The ns guide to self-indulgence - Tapas

Remember those holidays you had years ago - when the sun shone endlessly, the sea was limpid and unpolluted and you never got a single mosquito bite?

My husband can drone on endlessly about a summer he spent in Spain as a lovelorn, impoverished student, when he lived on bread, tomatoes, cheap red wine and tapas. In fact, tapas developed such a mystique in our household that, on a short break in Barcelona, we did little else except pound the streets looking for the type of tapas which had sustained him in his youth.

Which meant: boquerones (a little plate of anchovies) some patatas fritas (fried potatoes) and calamares (squid). All arriving free, just as a dish of stale dry-roasted peanuts might grace an English pub of a Sunday lunchtime.

Well, we had no luck in Barcelona. GaudI architecture aplenty, Italian restaurants in abundance, tourist traps all over, but no authentic tapas bars. Perhaps we were in the wrong bit of Barcelona - or perhaps tapas is much more a southern Spanish habit.

Tapas bars have been migrating north even faster than mosquitoes, nestling alongside other high-street incomers: curry houses, Chinese and Thai restaurants. Tapas are quick, sociable, inexpensive and much the better for being outside. But they have lost the one thing that captivated my husband: tapas no longer come free with the drinks.

So you sit there with your wine or Spanish beer. (Avoid the sangria; if you haven't tried it, it's like drinking a sticky infusion of throat sweets.) And you order. A little bit of this. A little bit of that.

Go on then, maybe a little bit more - some mejillones (mussels), alcachofas (artichokes) and tortilla. You pick at all the bits, which seem by way of an appetiser, and you suddenly discover that you've had the most delicious meal you've had for a long time.

This article first appeared in the 19 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The transport row: who is to blame?