There are many theories on the origin of tapas and even more ideas about the concept’s modern incarnation. In the UK many restaurants, bars and even pubs have adopted the word to describe small dishes or sharing platters, and establishments serving meals comprised solely of these tiny portions. Yet this is a far cry from the Spanish approach to tapas, where they are served in every bar, but rarely regarded as the stuff of sit-down meals.
Tapas comes from the Spanish tapar, to cover, and most stories agree that the gastronomic tradition started life as slices of bread or ham covering cups of alcohol, whether to protect the alcohol within or the drinker from inebriation, we cannot be sure. My favourite origin legends are as follows:
- Castilla y La Mancha innkeepers in the 16th century found that the strong smell and taste of their local mature cheeses disguised the tell-tale stench of their cheap nasty wine and so started serving slices for free to ‘cover’ their sub-par vintages
- King Alfonso XIII stopped by a tavern in the famously windy Cadiz and when he ordered a cup of wine the owner placed a slice of jamón over it to protect from beach sand. After finishing his refreshment, the king then called for another cup of wine “with its cover”.
- Hungry patrons standing in busy taverns placed small plates on top of their cups in order to eat, drink and socialise simultaneously without tables
- King Alfonso X decreed that all taverns should serve a small ration of food with alcohol to prevent citizens from becoming drunk and rowdy
However, more than likely tapas emerged in Andalusia as sherry drinkers covered their sweet tipples from bothersome fruit flies. The tapas would usually be salty cured jam or chorizo which the tavern owners soon realised increased thirst and thus started to offer them free as a matter of course to increase alcohol sales. Gradually tapas became as important as the sherry itself.
Which brings us to the present day and the latest evolutionary phase of one of Spain’s most famous culinary exports. Each year chefs compete in tapas competitions, menus are becoming increasingly more diverse and creative, and in many establishments the quality and range of tapas takes focus far and above over the beverages they once adorned.
It’s a change I’m more than happy to embrace, and with just a few weeks until we embark on our first gourmet trip to Madrid, all I know is that I’m salivating already!