Matrimonios; marineras and michirones
Bodega Pepico del Tío Ginés, on of the traditional 'tapas' temples in Murcia. Matías Costa/©ICEX
Author: Paul Richardson/©ICEX
The bars of Murcia city are a happy hunting-ground for tapas reflecting all the rich variety of the regional’s traditional cuisine, as Paul Richardson discovers.
The ‘autonomous community’ of Murcia, tucked into a corner of south eastern Spain, may be one of the smallest in the country, yet here is a curious case of a region whose personality is out of all proportion to its size. A good example of this cultural idiosyncrasy is traditional murciano cooking, which bursts with character and is rightly proud of its unique contributions to the Spanish culinary repertoire. Murcian cuisine makes a virtue of its magnificent range of raw materials, which runs from fish and shellfish to cheeses, embutidos, nuts (the region is the HQ of Spain’s almond industry), rare-breed meats, and not least the magnificent fruits and vegetables of Murcia’s famous market gardens (the so-called ‘huerta murciana’) upon which its culinary fame is largely based.
All this variety and excellence is faithfully reflected in the eating habits of the region’s capital - also called Murcia - and especially in its vibrant tapas scene. If Madrid, Seville, San Sebastián and Bilbao form the Premier League of Spanish tapas cities, Murcia – along with Logroño, Valladolid, Granada – surely comes near the top of the First Division.
As a city Murcia is small, compact, and agreeable; provincial in the best sense. The relaxed, unhurried pace of the city, and its Mediterranean conviviality, provide ideal conditions for the flowering of a tapas culture with no serious rivals in this part of Spain. The taking of tapas is a city-wide phenomenon, yet the scene has its points of concentration. The old-town tapas territory runs along an axis between the Plaza de las Flores/Santa Catalina area to the west of Gran Vía, and the Arco de San Juan area, a mile or so further east along to the river Segura. (A third option might be the Cathedral and its surrounding squares). In general terms the first of these two main tapas zones is more popular at lunchtime, for swift-ish pre-meal aperitivos often taken standing at the bar, while the second comes into its own for more relaxed and elaborate dinner-time tapas feasts – though neither tendency is set in stone.
In any case the microcosm, the solar plexus, has to be the Plaza de las Flores. This charming traffic-free square takes its name from the various flower-sellers whose stalls stand among the palms and orange trees. In summer a plashing fountain in the centre of the square provides a delicious respite from Murcia’s often ferocious heat. The view from this fountain takes in some of the city’s best-loved and longest-standing tapas bars of which La Tapa and Mesón de Murcia are the two outright classics. Directly on the square stands the Pastelería Bonache, with its famous ‘pastel de carne’ (experts now doubt its supremacy in the face of its nearby rival Zaher -see below).
Just around the corner in the adjoining Plaza de Santa Catalina lies the Bar Fenix, where you might easily kick off your Murcia tapas crawl with a glass of Estrella Levante (the city and region’s signature beer) and a ‘marinera’ – a super snack consisting of a spoonful of ensaladilla rusa atop a loop-shaped breadstick and an anchovy laid along it - or ‘matrimonio’: an anchovy fillet ‘married’ with a cured boquerón, the combination packing quite a punch of salt and vinegar. When the aperitivo hour rolls round on a sunny Saturday in the Plaza de las Flores, the marineras and matrimonios fairly fly out of the bars and onto the terraza tables along with foaming cañas of Estrella and big glasses of wine hailing either from Murcian DOs Yecla, Jumilla, and Bullas, or Rioja, Rueda and the Ribera del Duero.
Michirones, zarangollo, mojama...
The standard A-list of Murcia tapas takes in such appetising items as michirones (stewed broad beans with chorizo), salpicón (cold shellfish salad with chopped pepper, tomato and onion), zarangollo (scrambled eggs with courgette and onion), slices of mojama and hueva, fried almonds, olives, and local tomatoes ‘cortados’ – which is to say, simply sliced and dressed with olive oil and salt. Ensaladillas in various guises, sometimes featuring prawns or crab, are hugely popular in Murcia city, as are composite salads involving roast red peppers. Another traditional local tapa, as ubiquitous as it is delicious, is the chunk of roast octopus, juicy and faintly caramelised from the oven, cut with giant scissors from the aluminium roasting-tin on the bar-top and served with a squeeze of lemon to cut through the richness of the octopus.
Moving out northwards from the Plaza de las Flores, it would be crime to miss the delights of the calle Ruipérez. This narrow street is home to two of the city’s best-loved bars, namely Pepico el del Tio Ginés and Taberna Las Mulas. The former, founded in 1935, is strong on typical murciano pork specialities like blanco, morcón and butifarra in the form of montaditos (a slice perched on a piece of bread). A zinc bar, a beamed ceiling, marble-topped tables and neon lighting betray the age of the place, as do the black and white photographs of Murcia in the old days.
Further along Ruipérez at number 5 is another tapas bar to conjure with: Taberna Casa Perela. On the wooden bartop of this splendid old establishment sits a roast piglet spreadeagled in a wide terracotta dish, next door to a yellow pot of alioli, just as dense and jelly-like as it ought to be, and a big bowl of picantosa – the Murcian salad of salt cod and onion with tomato and ñora peppers. Staff grind black pepper and sprinkle salt over your chosen tapa, which might be as simple as a baked potato with alioli, an artichoke heart with an anchovy on top, or a handful of fried Marcona almonds, or as luxurious as a salad of tuna ventresca with tomato and green olives or a dish of eggs ‘in the style of Real Murcia’ – fried up with potatoes rather like those of Casa Lucio in Madrid.
If you liked La Penela, you’ll love Los Zagales. If there’s a single tapas place in Murcia I’d unhesitatingly recommend to anyone, it’s this little old corner bar on the C/Polo de Medina, hard by the Cathedral. After nearly a century of life Los Zagales has surely earned the right to describe itself as ‘de toda la vida’ (of which a rough translation might be ‘it’s been there for ever’). The décor here is simple, not to say rustic, what with the barrels, the rush-seated stools, and the plain wooden tables in the dining room at the back. As for the tapas, Los Zagales boasts an encyclopaedic range of traditional Murcian snacks ranging from fried items like caballitos (prawns in batter) and quail legs wrapped in bechamel and piquillo pepper (the ‘muslito’) to a plethora of ‘tapas típicas’ such as snails, Swiss chard with sardines, caldo con pelota (consommé with meatballs), pisto murciano, and michirones. Behind the bar sits a big pan of migas – fried breadcrumbs, a rural classic from inland Murcia not often found here in the capital. Best of all, perhaps, are the home made empanadillas stuffed with tuna, tomato and egg – the perfect accompaniment to an old-style Jumilla wine served direct from the barrel at 16% of alcohol. (‘Es para hombres’, says the barman with a smile.)
But not everywhere in Murcia is so obstinately attached to the traditional way of doing things. Moving out from the Plaza de las Flores south towards the river Segura and the Mercado de las Verónicas (worth a look for the superb local vegetables and fish), the tapas landscape takes a sudden leap upmarket with two rather posh and well-to-do bars, the Gran Bar Rhin and El Pasaje de Zabalburu, where the tapas tend to be based on fine seafood, foie, and fine cuts of meat, and the drink of choice is cava.
Though the Gran Bar Rhin is scarcely new, it presages a new genre of Murcia tapas bar where the interior is fashionably ‘designer’, the clientele a notch or two above the rest in terms of crisp business shirts and top-of-the-line Blackberrys. There’s a faintly Andalusian flavour to the menu at the Gran Bar – witness cazón en adobo, crunchy aubergines en salmorejo and ijada de atún - though the delicious roast octopus and a notably good, creamy ensaladilla (believed by some to be the best in the city) bring the whole thing firmly back to Murcia.
Nothing in this city can ever get too fancy for too long. At the Bar Verde behind the Cathedral, one of the new breed, a chic interior in green and black gives way to kitschy painted windows in the retro Spanish style depicting garish red prawns, octopus and paella. The ‘tapas selectas’ here might be as homespun as stuffed peppers, pisto con pechuga (ratatouille with chicken breast), matrimonios and marineras. For classier fare you might head east towards the Plaza de San Juan and Calle San José, where the Taberna La Parranda – a recent offshoot of the well-known restaurant of the same name - provides tapas of duck liver with blackcurrant, salt cod and spinach croquetas, and artichokes interleaved with ibérico ham. Both La Parranda and its near neighbour, Pepe el Torrao, would be great places to indulge in a laidback tapas-based dinner – especially in summer when Murcia’s street terrazas and air-conditioned interiors come into their own.
The custom of tapas is as much an attitude, a way of life, as a culinary genre per se, and this is as true of Murcia as anywhere else. The great advantage of on-the-hoof eating in a laidback city like this is being able to choose between something as apparently basic as the pastel de carne at Zaher on the calle Riquelme – rich crispy pastry enclosing a rich mixture of ground meat and lambs’ brains, time-honoured side-orders being a plate of crunchy green olives and a glass of Estrella – and the sophisticated gastro-pleasures of El Rincón de Pepe.
This restaurant and bar has certainly come a long way since the 1960s, when chef Raimundo González made it a culinary institution whose name was known throughout Spain. The Rincón is now a hotel run by the NH chain with its own casino and a proper restaurant, probably the city’s smartest. But some things never change, and you can still sit in the Rincon de Pepe’s famous bar and feast on fresh broad beans with eggs and ibérico ham and Raf tomatoes with cured bonito tuna, not to mention zarangollo, caballitos, matrimonios, and marineras. I urge you to try the Rincón’s famous festival de verduras, a splendid celebration of seasonal vegetables from the Murcian huerta dressed in nothing more complex than olive oil and vinegar. While you’re at it, you might also order half-a-dozen Santa Pola prawns, briefly sizzled on the griddle and likely to be some of the most delectable (as well as most expensive) gambas a la plancha you ever have tasted in your life. Whether in Murcia or Madrid, San Sebastián or Seville, tapas don’t come much more sensational than this.
Paul Richardson lives on a farm in northern Extremadura. A freelance travel and food writer, he is the author of A Late Dinner: Discovering the Food of Spain.