Hugh and Colleen Gantzer go tapas-trotting and have a head-spinning experience.

In Madrid we went on a tapas trot.

“No, it is not a pub crawl,” said Teresa, “Pubs are beverage based and there’s all that fuss about Real Ale drawn foaming from the barrel. We’re not strong on beers and stout. Nor is it a bar hop where you syncopate on spirits.” “Syncopate?” we asked. “Yes, it’s a rhythmic movement from bar to bar!” That was the only pun we heard in Spain. They treat language with a certain gravitas. “Ah!” we said. “It’s a fun thing!”

“Ole!” exclaimed Teresa, “That is exactly so. Eight hundred years ago, king Alfonso the Wise decreed that innkeepers must always serve tapas — complementary snacks — with wine. It was to cut the head-spinning effects of alcohol.” She turned off the main road, braked the taxi in the Plaza Santa Ana, and we alighted.

Kids cycled and couples walked their dogs in the cool dusk; street lights glowed. We strolled down a web of narrow, rain-glistening streets and lanes, and were caught up in the convivial atmosphere of the tapas bars. Through huge plate-glass windows we saw people chatting animatedly, waiters busy serving drinks and snacks.

It seemed very ordinary, at first, but Jamon 10 was different. It didn’t look like any bar we had ever known. Legs of cured ham hung from rails above the counters, many of them had the black hooves that indicated that these prized animals had been fed on flavour-enhancing acorns. We walked past the counter to the back of the shop where there were a few tables with chairs, and racks of wine.

The glasses of wine were accompanied by small trays of the speciality of the house, the jamon iberico de bellota ham, as well as sweet sausage from the Balearic Islands, morcilla black pudding, and other savouries. The snacks were light and varied: not for gourmets or gourmands but as an aid to the cultivated art of conversation.

Teresa said: “We dine late in Spain, and our streets are where we meet our friends and neighbours, chat, relax. Spanish people love to talk, sipping wine, nibbling on tapas. It is a very Spanish thing.”

Like in India

The lanes were filling up. This was a No Car Zone but we had to step aside as a car came slowly down the lane. Two Guardia Civil policemen with their odd, black, patent leather hats stopped the car and then whispered an aside to Teresa. She laughed and remarked: “The driver is a politico, like in India” and ushered us into Gonzales. “This is one of my favourites.”

It was noisy, crowded, and she had to raise her voice to be heard above the cacophony. There were people of all ages, many walks of life: elegant silver-haired matrons, pin-striped executives, a group that looked like Flamenco dancers, a flock of vociferous young adults in jeans, a group with the muscular look of construction workers, three people of indeterminate sex with long, lank hair and determinedly bored arty-crafty looks.

In Bollywood-Hollywood, stand-alone bars are rather macho places where only brittle, very sophisticated, women would enter alone. This was not like that. This was more like a neighbourhood watering hole: informal, friendly, “This is where we come in the evening with friends. Or where we can make friends, if we are lonely. You cannot get drunk on wine-by-the-glass and tapas. So, no problem, very civilised.” We agreed, tapas bars seem to be identified by their snacks, not their special drinks. Remarked Teresa: “This one specialises in Spanish cheeses, so here smoking is prohibited because it dulls flavour senses.”

Gonzales had the rich, creamy, aroma of a dairy. It offered a tabla de quesos, which was a Spanish cheese platter. There were slices of idiazabal cheese from the Basque country, roncal from Navarra, and a Manchengo from Castilla — La Mancha. They were arranged in attractive, bite-sized bits on bread. Just as well. Our preferences varied markedly and one person’s relish was another person’s abhorrence. Significantly, we forgot to make a note of the wine we drank with the quesos but we think that it was a Ribera del Duero from the Castilla-Leon area.

Spaniards had discovered an effortless way to promote their enormous range of cuisines. A single tapas bar trot offered a sampler of the varied foods of Spain without compelling one to eat enormous portions of any single one.

And so, by our fourth tapas bar, we had also had gazpacho and fried fish washed down with Condado de Huelva from Andaluca and the difficult-to-pronounce txocos with txacoli from the fiercely independent Basque country. That is when we began to realise that because Madrilenos traditionally have a long siesta in the hottest part of the day they are ready to party till the small hours of the morning. Siestas and tapas complement each other. For us, however, this good life was beginning to take its toll. We asked “Is the next one the last?”

Teresa laughed. “Yes and it’s very special.”

Dusty sherry bottles rested on slanted shelves so that their lees woud not float to the top. The customers in La Venencia were stacked three deep at the counter and yet their voices were like the soft susurration of surf on a shingly shore. “No smoking and no photographs please,” advised a barmaid softly. The tapas accompanying the sherry was mojama, a salted and cured tuna, cecina, which was salted and cured veal, and queso curado, aged machengo sheep’s cheese. At the end of hectic tapas bar-hopping, we welcomed the almost reverential atmosphere of La Venencia.

As we stepped out, it struck us that dhoklas, kebabs, samosas, mo-mos, patice, crumb chops and mini-uttapams are tapas, too, and Indian wines are excellent. Moreover, more and more aware Indians were veering away from the Caucasian preference for spirits to the Latin bias for wines. Just before we parted, Teresa asked, “Wouldn’t it be sensible if, in your warm country, you too had siestas and tapas?”

That’s an idea worth pondering over.

Keywords: Madrid tapas bars