After graduating from high school I went to Madrid, Spain. I'd studied Spanish for 4 years and spent a summer living with a family in Mexico. When I arrived to attend the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, I had a great language base, but was totally unprepared for a whole new food world that greeted me. At that time, tapas were relatively unknown in the U.S. and there were no Spanish cheeses to be found here. Even today, I feel that Spanish food is one of the least understood European cuisines in America.
When I landed in the late summer of 1986, I went directly to a pensión (an inexpensive hotel) suggested by a friend and couldn't believe how alien everything felt. School wasn't scheduled to start for a few weeks and I didn't really know what to do with myself. My first mistake was to go straight to sleep and stay on New York time...it took me several days to get my internal clock in order....I felt very strange. My salvation was the "bar" across the street from the pensión.
It's worth mentioning that bars in Spain are very different. Rather than dark places designed for drowning your sorrows, Spanish bars are brightly lit, community gathering places to grab a light supper or snack throughout the day. They usually feature a broad selection of tapas, served in small portions, and at the time a very low price. If you ordered a draft beer, the most common size was a caña, which cost 50 pesetas (about $0.35) for roughly 4 ounces....but here's the kicker, every beer was served with a little tapa. For me, it was like a Crackerjack prize or toy in a McDonald's Happy Meal. The best thing about getting all these little bites was that I could taste and learn without needing to know any of the names of the 30-40 new foods.
Sensing how lost I was, the owners of Bar El Aguila sort of adopted me and patiently walked me through their entire selection of bits and bites. I ate oreja a la plancha (griddled pigs ear), mejillones en escabeche (pickled mussels), queso manchego (sheep's milk cheese from La Mancha), and jamón de pata negra (dry cured "blackfoot" Iberian ham). My absolute favorites were boquerones en vinagre, literally "anchovies in vinegar," now available here in many places labeled "white anchovies."
If you've had a bad anchovy experience, perhaps accidentally eaten on a pizza, put those canned-dark-bony-fishy-super-salty little guys out of your mind! Boquerones are served boneless, fresh and tangy, kept refrigerated with only a bit of salt. They are wonderful as an appetizer on crusty bread, pairing well with a crisp white or dry red wine. Look for boquerones and check out what became a comfort food for me in a foreign land.
To prepare your own, check out El Mundo de las Tapas