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Paolo Tullio: Downsize for a real feast

There was a time when a meal meant a plate of meat, potatoes and two other veg. It was the universally agreed format; it was what you found everywhere, in hotel dining rooms and in restaurants. It wasn't that long ago either, maybe 30 years, when things we take for granted, such as pizza, were not on offer. Even the burger joint as we know it is a relative newcomer -- the first McDonald's opened in Grafton Street in the mid-1970s.

You could argue that it was the explosion in the travel trade that brought changes to our eating habits. People came back from Spain with memories of paella; travellers returned from Italy having discovered pasta and pizza. Little by little, these menu options began to find their way into Irish restaurants.

Today, you can look through the 'Golden Pages' listings and you'll find nearly every international cuisine on offer, such as Chinese and Indian, with many outlets, or Mongolian and Vietnamese, with very few.

The fact is that the traditional meat and two veg is on the retreat, usurped by these alien interlopers. The Irish palate has become international and experimental, perfectly happy to give these exotic cuisines a go.

Not every cuisine sees meals the way we have traditionally done. Eastern Mediterranean cuisines, such as Lebanese and Greek to some extent, like to fill the table with mezze -- little tastes of many different things that are not served as courses. You simply pick at what takes your fancy.

Closer to home is the Spanish tradition of tapas, sometimes called pinchos. In Spain, you generally won't find tapas in restaurants -- you find them in bars, where they're offered while you drink. It's easy enough in Spain to go out for a evening of bar hopping and get more than enough to eat just by taking the tapas on offer in each bar. Some bars have become extremely popular by offering good-quality tapas.

This way of eating in small bites is perfectly adapted to people who enjoy moving around a city sampling the bars. You're not committing yourself to a couple of hours sitting in a restaurant; instead, you eat on the move, grazing as you go.

It's an attractive idea, and if there's been a growth in Irish restaurants in 2010, it has to be the explosion of tapas. The concept is not quite the same in Ireland as it is in Spain, because here the tapas are found in restaurants, not bars, but they're clearly popular. This week, I was in Galway and, with John McKenna's 'Bridgestone Guide' under my arm, I went to try out the tapas in Cava on Dominic Street.

I was in a very good mood as I walked in, since, for the first time in years, I found a parking place right outside where I was going to eat. Cava is simply decorated with wooden tables and chairs and has a high, pitched ceiling, giving it a sense of space. I took a seat next to a whole Serrano ham set in its holder, ready for slicing, and looked down a very long list of tapas. Not only did that give me a big choice, but there was a blackboard of daily specials as well.

This enormous choice wasn't just for the food, there's also a very long wine list of Spanish wines, with some unusual and very good listings. With a car outside, my perusal of the list was largely hypothetical, but I allowed myself one glass of wine and picked the very delicious Manzanilla sherry called La Goya. Manzanillas are made in Sanlucar, which is on the coast a few miles from Jerez, and are like finos -- very dry and, many say, just a hint salty due to the sea air on the vines. It reminded me of a day spent in Sanlucar drinking Manzanilla and eating in a great restaurant called El Faro.

My Manzanilla arrived in its proper 'copa', a small, stemmed glass with 'La Goya' emblazoned on the side. They seem to like this kind of name in Sanlucar -- you can find La Guita and La Gitana on other Irish wine lists.

I chose one of the day's specials, a fried duck egg with Spanish black pudding and wild mushrooms to start, and then, in a moment of wild abandon, I also ordered pa amb tomàquet, a Catalan way of serving bread soaked in tomatoes. After that, I had croquetas de jamón or Serrano ham croquettes, and then a plate of cured meats.

I can tell you now that what I ordered was far too much for one person, even a hungry one. It does illustrate one of the differences between the Spanish and the Irish version of tapas. In Ireland, they tend to be as large as starter portions, whereas in Spain they are really just nibbles.

I really enjoyed the duck egg; it had been fried until just crispy around the edges, the Spanish black pudding went well with it and the mushrooms were girolles. It was good and filling, and then the other dishes arrived: four perfectly crisp croquettes, eight pieces of tomato bread and a long wooden platter of chorizo and salami -- enough to quell the appetite of a trencherman.

It's worth mentioning that Spanish croquettes are not made from potato but from a thick béchamel, then flavoured, shaped, dipped in egg and breadcrumbs, then fried.

With the help of a large bottle of sparkling Spanish mineral water, I made some headway into this array of foodstuffs. But eventually I had to stop, leaving half of the bread and half of the cured meats.

I finished up with a decent espresso and felt well pleased, although another time I may order a little less to eat. Four different tapas, a bottle of mineral water, a glass of sherry and an espresso brought my bill to €39.95.

Weekend Magazine