The Origins and Legends of Spanish Tapas
Legend has it that the Spanish custom of eating ‘tapas’ usually with wine, sherry or cava, depending on the region, was started by a thirteenth century ruler of Castile.
King Alfonso X (1221-1284) known as ‘the wise’ or the ‘learned’ for his intellectual powers rather than his ability to rule, was the founder of two universities and established Castilian as the language of learning to replace Latin.
It is said that recovering from an illness, Alfonso was advised to eat small snacks with wine between meals. He then decreed that inns must serve small snacks with wine to prevent the alcohol hitting an empty stomach and causing drunkenness.
These early snacks were usually slices of cured meat or bread often placed over the vessel containing the wine either for convenience or to keep insects away. This is the origin of the word ‘tapas’ to mean a snack, appetizer or small meal as it is derived from the Spanish verb ‘tapar’ meaning to cover.
One theory is that in the 1500s innkeepers in Castilla-La Mancha began giving free strong, smelly cheese with cheap, (read bad), wine thus ‘covering’ the taste.
Another Spanish Tapas Legend
Yet another Spanish Tapas Legend is that King Alfonso XII of Spain (1857-1885) visited a well-known inn (hostal) in Cadiz for a sherry. The waiter brought the glass covered with a slice of cured ham (Jamon Serrano) to keep sand from blowing into the drink.
The king was so taken with the combination that he ordered another sherry “ with the cover”.
Both the strong cheeses and the cured hams are salty which encourages more drinking.
Over the centuries the variety of tapas has been constantly developing so that today there are literally hundreds of recipes derived from vegetables, fish and shellfish, dairy products, meat and game, olives and nuts.
The regions of Spain have their own specialty tapas popular with locals and often you will be given a free tapas to accompany your first drink.
Costa Blanca Bars
Here on the Costa Blanca, most Spanish run bars will have a choice of a dozen or so hot and cold tapas on display behind glass, with an emphasis on Mediterranean sea food and locally cured meats and sausages.
Some specialty tapas bars will have fifty or even more varieties and will make you up a selection if you don’t wish to order separately as it is not uncommon for foreigners to make tapas a ‘sit down’ main meal.
If you want bigger portions order a ‘racion’ of each, a group can then share these.
Go into a busy Spanish bar in the early evening before their habitual late dinner and you will find most are standing, busy chatting to each other with a small plate of their favourite tapas balanced on top of their glass to leave a hand free to add gestures to their animated conversations.
Is it any wonder that this convivial attitude to drinking and eating has led to the opening of tapas bars in the UK and elsewhere in Europe?