A daily bulletin of news & opinion

12 June 2012

Spain has hit a rough patch, yes. Its brand is suffering as the euro crisis takes its latest victim. Spain’s strongest industry, tourism, is lagging compared to the rest of the world according to a recent Reuters report and apparently its only boom sector is prostitution. Not a good look.

But, it seems there’s one little piece of Spain that we’re all still hungry for. Tapas.

Olives, squid or salted cod loin – restaurants worldwide have been taking a turn towards simple small plates for years. And Spain hasn’t been afraid to use the power of this culinary trend to its advantage, with food playing an important role in its tourism campaigns alongside those sunny beaches.

In London, tapas restaurants might still be far outnumbered by Indian, Chinese or French dining options – even if you count spots offering up the Venetian small-plated sister of tapas, cicchetti. But, ask for a dinner suggestion – at any price point – and you’ll surely find on the list somewhere serving everything on miniature dishes.

But, it’s a tricky choice, tapas. Primarily because it’s usually shared. Several menu items are selected, dropped in random order in the centre of the table and left to diners to divide and enjoy.

When taking out someone you’re not overly familiar with – a client, colleague or even a date – attempts at collective ordering can result in awkward and overly polite concessions. Predispositions toward certain dishes based on taste or mood need to be drastically relaxed unless you want to appear picky, difficult or domineering. And, try being the sole vegetarian at a revelling table of meat-eaters.

On top of having to democratise your dinner, the more relaxed Mediterranean approach is sometimes difficult to swallow for the more passive Brit or Canadian. Too afraid to cause a fuss, you might end up with your fork in something that not only wasn’t your top choice but is entirely unappetising. So here is praise for the one-person-one-plate policy of many a national cuisine.

With restaurant-going perhaps more of an indulgence than in friendlier economic climes, compromise isn’t terribly appetising. And, the “if you order the squid, then I’m ordering the sea bass,” taste tug-of-war is a tapas ritual I’d rather sidestep with an individual selection. It avoids a retelling of the story of why prawns don’t sit well or how I’m just not in the mood for too much fried food.

Dangerously, avoiding Spanish restaurants may not provide a solution. Translating the trend is on the agenda for restaurateurs from all regions. You can’t just commit to eggs Benedict at brunch; you’re only allowed a teaser to share.

So from praise to plea: let’s not forget how satisfying it can be to slowly work your way through a favourite dish rather than panic to get your portion.

And, what better reason to return to a restaurant than if you’ve only had the chance to try one menu item, instead of 12?


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