Eight years ago, Aitor Coca moved to Pittsburgh and searched, in vain, for traditional Spanish jamón serrano (cured ham). But what Coca, a native of Bilbao, Spain, did find were other Spaniards also homesick for ham — a social group called "Los de Patanegra," named after the "best" jamón, made from pata negra pigs.
Last Saturday, he was among those honored by 60 people who flocked to Frick Park for the 10th annual Patanegra tapas competition. In typical Spanish style, the party started late, lasted hours, and featured flavorful food.
Akin to an all-out family reunion, the competition awarded four prizes: best tapa, runner-up tapa, best presentation and best dessert. But don't let the homemade trophies and quirky characters fool you — this was a serious competition focused on food.
"Spanish people — and Basque people, and Catalan people — love food," says Ariana Font, a participant since year one. "These people are creative, homesick, and really want to do their best. You'll taste the best tapas you've tried, ever."
This sentiment was echoed throughout, even in the kickoff speech, where Patanegra co-found Eliot Kennedy told the few English-speaking guests, "You'll never eat as well as you do today."
The crowd descended on three picnic tables laden with everything from "Pittsburetas" (a cheese-and-seed "lollipop" which won best presentation) to empanadas and classic tortillas.
This year's best tapa winner was Coca and his "Pinxto-Pote" team, who served two types of croquetas, fried on the scene, accompanied by Spanish wine.
"I added a touch of the Basque Country," says Coca, explaining that the dish mimics a current trend there to serve a happy-hour pintxo (Basque for tapa) with a glass of wine, all for a single Euro. "You can't beat that," says Coca.
While long-time participant Fernando de la Torre admits that he can now purchase traditional Spanish sausages on Amazon.com, the event offers a shared experience that money can't buy. In Spanish culture, community and food are inextricable.
"My heart is Spanish," de la Torre says. "It's going to be hard to change that."