It was once said that a life without tapas is like a heart without love, but if I'm completely honest, my heart is full of tapas too.
Traditionally speaking, tapas is designed to go with a few drinks at a bar as to keep those Estrella-induced hunger pangs at bay. Sure beats cheesy-chips on the way home.
Tapas has now developed into an entire cuisine in its own right. Instead of something small to go with a drink, we now order lots of small dishes at once which has turned this lowly bar-snack into an entire meal designed to be shared with friends and a few glasses of wine.
We are spoilt for choice with fantastic Spanish restaurants here in Manchester, and arguably some of the best tapas around. But if you are starting out on your tapas adventure, below is a guide of where to go and what to order.
When we think of Spanish food as a whole, I reckon most people would immediately think of all the delicious cured meats. It is almost always pork based and cured with punchy flavours like paprika, chilli and saffron, all of which give the meat a bright ruby red complexion which is somehow, so characteristic of Spain. An excellent place to start would be trendy Northern Quarter sherry bar FLOK. Their menu is small and straightforward which brings a welcome level of simplicity to ordering. Order a portion of Jamon Iberico bellota– which is made from 100% acorn-fed pork from southern Spain. I like their fennel flavoured salami too, and at £5 a portion, it is hard to say no.
If cheese is your thing, then look no further than Catalan deli and restaurant Lunya. They boast one of the most extensive collections of Spanish cheese in the world outside of Spain which can be enjoyed with a few glasses of Rioja or taken home from the counter. I haven’t even got a ¼ of the way through the cheeses at Lunya, but I’m working on it. My recommendations would be the Pastura with truffles – a soft and creamy cheese from Extremadura flavoured with Italian black truffles (yes, it is as indulgent as that sounds). A list of Spanish food would not be complete without a mention of a Manchego. I like the 8-month cured Ojos Guadiano from Lunya- it has such a complex nutty flavour from the extra few months ageing which is just divine.
If you fancy a bit of both – Iberica has a fantastic selection of Spanish meat and cheese in which you can build your board to share. While you are there order a side of Toasted Bread with Tomato– it is so simple yet so refreshing and delicious.
The next part of your tapas journey should move into meat territory and I would start nowhere other than Chorizo. Sure, we’ve all had it cold, and on a pizza but I guarantee you haven’t tried anything like the homemade chorizo from Levanter in Ramsbottom cooked in red wine vinegar and honey. Seriously it’s better than sex, and you would not believe the texture- it isn’t tough at all as you might expect, but instead melts in your mouth leaving you literally drooling.
While we are feeling carnivorous, I urge you to try another Latin delicacy, and that is blood sausage. Apparently, if you are a proper Mancunian or of Scottish descent, eating Black Pudding is as innate as walking and getting into scraps, but for the rest of you, I can see how it would be a bit of a turn-off. Trust me- head over to Pinchijo’s in West Didsbury and give their blood sausage from Castille Leon a try. It has such a beautiful, aromatic flavour which is full of peppery spice and deep meaty flavour.
And now on to my favourite part: Croquetas. No, I’m not talking about the strange crispy potato slugs you mates mum fed you when you went round for tea, I’m talking about one of the most beautiful delicacies the good Lord decided to grace us with. In short, they are breaded, deep-fried balls of cheese sauce which are traditionally flavoured with Iberico ham, salt cod, or mushrooms. They have a crispy outer-shell and then just explode with oozy-cheesy goodness in your mouth.
I think, and this might be controversial, that the best ones come from the darling little Tapas joint in Chorlton Bar San Juan. Not only is the place stripped down and authentic in its aesthetic, but the food is also just what it should be, they have fantastic Ham Croquetas. It’s the kind of place that if you refrain from looking outside, you might, just for a second think you were in sunny Madrid.
Not everyone likes fish, I get that, but it is pretty much sacrilege to order a bunch of tapas dishes without getting something from the sea. At the very least, you should get a steaming, crispy pile of calamari. If you want something that is a little ‘next level’ then head over to La Bandera at the Arndale Market for a Calamari Sandwich with Aioli. This is authentic Spanish tapa which you will find everyone eating with a frosty beer at the bar.
Another big one is Gambas (prawns) which are best served fresh out of the ocean and cooked whole and still in their shells over a grill. You can pick these up at most Spanish restaurants as they stand as a bit of a staple, but I like the ones from Sandinista. They are cooked with onion, garlic and smoked paprika which gives the dish this gorgeous charcoal spiciness to them. I love getting my hands in there too.
If you are an avid fish eater or feeling particularly brave, the next thing to tick off your tapas-tick list would be Pulpo. Can you guess what it is? I’ll give you a clue it has eight legs, and it’s bigger than a rabbit (I think?) Of course, I am talking about Octopus. In Spain, and indeed the rest of the Mediterranean, the octopus is a staple feature of most diets. Of course, the tentacles are enough to make anyone a bit squeamish, but I do assure you the suckers do not stick to your mouth.
It is most commonly chopped up into chunks and thrown on a grill and served with olive oil or in a salad. The texture is much firmer than fish, as you can imagine, we’ve all seen those mental Attenborough documentaries when we learn how strong, fast and agile they are. If you want somewhere to start, try the Chargrilled Octopus with Capers, Shallots and Aioli from El Gato Negro… I’m not squidding you it’s one of the best plates of food I’ve ever had in Manchester.
Finally, it would be wrong of us to order a bunch of meat, cheese and deep fried fish without thinking about having some veggies on the side. Luckily for us, the Spanish take vegetables seriously when it comes to tapas, and they are not just an added afterthought when we suddenly feel the gout setting in.
Padron peppers are small, mild, green peppers with a slightly bitter flavour and are the seminal Spanish finger-food. They are most commonly fried quickly in a very hot pan in a little olive oil. They are sort of foolproof, and you will find them on most tapas menus, but I like the ones from Porta in Altringham as they have a hefty sprinkling of Maldon sea salt and are just so moreish. Obviously, Patatas Bravas is another classic and a staple side dish. It is fried potatoes topped with a spicy, smokey tomato sauce and a little blob of aioli (posh garlic mayo). Again, you can get these anywhere… so maybe a round-up of the best ones in Manchester is on the cards?
Finally, a very unhealthy honourable mention would be the Berenjenas Aubergine crisps with a Pedro Ximenez glaze from Tapeo & Wine – deep fried disks of aubergine drizzled with balsamic vinegar glaze. They will be best crisps you have ever had.