Boom in creative tapas

MADRID - Long taken for granted as a mere bar snack, Spain's humble tapas has graduated from the neighbourhood cafe to the realm of haute cuisine.

Inspired by its simplicity and versatility, top Michelin-starred chefs are taking on the traditional finger-food to whet the appetite, or making a meal of it with tapas-only restaurants.

Angel Moreton, head of the International School of Gastronomy in Valladolid, said: "Tapas used to be considered common. But in recent years, there has been a boom." His school holds an annual tapas competition for visiting chefs.

The rise of tapas was part of the Spanish food revolution of the late 1990s, driven by Catalan chef Ferran Adria and his prize-winning eatery El Bulli, which closed in 2011.

Adria and his brother Albert opened a tapas restaurant in Barcelona, which still serves El Bulli treats such as cod with avocado, or octopus and squid crisps. Other chefs have opened bars exclusively for tapas, selling gourmet nibbles at affordable prices.

Tapas are served free with drinks in Spanish bars: often a simple slice of bread topped with ham, cheese, tortilla or whatever else is to hand.

Their versatility encourages creativity, says Sergi Arola, a Spanish chef with two Michelin stars. His creations are Portobello mushroom carpaccio marinated in white truffle oil, chicken wings with kimchi sauce, and his take on a Spanish classic, patatas bravas - potatoes in spicy sauce.

The essence of tapas, Spaniards say, is in the way they are eaten: with the fingers, standing up and sharing, going from bar to bar to try as many as one can.

The boom has caught on with "creative tapas" workshops, such as the sell-out one at the De Olla y Sarten cooking school in Madrid.

In class, journalist Marta Morales, 31, learns to make filo pastry stuffed with spinach and miniature baskets of parmesan cheese with corn salad and salmon. "Since you have to prepare more recipes than in a normal menu, you end up with more ideas," she says.

Arola warns of a risk, however, in the trend, saying: "That they start serving tapas in fast food restaurants and it ends up getting discredited."