the evening.
Between 8pm and dinner time the bars fill-up, animated conversations begin, the volume rises. Points are driven home with wagging fingers, and expansive gestures give emphasis to argument. It’s all good-natured even if it seems, at times, that things are getting heated.
The bars tend to be on the small side so people stand, tightly-packed at the counter, or perch drinks, snacks and elbows on shelving tacked to the wall.
Drifts of discarded napkins are a good sign and not an indication of slovenly bar staff. Lots of litter attests to high turnover and a place the locals like. That, in turn, means the food is good and the price is right.
Here in León, the tapas are still free if you buy a drink – a small beer or caña opens the door to a variety of appetizers; sometimes you get to choose from what’s on offer and others you take what comes.
Jamón Jamón, round the corner from our apartment, only ever has one tapa – a hunk of bread topped with ham, chorizo, salami and a slice of manchego cheese.
It’s always lively and they serve really good wines as well as beer. Albariño from Galicia is the pick of the whites, while the local red Bierzo is well-liked. Measures are generous and two drinks with tapas will cost around 3.50 euros.
Another good pitstop is Bar Rua 11 where the local specialty is what we would call blood sausage (morcilla) though it’s not served in a sausage casing, nor is it sausage-like.
It’s black, it’s shiny and the texture is more akin to that of bread sauce mixed with diced onion.
It’ll be served spread across a flat plate, topped with toasted pine nuts and accompanied by a side of apple sauce. If you want to blend in, make a barco (boat) with the ever-present slabs of crusty fresh bread and mop up any residue.
Some places are as much about atmosphere as tapas and La Cantina is one. It’s a scruffy place of rough walls and gloomy corners watched over by a host whose previous job was surely as a circus strongman.
He likes to see things done in the traditional way so the tapas are all made in-house with no concessions to faddy customers. It was here that I had meltingly soft pillows of kidney in a rich tomato stew and sampled tripe in an unctuous sauce.
It’s also where I had cow’s nose (morros), complete with nasal bristles that hadn’t been adequately removed, in a greasy pool of oil and fat.
I won’t name the place where the tapa purported to be paella but tasted like it came out of an Uncle Ben’s packet; it was a rare lapse in the fields of grazing pleasure.