Tapas is the ‘it girl’ of the dining scene and has been for quite some time. So, gather some inspiration and try your hand at a tapas spread for a group of friends.
With share plates, a sense of conviviality and a relaxed attitude, it’s the perfect cuisine to try at home. There’s just one hitch. Where to begin? And, more importantly, with a hoard of hungry mouths on the way, where can we find everything for that authentic tapas experience?
“Tortilla is a great place to start,” says Frank Camorra. “There are lots of variations you find all over Spain… just vary the ingredients, like with salt cod or chorizo.” Camorra is quite an authority on the subject. The head chef and brains behind Melbourne’s acclaimed tapas bar, MoVida (and the new addition to the family, MoVida Next Door), he was born in Barcelona and spent his formative years in Cordoba. He’s also largely responsible for Melbourne’s newfound love affair with Spanish food and the idea of tapas.
“Tapas varies from place to place, region to region. Generally it’s a way of sharing food and a social way of eating – trying lots of flavours and socialising while you eat,” he says. “And the sizes of the dishes vary too; they can be small or large. At MoVida, we structure it as tapas being a single serve, and racion as a larger dish for sharing. There are no real rules.”
It might be a flexible style of cuisine when it comes to serving sizes, but we want to know where to shop for the specific tools, utensils and specialty items that’ll make your next attempt at cooking paella more authentic.
Camorra points us in the direction of Melbourne’s one-stop Spanish shop, Casa Iberica. Located on Johnston Street in Fitzroy, the place is a tapas wonderland. There are shelves lined with rice for every kind of recipe, a deli counter displaying terracotta bowls of glistening Spanish olives and every kind of small good from chorizo to jamón.
“It’s all there,” assures Camorra, “from the stuff my mum cooks with, to more fancy specialty items... Spanish food isn't like Italian, where you can find great delis everywhere; it’s still relatively limited. So Casa Iberica is the best place to start.”
Matt McConnell, head chef of Bar Lourinha – Melbourne’s other Iberian icon – agrees: “Casa Iberica is definitely one of the best,” he says. “I’ve been shopping there for over 20 years and it doesn’t change.”
McConnell and Camorra also direct me to Casa Iberica for that tapas deli favourite, jamón. “Some butchers will have it,” says Camorra, “and it is worth having a look, but Iberica has the best range.”
McConnell explains that buying jamón will present you with a bit of a dilemma. “The problem is that we can only import jamón off the bone,” he says, “so all the imported, or proper Spanish jamón is already off the bone. Australian varieties are still on the bone, and on the bone is better, in theory. It holds its flavour. So you just have to get familiar with it. Taste the product, get to know it. It is hard to go past Spanish, but do try the local. It’s hard to replicate the authenticity here, when Spanish producers have been doing it for hundreds of years… but at least we have people who are trying it.”
Casa Iberica clearly comes with strong recommendation, but it isn’t the only place to pick up tapas components. The Essential Ingredient in South Yarra is a good option for those south of the river. “They stock really good rice and paprika,” says McConnell, “and so does Simon Johnson (in Fitzroy). They both stock excellent olives and olive oils from Spain and Australia.” Camorra also points to The Essential Ingredient for excellent sherry vinegar.
And when it comes to indispensable ingredients, McConnell claims that, while saffron is a cliché, paprika and garlic are the heart and soul of Spanish cooking – “sweet or smoked, not Hungarian – it’s just not the same thing,” he says.
“You need really good paprika,” reinforces Camorra. “Smoked paprika is utilised in a lot of different dishes and in different ways. It’s like dashi (soup stock) to the Japanese or parmesan to Italians.”
Spice master Peter Watson (whose store is located in Fitzroy) says the most common paprika found in Spain is smoked paprika, and explains, “when you smell it, it should smell fresh, capsicum-y and peppery. And check the colour. If it’s not as pronounced as you expect, then it’s probably old. It should be vibrant, or if it’s smoked it should be a deeper, brick red.”
Aside from paprika, Watson also stocks the saffron threads needed for paella dishes and a paella blend to make things easy, or a chicken spice rub developed from his Spanish travels.
But all this wonderful produce is useless without the right tools. Any tapas-cooking kitchen needs a few key pieces.
Camorra says you need a proper, classic, paella pan, a churros (Spanish donut) maker that extrudes the dough easily, and terracotta dishes to cook and serve with.
McConnell agrees: “A lot of traditional Spanish cooking needs earthenware dishes. Having them adds to the authenticity of the dish. It’s tradition.”
As for Spanish wines to go with our home-cooked tapas, Camorra’s got it covered. “There’s more in general bottle shops these days, but for great Spanish wines, Rathdowne Cellars has been a big supporter of Spanish wines for the last 15 years,” he says.
All that’s left now is for us to heed the parting advice of McConnell, who says: “Buy the best ingredients that you can afford, find a really good recipe and follow it closely. That’s a good start.”
Looks like tonight, we’re having churros.
The Hit List:
Casa Iberica: 25 Johnston St, Fitzroy. Phone: 03 9419 4420 .
The one-stop shop for all things Spanish tapas, from paella rice to churros makers.
The Essential Ingredient: Prahran Market, Elizabeth St, South Yarra. Phone: 03 9827 9047 . Cooking utensils, good quality olive oil and specialty items like smoked paprika.
Peter Watson: 113 Saint David St, Fitzroy. Phone: 03 9417 0209 . Fresh spices that.ll infuse your dishes with true Spanish flavour; look out for the paella blend and the Spanish chicken rub.
Simon Johnson: 12-14 Saint David St, Fitzroy. Phone: 03 9644 3630 Olive oils and specialty items like smoked paprika.
Delicatess: Stall 706, Prahran Market, Commercial Rd, South Yarra. Phone: 03 9824 1752 For a variety of Spanish jamón and chorizo.
Mediterranean Wholesalers: 482 Sydney Rd, Brunswick. Phone: 03 9380 4777 . Not specifically Spanish, but we have it on good authority that the range is vast and appeals to ex-pat Spaniards looking for a touch of home.
Rathdowne Cellars: 348 Rathdowne St, North Carlton. Phone: 03 9349 3366 . For a great range of Spanish wines. . .