It's Tapa Time
Go into any bar and observe the clientele, whether standing at the bar or at small shelf-like bars along the walls, each is likely to have a small plate with a few bites of something to eat - a “tapa”. Tapa? Yes it comes from the Spanish verb "tapar", which means “to cover”.
It’s said that tapas were invented a hundred years ago between Jerez and Sevilla to “keep the dust off a glass of wine” - a rather humorous explanation. But whatever the origin of the tapa, it is a tradition that is so well tuned to the Andalusian art of living that over the years it has developed into a way of eating all on its own and has spread to most of Spain. And yet tapas are more related to custom and practise than to table arts.
Have you noticed how people drink in Spain, even today? Usually drink is accompanied by food. Following any drink order, it’s not uncommon for a waiter to ask, "Le pongo algo para picar?” (Would you like anything to nibble?).
Fun to move
from bar to bar
On the other hand, it is very rare to see anybody drinking on his or her own. Drinking while enjoying small portions of food, is a deeply social habit and “el tapeo” could be defined as a way of meeting friends in different places to have drinks and conversation, a very Spanish way of relating to people. But tapear is not just that, it also includes pasear - to stroll. A very important part of the ritual consists in moving from one place to another looking for a particular atmosphere or speciality. The true aficionados follow routes they have specifically designed according to the time of the year, the order of the dishes or the tastes of the friends who accompany them.
But what are tapas made of? Well, anything which is easy to eat, so that the natural flow of conversation is not interrupted. Any dish can become a tapa and the recipes follow traditional Spanish cooking. The most frequent among hot tapas are snails in a hot sauce, tripe, prawns fried with garlic, meat balls or cod in a tomato sauce. Any kind of fired fish is a very popular delicacy, especially in Andalusia where women are known to have the deftest hands. The choice among cold tapas is huge, ranging from pickled or stuffed olives, pickled fresh anchovies, all kinds of shellfish, Manchego cheese, salt and wind-cured ham, all types of paprika and blood-sausages, fish and vegetables salads and, of course, the famous thick potato omelette - Spanish tortilla.
So now it is up to you to try. Start by selecting the right group of friends. Four is a good number. Meet in a bar best known to everyone, start by asking for as many different tapas as there are people in the group and then share what appears. Then move on to another place. Order one dish in each bar or “media ración” with various forks if several want to try the same thing. And above all stick to the same drink.
This article was first published in the Andalucia Magazine.