Tapas - A taste of Spain

Tapas – A way of life and window to the Spanish soul

In Spain tapas bars are lively places to meet and catch up before lunch, at the end of the day before a late dinner or weekend afternoons with friends.

With the growing popularity of tapas throughout Australia and indeed the rest of the world, a little background information may be of interest. Today this style of eating out and the large variety of tapas on offer along with ‘sharing’ is even replacing traditional 2-3 course meals. Tapas have evolved into a sophisticated cuisine sampling a variety of foods and tastes, it can be difficult not to over indulge - sometimes.

Nobody can quite agree on the true origins of tapas, whilst theories and claims abound their exact origins remain shrouded in mystery. One legend has it that King Alfonso XI (reigning king of Castille in the 13thc) became stricken with an illness and while recovering was only able to eat small portions of food and wine. Following his recovery he issued a decree stating that no wine could be served at inns unless accompanied with food. Variations on the legend suggest that the decree was ordered to prevent peasants and soldiers from getting too drunk resulting in reduced performance and production the following day. Another more practical theory is that the food served as a cover over the drink, a ‘tapadera’ or verb ‘tapar’ meaning cover, hence the name tapas as a means of preventing the very annoying Spanish fruit fly from landing in the drink.

The earliest tapas were often slices of bread or meat which sherry drinkers in Andalusian taverns used to cover their drinks between sips. Later on ‘tapas’ were small plates of food to accompany a drink of wine, beer or sherry served without charge (though most charge these days) meant to stimulate the appetite rather than sate it. They can be any type of food, hot or cold, the only rule being they are served on a small plate. 

In Spain true tapas are very much alive, still served free around the Granada region, one of the few remaining parts of Spain where tapas are still complimentary. Typically you never know what you may be served in an Andalusian bar. Other areas serving complimentary tapas include parts of Madrid, Castile and the Asturias. Ranging from a simple plate of salted almonds, Serrano ham on bread to a serving of paella or garlic prawns.

Whatever their origin they remain iconically Spanish, each region have their own traditional favourites, though olives, nuts, meats and cheeses are universal to all areas. In some of the larger towns and cities entire areas are dedicated to tapas bars, naturally each serving their own specialities.

More recently and with the advent of celebrity chefs, tapas have become increasingly more elaborate and expensive, though still quite reasonably priced in Spain, you will find a huge variety to tantalise your tastebuds and perfect for eating as little or as much to suit your individual appetite.

With dinner usually served between 9 and 11pm in Spain, tapas are reserved for socializing and rarely served at home or in restaurants. Commonly bars may have 8 to 12 different kinds of tapas in warming trays, often strongly flavoured with garlic, chillies and spices. Often one or more is seafood, including anchovies, sardines, mackerel or squid. Tapas bars in Spain are egalitarian places where people of all classes congregate and children are welcome. It has developed into a form of national identification and culturally a way of life.

Spanish cities and regions are competitive where tapas are concerned, rivalry is fierce, each claiming their own to be the best for tapas. Nothing beats the real thing - what makes tapas extra special in Spain is the combination of eating and drinking in the atmosphere of a genuine tapas bar.

Why not compile your own favourites, sample your way through Spain, staying in the remarkable Paradores of Spain and Pousadas of Portugal on either of TIKI TOURS 22 day exclusive small group tours, to the north, Ancient Kingdoms of Spain & Portugal tour departs in September and Spain & Portugal in Castles & Palaces tour departing in October to the south. We’d be keen to share your personal recommendations.