Tapas, it is sometimes said, 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!
Tapas come in a variety of forms, and my favourite changes almost as often as my shirt. The word is often used to cover the little free nibble you’re often given with your drink in Spain. Properly, this is an ‘aperitivo’. This can be a little open sandwich, a plate of pickled onions, gherkins, peppers and olives, a miniature pie or pasty … or only a handful of nuts or a few olives. Some say it’s almost an insult not to be given anything at all.
The tapa proper, you have to pay for, and here, the choice is almost unlimited. One of my favourites is croquetas de jamòn, a crispy, creamy ham-flavoured bite, fried to a golden brown. That helped me to learn some of my first words of Spanish:
‘Tiene croquetas de jamon, por favor?
They brought me five, which was one more than I really wanted, but I had a brain dump, and couldn’t remember the Spanish for ‘four’.
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 came with a real tonsil-toasting sauce made with tabasco … and lots of it!
My friend Carmen calls the ones at this particular establishment ‘Hellfire Chips’ … from the remark I made when I took my first mouthful.
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.
But, Spanish cuisine isn’t only about tapas. For breakfast, many Spanish people who aren’t too worried about their cholesterol count like to partake of chocolate con churros; that´s a cup of hot chocolate with a plate of long deep-fried pastries, rather like doughnut pastry, that you dunk in it. It is said that it’s much appreciated by people who need the jolt on their way to work straight from a party … but most Spanish people I know strongly deny this.
For a quick lunchtime bite, most places sell toasted sandwiches, which are quick, easy and convenient. I usually arrive at the airport around lunchtime, and, at Madrid, my restaurant of choice is Medas. The first time I visited, they were offering a beer and two tapas of choice for €6. Or, sometimes, you get a toasted sandwich and a beer for the same price. Every time, I write down ‘Bocadillo’ in my notebook, so I’ll remember it … and last time, I remembered which notebook I’d written it down in.
I’ve just covered snacks and quick bites here; for a full, sit-down Spanish meal would require a whole nother post … maybe even a book!