VISITING Seville, we stayed in a flat up above a shop selling flamboyant flamenco dresses, a kaleidoscopic gallery of figure-hugging, cantilevered constructions in sculptured fabric, extravagantly ornamented with net, lace and tulle.
They came in all sizes - flamenco gear is clearly not just for Latina sirens like Penelope Cruz. Strangely, I couldn't quite see that I'd have the occasion to wear one - ever - and besides, one of these voluminously stiff creations would definitely not conform to Ryanair hand luggage dimensions.
Finding good tapas bars wasn't half as easy as finding dance gear; so many are tucked away in basements and nearly invisible from the street. Most rely not on footfall, but word of mouth. Minus insider knowledge, we strolled the back streets, looking out for steamy windows, listening for the clink of glasses, trying to follow our noses, but the air hung so fragrantly heavy with the scent of orange blossom, it was hard to pick out the meaty aroma of aged cured hams, the salty ferment of olives, and the oiliness of anchovies from the overall floral assault.
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Leith, which is not at all like Seville, does nevertheless have at least one connection with this southern city: a tapas bar - Tapa - whose head chef is a Sevillano. And like the back-alley bars of his sun-soaked home, Tapa is easy to miss, inside what once was Wishart's, a bonded warehouse set back from the shore. It's another of those historic commercial buildings that make Leith architecturally special: high, vaulted walls, doors wide enough to drag in a small boat, a stone fireplace, pillars, and other original fixtures. Tapa has thrown meridional colour into the stony Scottish mix, a toreador's blood-red, warming it up. These elements all add up to create an almost conspiratorial venue with a spacious, roomy and relaxing feel.
I don't eat in UK tapas bars unless I can't avoid it because so often, they're deeply average. And boring too: there's only so much enthusiasm I can work up for Russian salad, tortilla, and patatas bravas. But Tapa is cut from a different cloth. It takes pride in using artisan Spanish produce from small, independent producers, and revels in the regionalism of Spanish gastronomy. You taste that right away with the hand-carved, wafer-thin Jamon Iberico de Bellota with its sweet flesh and aromatic fat. And the menu is a whole lot less predictable. The chef aspires to "create exceptional, distinctive tapas", and succeeds in that endeavour. From the northern city of Burgos comes the renowned morcilla, softer and with less spicy attitude than the Scottish equivalent. Here it is served crumbly and warm, on top of soft red onions and under a perfect fried quail's egg, dusted with smoked paprika. The last ingredient also made its presence felt in the piquant Piquillo pepper salsa that made a base for tender oxtail inside crunchy-shelled croquettes.
Iberico pig cheeks, from Pata Negra Iberico pigs, had been so cleverly braised that they only kept their shape until you touched them with a fork, at which point they swooned. Discs of apples cooked in Pedro Ximenez sherry provided a fruitiness that suited them wonderfully; toasted flaked almonds brought textural contrast.
Tapa is great value: a huge plate of beautifully fresh whitebait, dusted lightly in flour then fried to a rustling gold, for instance, cost just £4.50. The tortilla had something to elevate it above many of its peers: the usual egg, potato and onion was shot through with layers of melting Manchego cheese and Sobrasada, the soft, spreadable chorizo that hails from Mallorca. Chickpea stew, "enriched with Moorish spices", was actually quite subtle, several cuts above the student flat standard.
There's no let-up at dessert. A voluptuous chocolate and orange mousse, served in a Le Parfait-type jar, hit exactly the right degrees of chocolatiness and smoothness. I have no bother believing that the Santiago almond tart had been made only hours before; it had that "just baked" quality. And if the strawberry ice cream was more hard and home-made, rather than professional-smooth, I wasn't complaining, because it tasted so extravagantly of fresh berries.
Tapa is a remarkably smooth operation with a sultry southern accent.