The Tapas Culture

I guess to many people who haven’t experienced “proper” tapas, the concept is a little strange. I meet lots of people in San José on holiday who have no idea how it works. Tapas bars in London and I guess other places outside Spain don’t operate in the same way for example in a London tapas bar, you would buy a drink and then the tapas separately. In my lovely little village, there are some great tapas bars and slightly further afield in Almería, there are the best tapas bars I’ve ever been to and the concept is thus… you buy an alcoholic drink, mosto (grape juice) or a non-alcoholic beer and the tapas comes with it… free, yes that’s right FREE. The tapas are usually about two to three bites big but after maybe three drinks, you’ve had a nice light sized meal and a great night out.

Chorizo al Infierno - I like to toast my bread :-)

Chorizo al Infierno – I like to toast my bread!

Many of the bars pride themselves on their house specialites as well as the more traditional tapas such as carné con tomate (meat with tomato sauce), patatas bravas (spicy potatoes) and pincho moruno (spiced chicken mini-kebab). Such specialities include my favourite chorizo al infierno (chorizo from hell) – a small spicy sausage served on fire like a sambuca would be, raxos (a Galician style tapas) – pork fillet (lomo) in a savoury sauce, choto al ajillo (goat in spicy garlic sauce) etc.

Seafood Tapas

Seafood Tapas

Some bars serve very upmarket tapas but NOT at upmarket prices! It’s very rare to pay more than €2.75 and for that you’ll get a very good quality glass of wine… well actually, you’d be hard pressed to find a wine in a Spanish bar that isn’t a good quality 🙂 There are also a number of bars that specialise in vegetarian and vegan tapas e.g., cherigans (a bit like crisp breads with various toppings), tortilla de patatas (potato omlette), pimientos rellenos (stuffed peppers) so there is indeed something for everybody.

The word “tapas” is derived from the Spanish verb tapar, “to cover” and according to one legend, the tapas tradition began when king Alfonso X of Castile recovered from an illness by drinking wine with small dishes of food between meals. After regaining his health, the king ordered that taverns would not be allowed to serve wine to customers unless it was accompanied by a small snack or “tapa”.

Huevo a la Plancha

Huevo a la Plancha

The most popular history of tapas is that the original tapas were the slices of bread or meat which sherry drinkers in Andalucia used to cover their glasses between sips. This was a practical measure meant to prevent fruit flies from hovering over and spoiling the sherry. The meat used to cover the sherry was normally ham or chorizo, both of which are salty and activate thirst. Because of this, bartenders and restaurant owners began creating a variety of snacks to serve with sherry thus increasing their alcohol sales. Tapas has evolved through Spanish history by incorporating ingredients and influences from many different cultures and countries.

A big thank you to Amber McClean for providing the photographs, I realised after starting this article that I actually have NO photographs of food!


7 responses to “The Tapas Culture

  1. I’ve only been to one tapas restaurant here in Indianapolis and it cost me quite a penny! I wish we followed the true tradition! Thanks for this post. I love food history.

  2. Well it varies for vegetarians but things ARE getting better over the years. It’s worth remembering that the local traditions vary, and some places the word ‘tapa’ means a fair sized little plate aperitif, which one pays for, and a small bite is a ‘pincho’. Equally most places may be making a small charge, 25 or 50 cents maybe, BUT if you order a tapa on it’s own then it’s probably a euro.
    Also I’ve heard so many tales of the origin (of the custom) depending largely on the the social background of the person rather than historical veracity, but the one that seems to stick with me is an edict issued by the king (I forget but probably an Alfonso) to counter drunkeness among the workers and muleteers in Madrid (I guess they stopped for a quick one at every opportunity) that every wine was to be served with a little bit of bread by law.

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