Essay - The Truth about Tapas

A selection of delicious tapas. © Michelle Chaplow
A selection of delicious tapas.

The Truth About Tapas


by Lawrence Bohme

Granada is one of the last towns in Spain where you still get a free tapa with every glass of wine or beer. We have our earliest record of this marvellous tradition from King Alfonso 10th "El Sabio" (whose wisdom extended also to music and poetry, as lovers of the cantigas de Santa Maria are well aware). Alfonso advocated always nibbling some food while drinking wine; and several centuries later another great monarch, King Felipe II, went so far as to pass a royal decree requiring tavern keepers to accompany each glass of wine with a tapa or "cover" - a round slice of sausage served on top of the glass like a lid - to reduce public drunkenness. Of course, this excellent habit is still the reason why one rarely sees a drunk Spaniard, even though they drink virtually around the clock.

When I first came to Spain in 1960, you could literally have lunch and get drunk at the same time for the price of 3 chatos de tinto, in Madrid, Barcelona and Pamplona. But rising labour costs and creeping Americanisation have wiped the charming practice out everywhere except in Granada and a few other backwaters, such as - excuse my patriotic fervour - my adopted home town of Montefrio.

Of course, the reason we all love tapas is not just because it's nice to get a very tasty freebie, but for the sheer fun of being served something you didn't ask for, such as a fried swallow, some snails in hot sauce, a shrimp speared to a bit of bread with a gob of mayonnaise or a deep fried artichoke, all piping hot and dished up by the tavern keeper's wife (the woman whose solid biceps and flushed face you occasionally see in the little square window behind the bar). The best time to tapear (there's even a verb for it) in Montefrio is between 12 and 2, in other words just before lunch, when all the taverns compete with tapas that range from grilled morcilla (black pudding), tender chunks of fragrant jamón serrano (mountain ham), calamares fritos (crispy fried squid legs), and a variety of deep-fried anchovies, sardines and so on. My favourite spots for tapas (and elbow rubbing with the local yokels) are El Pregonero, Las Golondrinas, Guitarra, Yo Yo, La Fonda, La Bodequilla, Marengo and Los Canarios, among others...

I always advise the foreign visitors staying in my cottages to do as I do when they want to have a meal which is both tasty and amusing: crawl the taverns and when you are served a tapa you really like, order a dish, or ración of it, plus a big mixed salad and a chunk of bread... You'll have a great meal and, if you can muster a few words of Spanish, make friends with half the town you're at it!