National Pinchos and Tapas Competition is a Small Wonder
Antonio González García's winning creation 'Tigretostón', made out of black bread, 'morcilla', red onion and pork rind.
Photo by: ©Gastronomicon
Author: Adrienne Smith/©ICEX
According to the ‘Real Diccionario de la Lengua Española’, a ‘tapa’ is a small portion of any food that is served as an accompaniment to a drink. Similarly, a ‘pincho’ is defined as a portion of food eaten as an aperitif, sometimes on a toothpick or skewer. Frequently used interchangeably, these two terms have in many ways come to represent Spanish cuisine to the rest of the world. But can these morsels consist of any food? Can they be served with any drink? I traveled to Valladolid for the city’s fourth annual National ‘Pinchos’ and ‘Tapas’ Competition to find out.
For some years, the Spanish tapa has been infiltrating restaurant scenes across the globe. Spanish tapa restaurants are flourishing in cities like San Francisco, Tokyo, Beijing, Rio de Janeiro, Sydney and Chicago, to name just a few, offering people the opportunity to try classic examples and interpretations of this Spanish culinary tradition. Additionally, these restaurants allow people to experience the tapa culture first-hand, a style of eating that is unique in the world, and in its simplest form consists of ordering small plates of food that are often shared between friends.
While typical tapas might include traditional favorites such as tortilla española, aceitunas, croquetas, boquerones en vinagre, or jamón, the realm of tapas is also where Spanish chefs have the opportunity to let their imaginations run wild, albeit on a miniature scale. The National Pinchos and Tapas Competition, held the week of November 6th in the city of Valladolid, encourages chefs to do just that. This annual event brings together chefs from all over the country to compete for the prize for the best tapa or pincho. Entries are judged on presentation, originality, flavor, and commercial viability, with each preparation seemingly more creative and innovative than the last.
Valladolid is located in the very center of the autonomous community of Castile-León. The capital of Spain in the 15th and 16th centuries, this city is marked by imposing monuments, a graceful Plaza Mayor, and a striking cathedral, as well as a wealth of museums and churches. Within this rich cultural environment, the Tapas and Pinchos event was held in a large tent in Valladolid’s city center. At the back of the tent a line of white cubicles, each with its own makeshift kitchenette, faced an audience primarily of culinary students, gastronomic journalists and other food enthusiasts. During the three-day competition, this scene was continually abuzz with the 65 national finalists preparing their tapas for evaluation by a panel of prestigious judges, who were served with orchestrated precision by a team of snappily-dressed students from the local culinary school. This year’s judging panel included well-known chefs such as Jesús Ramiro, of Ramiro’s in Valladolid; Bruno Oteiza of Biko in Mexico City; Luis Alberto Martínez of Casa Fermín in Oviedo; and America’s “Iron Chef”, José Garcés, who is collaborating with Valladolid’s upcoming International Culinary School.
Before the national tapas competition got underway, however, there was another competition featuring 15 culinary students from all over the world. In its second year, this contest consists of aspiring international chefs who prepare their interpretation of the Spanish tapa. These dishes frequently incorporate Spanish products such as bacalao (codfish) and morcilla (blood sausage), either alone or combined with typical products from their country of origin. Other presentations focus entirely on the gastronomic culture of the chef’s country of origin. This year’s winner, Neil Tanner, of the Failte Ireland Training Centre in Ireland, did a little bit of both.
His winning tapa was called “Full Irish Breakfast” and consisted of bacon, eggs and sausage, all in one savory, bite-sized treat. This tiny cylindrical roll was constructed of layers of chorizo and morcilla on the outside, enclosing an eggy center. According to jury member Doreen Colondres, of La Cocina No Muerde in Miami, the biggest surprise was the tiny quail egg inside, cooked perfectly to burst into a runny yolk when she bit into this creation. Second prize went to Frida Olsson of the Stockholms Hotell & Restaurangskola in Sweden, for her “Swedish cod roll”. Other entries included “Scallop with apple smoke” from Umut Sakarya of Denmark, “Seafood salad allegory” from Holly Storm of the USA, and “Land and sea” from Alycia Whitney Wright of Canada. If nothing else, these international interpretations of the tapa served to emphasize the versatility and relevance of this Spanish gastronomic tradition for the rest of the world.
When it came time for the main event, the audience began to buzz with excitement as the Spanish finalists prepared and presented their creations: “Mini squid and sobrasada roll with Mahón cheese and olive dust” (Igor Rodríguez Sanz of UMMO in Mallorca), “Oxtail pops in crunchy almonds with chanterelle cream and red wine gummy candy” (Marcos Suárez Morales of El Fogón del Guanche in Cádiz), “Crispy codfish loin over Manchego cheese mousse with orange foam” (Santos García Verdes of La Granja), and “Pickled rabbit with mango puree and bacon dust” (Óscar Piedra Gómez of Restaurante Ospi in Barcelona). These were just a few of the staggeringly creative tapas presented over the course of the three-day event. Not only were the combinations of ingredients astonishing, the presentations of these bite-sized morsels were elaborate and inventive in their own right: water lilies made out of pastry dough on a bed of leafy green; a ball of stuffed codfish painted gold to look like the World Cup trophy perched on “grass”; various foams; metal bird’s nests and tiny jewel boxes; powders, emulsions and dry ice swirling in misty clouds; crazy-shaped bowls, plates and glassware; and even names like, “Mom, I’m not sleeping at home tonight”.
Initially, I confess that I was jealous of the judges, who got to try each and every one of these tapas, although later I wondered how they could possibly have chosen a winner from among these 65 awesome entries. In the end, the top prize of 6,000 Euros went to Antonio González García, of Los Zagales Restaurant in Valladolid, for his “Tigretostón”, made out of black bread, morcilla, 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. The second and third place winners, who were awarded 3,000 and 1,500 Euros respectively, were: Guillermo Rodríguez García, of De-pintxos in Almansa, Albacete, for his “Txipirón (squid) sphere with mild alioli” and José Ron Linde, of Restaurante Blanco in Cangas de Narcea, Asturias, for his “Chosco (cured sausage) truffle.” Other special recognitions were given out for the best concept, most avant-garde and most traditional tapa. This year, the government of Castile-León awarded a special prize of 4,000 Euros to Daniel Méndez Sancho of Loft 39 in Madrid for best application of regional products of Castile-León in his “Cecina (cured beef) Egg, Gold, and its Carton”.
The 'tapa' debate
In addition to the tapas made with products from Castile-León, many entries in the competition reflected other regions of Spain, and used ingredients typical of those areas. This use of local Spanish products was endorsed by renowned author and member of the Royal Academy of Gastronomy, Ismael Díaz Yubero, during a debate on tapas that took place during the festival: “Tapas must be prepared using Spanish products. There is no need to use foreign cheeses or sausages [to make our culinary tradition] when we have such excellent products here in Spain that we have to value”. His intention was not to condemn the use of foreign ingredients, but rather to stress that, since “the tapa is a Spanish creation”, it makes sense to innovate further with local products. This topic took center stage during a fascinating debate, entitled, “The tapa as a vehicle for bringing Spanish products to the rest of the world” and “Today’s tapa as an emblem of quality tourism”. The debate was led by Luis Cepeda, the Director of the Tapa Assembly and the National Tapas Competition, and other distinguished panelists included: Juan Bureo, the Director of Slow Food Spain; chef Sergi Arola of Arola Gastro; Jan Aramburu, the Commercial Director of the National Geographic Store; and Carlos Castaño Martín of the Spanish Ministry of Industry, Tourism and Commerce.
These expert gastronomes ruminated on the tapa as a symbol of Spanish cuisine around the world, and also discussed the fact that the global popularity of the tapa as a culinary concept has led to the word itself being usurped by many restaurants as a symbol for any small portion of food. Phrases like “tapas style” or “Japanese tapas” are cropping up, leading them to once again question what defines a tapa, and how do we protect the inherent characteristics of this Spanish culinary symbol, while promoting its consumption around the world. As Sergi Arola deftly stated, “It would be impossible to truly understand the concept of the tapa, without putting it within the context of Spain.”
Although the search to truly define what makes a tapa or a pincho continues, the overwhelming message of Valladolid’s National Pinchos and Tapas Competition was clear. This miniature cuisine is not only a symbol of Spanish gastronomy and an excellent showcase for the country’s quality products, but it’s also a vehicle for culinary creativity and expression in an infinite number of ways. Luckily for those of us not fortunate enough to sample these extraordinary tapas as judges, the chefs were paired up with local bars and restaurants that featured these show-stopping inventions on their menus for the rest of the week.