National Pinchos and Tapas Competition takes to the streets
'La Montanera', an “acorn” of wild mushroom and Ibérico ham ice cream, resting on a bed of Pedrajas pine nuts, herbs and ham slivers. Photo by: ©Concurso Nacional de Pinchos y Tapas
Author: Adrienne Smith/©ICEX
It says something about the level of talent represented in a culinary competition when the judges, a prestigious group made up of Michelin star chefs, proven gastronomes and other industry experts, are so impressed with what they see before them that they use their own cameras to enthusiastically photograph each of the competing dishes before diving into the judging itself. This was the case in Valladolid this November, during the celebration of the 7th National Pinchos and Tapas Competition held annually in this province of Castile-Leon.
The National Pinchos and Tapas Competition is truly a small wonder, pun intended. This year’s edition, its seventh, brought together 65 chefs from all over Spain to prepare their bite-sized pinchos or tapas, and compete for the coveted title of “Best in Spain”. As with earlier editions, the level of culinary mastery was absolutely stunning, although I think everyone would agree that the bar just keeps getting higher and higher.
Trends this year included the now commonly-applied Avant-garde culinary techniques of using foams, dry-ice (to create aromas), spherification and sous-vide cooking, among others, as well as some more surprising applications of edible wrappers made with colorful and flavorful vegetable reductions or thin sheets of rice paper. In fact, this year’s first and second place awards both went to hand-held morsels that were enveloped in edible papers. Daniel Méndez Sancho, of LOFT 39 Restaurant in Madrid won first prize for his original pincho, "Buenas noticias de nuestra tierra" (good news from our country). This cylindrical roll of steak tartar, aromatized with mustard and honey, was wrapped in a ‘newspaper’ made from rice paper printed with edible ink. Second-prize winner, Javier González of Valladolid’s Los Zagales Restaurant, won for his “Bread Bag”, a miniature approach to a traditional bocadillo de calamares (fried calamari sandwich), served with a spicy garlic sauce and wrapped in edible paper.
In addition to these inventive and intricate culinary techniques, the ingredients used to create these tapas were equally enticing. As the competition is held annually in the Fall, Spain’s bountiful variety of wild mushrooms often play an important role in many of the dishes, and this time was no exception. Other popular products this year were carilleras (beef and pork cheeks), foie gras, apples, bacon, cod and shrimp. Given the dazzling displays of gastronomic techniques, presentations and products during the two full days of competition, it was no wonder that the judges themselves were taking photos of the tapas, while we in the audience were yearning to taste them.
Since the competition itself is not open to the public, it might seem a little masochistic to spend your time watching other people sample some of the most tempting pinchos that you have ever seen. Fortunately, when the judging is finished, the event spills over into the city’s many bars and restaurants, providing the opportunity for residents and visitors to get a taste of all the competing tapas during the following few days.
The way that it’s set up is rather ingenious. Each visiting chef is paired with a bar or restaurant in Valladolid where their tapa is available all week long at the great price of 1.80 Euros. These “partnerships” are listed on a small and handy map and also advertised on posters throughout the city. While the intricate nature of some of the competing tapas might seem to rule out mass production, one of the requirements of the competition is that the entries be true pinchos that can be easily prepared and eaten in a bar/restaurant setting. As a result, the tapas you taste out on the town are almost, if not exactly, the same thing as those judged the competition. Anxious to try some of the things that I’d been seeing during the day, I cross-referenced my notes with the map and set out with to try some champion pinchos.
The first stop could be none other than Los Zagales which is the place to beat for pinchos in Valladolid. I had intended to try just a couple of things and move on, but a fortuitous encounter with the competition’s organizers led to one of the most amazing pincho experiences of my life. Restaurante Los Zagales won in 2010 with their innovative “Tigretostón” pincho made out of black bread, morcilla (blood sausage), red onion and pork rind, all gathered into a cylindrical roll and wrapped in custom-designed packaging made to look like a brand of Spanish pastries. Brothers Javier and Antonio González García came in second place this year with the aforementioned “Bread Bag”, and over the years have won numerous local and regional competitions, as well as many other acclaims. I was able to try both of these winning tapas, and many more, thanks to my being offered an innovative tasting menu that featured their “greatest hits” of pinchos, each one more delightful than the last. My personal favorite was the “Jabón de Pato”, which appeared to be a foaming bar of soap, but was in fact a creamy duck foie gras with plum ice cream and Armagnac foam. Another, “Aroma”, which won the 2007 Most Avant-Garde Tapa Award at Madrid Fusión and the 2005 National Competition, consisted of a baby squid stuffed with cod, green asparagus and roasted red peppers, and served over an aromatic plume of beer achieved through dry ice. Though I was too stuffed to make it anywhere else that night, I have never before been so thoroughly delighted with the pinchos before me.
The next night, again armed with my map and some new friends, we set out to try as many of the competing tapas as possible. Valladolid is a very comfortable city for walking and so we started in the area known for its many traditional tapas bars and restaurants, which is just off the beautiful and sweeping Plaza Mayor. Award-winning Chef Senén González of Asador Sagartoki in Vitoria was on-hand outside of La Mina, preparing free samples of his “Caramelo Sorpresa” (candy surprise) for passersby. Wrapped in an amazingly pliable, thin reddish paper that was made out of 60% red peppers and 40% tomatoes, González advised us to eat the tapa in one bite, which we did, discovering first a crunchy shell and then a warm and smoky liquid center with the “aromas, flavors and memories of a town”.
Next, we headed to Fortuna 25 to try the free-range chicken stuffed with mussels and algae by Miguel Pe Torre of Café Español in Barcelona, and the visually striking ‘canned mussels’ that were presented in an edible tin made of shellfish broth gelatin by Íñigo Rodríguez Carballeira of La Fábrica de Ceres in Lerma (Burgos).
At Taberna Pradera, we sampled the fresh calamari cracker in its own ink, by Rodrigo Roza Viga of La Taberna del Zurdo in Oviedo and “Ensalada Vertical” (vertical salad) by Mario Ariño Iglesias of Caixa Forum Madrid, who got the inspiration for this tapa (which won this year’s award for Most Avant-Garde) from this exposition space’s vertical garden. Like many of the competing tapas, it had been adapted for mass consumption, and was served in a clear plastic rectangular box instead of on the slate used in the competition.
Too much for just one night
Although my list of must-try tapas was long, you can only do so much in one night, and so we rounded off the evening at friendly Restaurante Don Bacalao. Opened in 1984, chef/owner Alfonso García has since racked up some 15 different awards for his innovative pinchos. It therefore came as no surprise that he was behind one of the competition’s most visually evocative entries this year, entitled “La Montanera”, which appeared to be an acorn resting on a tree trunk. Actually, the “acorn” consisted of wild mushroom and Ibérico ham ice cream, resting on a bed of local Pedrajas pine nuts, herbs and ham slivers. This melt-in-your-mouth concoction was reminiscent of the aromas and flavors of an autumn forest. In addition to Don Bacalao’s tapa, we were also lucky enough to try the baby-squid-in-its-own-ink pincho created by José Luis García Galindo of Kaialde Restaurant in Hondarribia (Guipuzcoa), which won third prize at this year’s competition. This innovative pincho resembled a traditional plate of chocolate con churros. The calamari was coated in prawn crackers to simulate sugar and fried to perfection, while the “chocolate” consisted of onion and squid ink cooked sous-vide for twelve hours at 60 degrees Celsius.
Unfortunately, a couple of nights are simply inadequate to visit the 46 participating bars and restaurants and taste all 65 of the competing tapas. For instance, I never got around to trying some of my favorites from the competition, such as the “Mini Sacher” made by Alberto Moreno Vaquero of Dos Hermanos Restaurant in Pozuelo de Alarcón (Madrid), which looked like a classic chocolate layer cake, but was in fact made with black olives and cod brandade (an emulsion of salt cod and olive oil). I was also desperate to try the “Corte de gambas al ajillo” (garlic shrimp slice) pincho made by Guillermo Rodríguez García of De Pintxos Gastrobar in Almansa (Albacete). Winner of this year’s Best Tapa Concept Honorable Mention, this pincho was lined on both sides by a row of vibrantly colored, flattened and crunchy shrimp heads, which appeared to be applauding with joy. Although I never got to taste it, one of the judges confessed to me that it was wonderful. As the city keeps the initiative going for almost a week, I would absolutely recommend coming to Valladolid next year for the duration, which would also provide ample time to visit this historic city’s many magnificent monuments and museums.
Regardless of how many of these spellbinding tapas you are lucky enough to taste, just a few bites will introduce you to some of the most innovative and Avant-garde pinchos in the country. In the words of the event’s Director, Luis Cepeda, this is “more than just a competition, it’s a runway for haute cuisine”.
Adrienne Smith is a sommelier, chef and freelance writer. She has spent the last decade eating and drinking her way through Spain.