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Land of the free

Spain on a plate

There is a misplaced belief in the UK that all the Spanish eat is tapas. Drives me mad. There is also a trend for British restaurants to serve a selection of “small plates” featuring food of random origin and brought out whenever the kitchen feels like it, to be labelled tapas. Also drives me mad.

Ranting aside, I can say categorically that the Spanish eat far more than tapas. Generally, tapas are a precursor to a meal – either an individual aperitivo that comes free with your drink or a small dish to be picked at before you move on to the main event. All tapas are not created equal. However, what I want to talk about today is the type that comes gratis. I mean come on – free stuff! Who doesn’t love a bit of that?

During Madrid 1.0, the then-boyfriend-now-husband and I were frequently happy to live off nervous energy, youthful optimism and the free morsels we could score alongside our caña/glass of wine. Admittedly, it wasn’t so much a lifestyle choice as lack of cash that meant it was drinks or dinner, rather than drinks and dinner. Thankfully, we can now afford both, but there are still occasions when the aperitivo alongside your drink can genuinely keep you going for the evening. It all depends whereabouts in Spain you happen to be. And how many drinks you have. . .

Having been travelling the country for the best part of the last year, I thought I would share my knowledge on where to get the best freebies. You’re welcome.

The tradition of tapas is said to have originated in Andalucia and, possibly as a consequence, it has a reputation for being the most generous. And that’s true, but it depends where in the region you are. Recently, I spent six weeks in the province of Granada, where it’s not unusual to receive a free plate of stew and chips or a mound of ensaladilla with your drink. However, in Jerez de la Frontera at the other end of the region, it is rare for anything to come for free. Although, to be fair, you can order an individual tapa for around two or three euros, which means that with a glass of sherry you’ll still have change from a fiver.

Nudging up against Andalucia, Extremadura also comes close on the free stuff front. Caceres and Trujillo both come up trumps, but Badajoz just inches it for me. I’ve had freebie croquetas, octopus salad, mini fish and chips – you name it, I’ve eaten it. And – bonus – it didn’t feel like it was last night’s leftovers. I’m not going to lie – in Granada it sometimes did! As an aside, it’s well worth seeking out Extremaduran wine, which has the Denominación de Origen: Ribera del Guadiana; in particular Habla del Silencio.

In the north, Santander and Gijon are fairly even on the tapas front, but it’s worth knowing that you are often expected to help yourself in Gijon. I spent a couple of days staring meaningfully at the trays of aperitivos on the bar waiting for them to be proffered, before realising that it was DIY. As for Valencia, you know I love you, but you could do with being way more generous with the free stuff.

It often feels frivolous to write about food when all around the world is going mad. The actions of The Donald with respect to the separation of immigrant children and their parents and the sporting by his wife of That Jacket, do nothing but make me think that we are all doomed. Yet, back in the Home of the Brave (Madrid is the home of patatas bravas – see what I did there?) where we have a new Spanish PM with an unashamedly feminist cabinet and a compassionate immigration policy, it feels as though while political chaos reigns elsewhere, maybe, just maybe, Spain truly is the Land of the Free.

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