Are you travelling to Spain on holidays? If you wish to have some tapas in a truly Spanish way during your trip, here you have some advice from a Spaniard with more than 30 years of experience!
But… what are tapas?
The word “tapa” translates as “cover” or “lid”, and are a small portion of food that is served alongside a drink. When I was a child they was served only with an alcoholic drink or with “alcohol free wine”, called Mosto, which is a kind of grape juice, made from pressed grapes before the wine process with the seeds and pulpy stuff filtered out (this Mosto should not be confused with the alcoholic drink called mosto offered in some places in Andalucia, that is a fermented wine to about 11º, barely filtered and left to be table wine before making it into better quality wines as Sherry).
Nowadays, wine, beer and mosto are the only admitted drinks in some Spanish tapas bars, but with a raising awareness about alcohol consumption more and more places offer tapas also with soft drinks, especially when you pay for them (more about that later on).
There are many legends about the Spanish custom of having a small bite with your drink. Most histories concede the invention of tapas to the Royals. Sometimes it was the King Alfonso X, The Wise King of Spain who was prescribed to drink wine (and eat some food with it to avoid getting drunk) to recover from a serious illness, and when he got better, the king issued a decree that no wine should be served at inns unless it was served with food.
Other stories sais that they were the Catholic Monarchs, or Felipe III, who ordered this decree – to quickly feed the soldiery, or to curb the drunkenness of sailors and soldiers-, that wine be served in a cup or goblet with a lid or cover, on which small portions of food were served and included in the price of the drink.
It is also said that King Alfonso XIII (1886-1931) stopped by a famous tavern in Cádiz, where he ordered a cup of wine. As Cadiz is a windy city by on the western coast, the bartender placed a piece of ham over the wine to keep the sand out. The King was pleased and when he ordered a second cup of wine he did so ‘with the same cover’.
But if we prefer reality to fiction – because we are quite boring -, the truth is that there is nothing extraordinary on the habit of accompanying any alcoholic drink with some food, especially in the Mediterranean countries. My grandad always would say ‘don’t sign without reading nor drink without eating’. And the problem about Royal decrees is that they are written, published and recorded, so as long as it does not seem that any of those legends is supported by any document, probably they are not true.
The only story that perhaps happened is the relative to Alfonso XIII, as according to “El Comidista”1 (a food blog issued by one of the main media groups in Spain, that I hope checks their sources), it seems that the tapas origin was about the end of the XIX century in some groceries stores in Andalucia, and then were exported to Madrid by the southern migrants. The lack of food on the post-war period helped to spread a model of food service that was cheap and functional, and very social too. Then the international tourism came, and tourists were happily surprised by this custom, which made tapas famous in Europe.
How to properly order tapas
Tapas traditionally may have been a complementary piece of sliced ham served on top of a glass of wine, but we know them today as small portions of food commonly served with a drink. Sometimes they are a snack before lunch or dinner, or an aperitif, but you can also have a whole lunch or supper with only 3 tapas. Tapas can be as simple as a bowl of olives or more hearty, such as slices of Serrano ham, or something more abundant as ensaladilla rusa, patatas bravas, paella and the beloved croquettes. There are even high cuisine tapas, author tapas… basically, anything that can be kept long and served on a small portion can be turned into a tapa, but in the diversity of the Spanish tapas, there is always a common point: they come along with a drink.
So if you want to have tapas on the proper way, you want to order a drink and only one tapa each time. Don´t worry very much about not getting drunk: Spanish alcohol serving units are much smaller than British. The Spanish beer (or tinto de verano) measures are tubos and cañas. If an imperial pint has 569ml, a Spanish tubo is about 330ml, and a caña is only 200ml. This said, you can have 3 cañas with their respective tapas and it will be about a pint of beer drank for about one hour and accompanied with food.
I keep mentioning the number 3 because this is the number of rounds that people usually have. This is not a law, of course, but usually you will have only one or two rounds if you are having lunch or dinner after, and if you are feeling that 3 rounds will not be enough to have a proper meal, probably you will go for the bigger sister of tapas: the ración, – or you will go to any other place were the tapas are more abundant. If you found a good tapas bar, chances are that you can´t have more than 3 rounds.
When to eat tapas?
Spanish lunch time is usually from 13:00 to 15:00. You can start having tapas as early as 12:00, but probably you will find an empty place with a single waiter still setting everything up for the peak time. After 15:30 finding a place where the kitchen is still open can get very hard.
Dinner time starts and 20:00. You still can have some food since 19:00, but again it will be quite early. However opening times are longer in the evening. Most kitchens are open until 23:30, or even longer if they still have customers in.
And the most important… where to eat tapas.
Finding a good place to eat when you are a tourist is always difficult, so, first of all, let me give you some tips to detect a nice place to have tapas.
– If it is full of people having lunch at 12:00, you are about to enter a touristic restaurant. Which can be very nice (and sometimes unavoidable), but probably not the best place to try real tapas. There is no need to say that visiting an English or Irish pub in Alicante you will not get great tapas either (but the fish and chips might be amazing, and probably they have pint glasses).
– Find the narrow streets. Many great tapas bars are close to the city centres, but not on the main streets. For example, if you are visiting Granada you will only find expensive and not very good restaurants in Plaza Nueva or La Gran Vía, but there are many great places in Calle Elvira, just parallel to the main road.
– Look inside. It is not true that Spaniards throw everything to the floor, and the dirtier the better, but it is true that most people prefer the better places. A tapas bar where you have to stand will be probably a great place to eat, and if you are alert, you might find a chance to sit sooner or later. Obviously at 19:00 every place is empty, so I would recommend waiting at least to 20:30. In the meanwhile, you can have a coffee and a cake (this is called merienda).
Places to go when you want tapas
The custom of complimentary tapas is not universal across Spain, but in regions where it is not the case, tapas can be ordered from a menu (and paid for) like any other dish. In some cases, it is also possible to order a larger portion of the same dish, in this case referred to as a ración, which is usually more economical for larger groups.
Granada is famous for its beautiful buildings, the Alhambra, Albaicyn… it has sea, it has snow, and they even grow avocados in the coast. But Granada is also famous because of the size of their free tapas, and not only in Granada city. Every town and village of Granada have great tapas to offer, both in size and quality. If you are travelling to Granada, you will not be disappointed.
Not as famous but equally fine are complimentary tapas in Jaen and Almería. If you travel to Almería, don´t miss the cherigans: a massive toast topped up with all kind of delicious foods in surprising combinations.
Heading to the north, Galicia is one of the best places to have tapas. And saying this means a lot to me because I´m from Granada and we are very proud of our tapas art. But in Lugo they not only give you a large tapa… they also give you a small pincho to enjoy while you are waiting for the tapa to be served. And if you are not heading to Lugo, you will find great tapas all around the region, including octopus, Padron peppers, seafood…
Speaking about pinchos, if you want to give a try to the famous pintxos in the Vasque Country you are going to pay for them, but if you visit the nos so famous Leon (which is also full of history, architecture, and beautiful landscapes) you might want to try free tapas in the Barrio Húmedo and barrio Romántico.
Even if you have to pay for them, tapas are usually very affordable, so if you go to Barcelona, take the opportunity to try two of their greater specialities: bread with tomato and cured ham and patatas bravas. Don´t miss El Museo del Jamón in Madrid, get lost in Sevilla, and enjoy all the small gastronomic wonders that can fit on a tapas dish!