Abeja - a taste of Spain in a tiny Manchester tapas bar

Aubergine with molasses syrup

Aubergine with molasses syrup - Credit: Archant

A tiny tapas restaurant is bringing an authentic taste of Granada to Manchester

Ana Villegas of Abeja

Ana Villegas of Abeja - Credit: Archant

Cooking is science with an alchemy all of its own,’ is the explanation Ana Villegas gives when asked why a university research scientist, complete with a PhD, now runs Abeja, possibly the smallest tapas bar in the UK. Abeja – it means ‘bee’ in Spanish – is situated in Manchester’s Hatch and consists of two shipping containers seating just 15 people. Opened last September, its reputation already means those 15 seats are highly sought after.

Covid meant the doors had to close but Ana thought outside the box and introduced a Board in a Box service: a selection of meat, cheese or mixed boards.

‘The meat box always includes Serrano ham, as well as three other meats and the cheese box has four cheeses all from the Granada area. Naturally, wine or olive oil can be included,’ says Ana who has now sent out hundreds of the boxes.

‘I hear people share the boxes and make it a sociable occasion, which is how my food is meant to be eaten, so I’m going to keep the scheme going,’ says Ana, who can now welcome diners back to the shared outdoor space in Hatch.

Omelette served with fresh tomato and olive oil on bread

Omelette served with fresh tomato and olive oil on bread - Credit: Archant

Ana’s tapas has a twist: all the dishes come from her hometown of Granada and the Andalusian region of Spain and many recipes originated in her own family.

‘I have handwritten recipes that go back generations, so using them here in Manchester is a way of staying true to my heritage,’ says Ana. ‘They’re authentic and delicious too – it’s a win-win.

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‘I’m inspired by the ingredients – most of which I personally source from Granada although some diners raise an eyebrow when they taste my black pudding croquette. They think I’ve nipped to Bury, home of the famous Lancashire black pudding but you know, our Granada black pudding is equally famous in Spain. I also serve it with on toast with green pepper and scrambled eggs which can soften the black pudding flavour if, of course, you want it softened.’

Other croquettes are ham and chicken – Ana makes her own chicken stock from scratch – and mushroom and squash. This makes a perfect combination, with the sweetness of the squash, the robust Portobello mushroom and the smoothness of the stock delivering a satisfying whole, suitable for carnivores and vegetarians alike.

Other popular dishes are aubergine cake with bechamel sauce and pine nuts, squid in garlic sauce and garlic soup with chorizo.

‘The food is simple, with little waste,’ Ana adds. ‘My home region suffered in the Civil War and all food had to be used. That is one of the reason pulses are so popular, often featuring in soups: they go down very well here too.’

Ana’s frequent visits home means she has close relationships with her suppliers, allowing her to keep her finger on the pulse when it comes to new ingredients, such as a goat cheese developed on a small farm not far from her family home. It also enables her to source a stunning speciality charcuterie board, all sliced on a rather splendid red retro machine.

‘I do have to be careful with my beautiful Serrano ham, though. I never have a whole leg because it needs cold, dry conditions to reach optimum flavour. Much as I love Manchester, no-one could say it ticks the dry box, so I buy specially selected pieces which are at their best and are eaten quickly,’ says Ana.

The boutique Spanish wines are also carefully curated by Ana, match the menu perfectly and can almost all be served by the glass or carafe. It all adds to the sociable atmosphere, something Ana loves.

‘Being in a lab can be lonely but here everyone can see me cooking and we all talk and enjoy the food. It’s like being in Spain. I’ve even decorated my tiny space with specially designed wallpaper that echoes the Alhambra tiles, except they’re based on the pattern of a bee, the symbol of Manchester.’