Many of us take delight in food that is served in small portions. Any cuisine that involves dining at a table full of small plates makes me happy, whether it be Greece’s fresh mezze, Italy’s tasty antipasti, or Korea’s collection of delightful banchan. The best of these is tapas, we have seen this Spanish food culture spread worldwide in the last couple of decades. Its popularity is understandable, they are an excellent way to sample many different things within one meal, and best of all, they’re the ideal food to enjoy with friends and a good glass of wine. Faced with a tantalising parade of possibilities, there’s no need to commit yourself to the first dish that comes along, there’s no need to feel shy about quickly moving on to something that could turn out to be more exciting.
Some will say they’re less popular now than they were just a few years ago, but we continue to see menus featuring tapas appetizers or offering a large selection of small plates that you can combine to form a meal. In many fashionable wine bars, tapas have been dressed and fancied up, at times to the point of resembling canapés and fussy, fusion bites. Authentic tapas can be a very down-to-earth affair. In Spain, tapas are more a way or manner of eating than recipes in particular. They often involve very little preparation, marinated olives, chorizo bites, wedges of good cheese, or sliced Iberico ham, but they can also be slowly-simmered stews served in tasty little portions. Basically, it seems anything can be a tapa, as long as it’s served in a small plate ideally with a drink in hand.
Tapas too, can be deceptive. They may seem like simple morsels when they arrive at the table, but some bring serious baggage with them. Anyone who has tried to master the fiddly art of making jamón croquettes will know, it’s a dish designed to dirty every bowl, plate and spoon in your entire kitchen. Spare yourself the trouble – they can be had for around a fiver in Cava Bodega – for everything else there is ‘Cava Bodega Tapas, A Taste of Spain in Ireland’. In his first book JP McMahon’s effusive and passionate writing presents us with his take on Hiberno-Spanish food.
The book reflects the restaurant’s warm and inviting ambiance. It is printed on tactile, uncoated paper, in muted tones of browns, burgundy and mustard. The photography is simply styled with a majority of overhead shots, the ceramic plates laid over natural surfaces of hessian and wood. Leafing through the pictures immediately draws you into tapas-hour mood with a glass of wine pouring here, a fork or spoon artfully placed by a plate’s sides, as if inviting you to sample.
The first third of the book explains the history and culture surrounding tapas. There is a large section dealing with Spanish wines and sherry and an introduction to their main suppliers. The emphasis is on simplicity and quality of ingredients and methods — reinforcing the fact that absolutely anyone can cook this versatile and accessible food.
The organization of the recipes is very similar to the menu at the restaurant itself. They are divided into sections – nibbles, fish and shellfish, meat, vegetables and pulses. Although traditional Spanish tapas don’t usually include dessert, there is also a final short sweet selection and a complete index at the front of the book if you are searching for something in particular. The recipe title is in large letters, under the ingredients list with the preparation instructions below, straightforward and instructive, each illustrated with its own photograph. They are detailed enough to be followed by novices, but concise enough for most of the recipes to be presented on one page. Plenty of the dishes like the patatas bravas and the sweet potato and chorizo soup will be familiar to anyone who has eaten in Cava and Cava Bodega restaurants in the past.
Virtually every page has something that shouts ‘make me’ – from moreish nibbles and pinchos, to brilliant seafood dishes, deeply flavoured stews and inventive vegetable dishes. There are octopus dishes that conjure up outdoor restaurants overlooking the Mediterranean and bowls of chorizo that speak of the sunny streets of Madrid.
‘Cava Bodega Tapas, A Taste of Spain in Ireland’ is not is a polished publishing house production. It is evident it did not enjoy the benefits of an eagle eyed editor. There is no slick design. Many of the photographs used would not have made it through to the print process, some are not sharp enough, to dark or pixilated. But that is not the aim of this book. This is more than a collection of recipes, it is part memoir, a scrapbook of sorts, something out of the ordinary. It is both the story of a restaurant and a snapshot of a time and a place. These pages are filled not only with food, but with the people who made that food a reality, the family, friends and farmers that have shaped it into what it is today. A unique book to treasure.
The limited edition Cava Cookbook is available from www.cavarestaurant.ie and is priced at €25.
First published in The Galway Advertiser 08/01/2015
All photographs by Julia Dunin.