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Spain Feature: Golf and the Tapas Scene

By Carla Harvey, Contributor

At first glance, the place appears to be playing to a full house, not even standing room available. Some amiable squeezing and a few 'Perdoname's' opens a space for another body, and then just one more. People of all shapes and sizes stand at the bar sipping sherry from classic Catavino glasses; others quaff foamy, richly amber beer.

Savouring various snacks with obvious enjoyment, the titbits are spiced with animated conversation. In short, the daily 'tapas' ceremony has begun.

It would be hard to find a custom better suited to the needs and desires of the golfer. Taking a break after the 9th hole, the 18th, or for the marathon player, the 27th? If you're in Andalucia, you'll head for the nearest bar, therein to enjoy small plates of food before going on to the next tee. This is the perfect answer to slight hunger and ideal for players intending to pick up the game where they left off.

Literally, a tapa is a cover. Legend has it that a small plate was used to cover a drink and keep the insects out, but it seemed natural to the generous Andalucians (tapas were invented in Sevilla - argue that point anywhere near the place and be prepared to suffer the consequences), to put something edible on it.

So, a cut of cured cheese, a few garlicky olives, or a slice of that mother of all tapas, the tortilla, would be produced with a drink. The only bad news in the tapas scenario is that the snacks used to be free. With each successive drink, the tapa became better. The positive side is that because they're no longer priceless, you get to choose your own, and of course, you don't have to keep imbibing merely to get a sliver-thin piece of serrano ham at the end of the day.

Some hints to increase appreciation of this tradition. Tapas will be available in most bars: signs saying 'tasca', 'bodega', 'cerveceria' or 'taberna' are sure bets. If you don't speak Spanish, it is easier to go up to the bar, look in the glass-protected case, see something that looks appetising, point and choose rather than to stare at a chalkboard or menu.

Even if the card has been translated, it is likely to parade such mysteries as 'rape, fisherman style', which, while it may pique the imagination, seems fairly unpromising as food. (Actually, rape is a firm white fish cooked with onions and garlic to make it 'fisherman's style').

Some very tasty standards can be found in almost every Andalucian tapas bar. A tortilla (made with eggs, potatoes, a little onion, salt and pepper) is perhaps the most satisfying of all. An instant antidote to hunger pangs, the tortilla is often displayed on the bar counter, especially if the cook is proud of it.

Boquerones en vinagre are pickled anchovies, especially toothsome atop a round of fresh bread. Stuffed mushrooms with garlic (setas al horno) and little meatballs called albondigas are high on the list of favourites. On steamy summer days, a dish of porra gives an energy boost at the same time as it pleases. This is a very thick gazpacho that is scooped rather than spooned. Fortunately, there are hundreds of these dishes to choose from; what you don't find in one bar, you are apt to discover in the next.

Many golfers find that this is the way to eat in southern Spain and enter enthusiastically into a 'tapas crawl' after sundown. Strolling around sampling dishes is a gregarious pastime, and incidentally a nice way to become aware of Spanish culture while having a good time.

To give an idea of places near golf courses in Andalucia, as well as after-play 'tapas crawl' possibilities, some suggestions follow.

Courses in the province of Huelva have major hotels on site; Islantilla, Isla Canela and Bellavista all feature bars where featured tapas are centred on Huelva's famous 'jabugo' cured ham. Golf is just cutting its teeth here, but in the future, the courses are sure to offer abundant choices.

Sevilla, as inventor of the custom, is not found wanting: excellent options include 'Casa Blanca', where the King of Spain shared bar space with local businessmen. The Triana neighbourhood is famous for tempting tapas after sunset and there are certainly worse things than finding yourself comfortably ensconced on a Gaudalquivir riverside terrace, drink and snack at hand.

Moving towards the Mediterranean, San Roque Golf Club has its own fashionable version of an up-market tapas bar. Although elegant, it is very buzzy at lunchtime. The same can be said of Montecastillo's clubhouse bar which offers an exciting array of tapas in a friendly atmosphere.

If you're moving east on a golf holiday, save a space of time for La Linea's 'La Marina', one of the best venues in Andalucia - raffish and utterly without pretension.

Costa del Sol golfers can chose between the on-site bars at La Duquesa and Estepona Golf or opt for the nearby harbours, Puerto Duquesa or Puerto Paraiso. In Estepona town, visit attractive watering holes along winding lanes, which probably serve up English dishes as well as traditional plates.

The tendency towards an international approach to food becomes more prominent as you approach Marbella. Nueva Andalucia's bars (close to the Valle de Golf courses) supply a truly 'global' concept of the art. Marbella's Old Town is notable for its pretty streets and an admirable number of excellent bars.

It is Málaga however, which comes closest to Sevilla's enviable reputation as Andalucia's finest contributor of tapas. The Tourist departments of both cities publish a guide to their city's best which are free and on show in the Information Offices. In Málaga, there are several tapas crawls worth following.

One of the most appealing includes Rincon la Mata, Lo Gueno and the entire row along Pasaje de Chinitas.

And if Málaga must take second place to the capital city as far as 'numbers' are concerned, it can claim to be the inventor of 'green pepper roulette'. Snappily crisp, bright green peppers are fried with coarse sea salt. This is a simple and superb tapa; add to it a twist of fun.

A plateful is placed in front of customers, who do know the game. Now, among these innocent peppers, lurks one whose bland appearance hides a fiery secret. He who eats it must show no sign that he has picked a devilish, beads-of-sweat producing titbit, but must chew and swallow as normal. Should he be revealed, the price is a round of drinks. It's all part of the piquant, but genial ritual of tapas tasting.

Carla HarveyCarla Harvey, Contributor

Carla Harvey freelances for various magazines in Spain and abroad. Among them are Mediterranean Life, Essential, The Reporter and Lookout Magazine. She was the editor of Marbella Times for five years and WHERE Costa del Sol for two years.

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