It is sometimes said that tapas in Spain came about as the result of the command of a King. Alfonso X, concerned at the high incidence of drunkenness in his army, proclaimed that strong drink was never to be served unless it was accompanied by something to eat. Others say that it simply developed from the habit of handing out slices of bread, cheese or ham with a drink, to protect it from falling leaves, twigs or bird-droppings when consumed outside.
The latter sounds a little more plausible, because ‘tapa’ is Spanish for ‘lid’ … possibly the true version is somewhere between the two. In Spain, like most Mediterranean countries, they dine late, and tapas fill the gap nicely. Sometimes, they even substitute for dinner! The custom has become an essential part of Spanish culture, and has given rise to a verb ‘tapear’ = to partake of tapas.
You can do this by staying in one bar, but far better is to do a ‘tapas bar crawl’, to seek out the best.
So, almost anywhere you go in Spain, you’ll be offered something with your drink, even if it’s only a handful of nuts or a few olives. But, this isn’t really tapas, say my Spanish friends.
In most places, you’ll get a free ‘aperitivo’ with your drink. Some say it’s almost an insult not to be given anything. This can be a little open sandwich, a plate of pickled onions, gherkins, peppers and olives, a miniature pie or pasty … the list is almost endless.
Next comes the tapa proper. This, you have to pay for, and it’s fun to identify your favourite tapa, and seek out where the best ones are served. At the moment, my favourite is ‘croquetas de jamon’ (ham croquettes), closely followed by ‘albondigas’ (meatballs). But, that could change any time. Almost everywhere, you can get a plate of ‘patatas bravas’ (diced, deep-fried potatoes, covered in spicy sauce). It has to be admitted, though, that, in some places, the potatoes are more ‘brava’ that in others. The ultimate I’ve come across so far is at ‘La Gasolinera’, in Barrio de la Concepcion, Madrid, where they serve a real tonsil-toasting sauce made with tabasco … and lots of it!
Further up the scale is the ‘raccione’, served in larger portions. Usually, if you’re in a group, the procedure seems to be that each member speaks for a different ‘raccione’, which he shares with the others.
No list of tapas can ever possibly be complete, for, in any city of any size, there are discoveries to be made. And, since most tapas are displayed on the bar, a pointing finger and the words ‘Quisiera este!’ (I would like that!) goes a long way in Spain.