La Tapa so as to be meaningful, has to be eaten between main meals as food that allows the body to survive until lunch or dinnertime.

Some authors assert that the tapa was born when, due to an illness, the Spanish king Alfonso the 10th, the Wise, had to take small bites of food with some wine between meals. Once recovered from the disease, the wise king decreed that no wine was to be served in any of the inns in the land of Castile , unless accompanied by something to eat. This was a wise precaution to counteract the adverse effects of alcohol on those people who, through lack of money to buy a nourishing meal, drank alcohol on an empty stomach.

Apart from the story of the royal disease we should consider the theory that the tapa first appeared because of the need of farmers and workers of other unions to take a small amount of food during their working time, which allowed them to carry on working until time for the main meal.

This main meal, rich in fat, was so heavy to digest that a “siesta” had to be taken for a couple of hours before going back to the fields or to the workshop. Longer working hours in the morning meant an easier workload after the meal.


Wine was the natural accompaniment to this snack, as it induced a mellow mood and increased strength, while in winter it warmed the body as protection against very cold days in the fields and in the workshops of the Middle Ages. In summer, the drink taken in the South was “gazpacho” (cold tomato soup), instead of wine, which increased body heat rather than providing the necessary cold refreshment.

The snack is called “alifara” in northern Spain , Aragón and Navarra; and later, in the Vasque Country, it began to be called “poteo”, because the wine had to be drunk in “potes” (jars).

Once the “botillerias” (bottle-shops) and “tabernas” (taverns) became established throughout Spain , the wise King’s decree remained in place. For that reason, the glass or jar of wine was served covered with a slice of either smoked ham or cheese, for two reasons: first to prevent insects or other impurities falling into the jar and secondly, for the guests to soak up the alcohol they had drunk with something solid, as King Alfonso had advised. This was the origin of the tapa, a solid food that covered the wineglass and a word rooted in Spanish tradition.   And so the tradition of the tapa spread throughout Spain , and continues right up to the present day. Many other countries have adopted the tapa, serving it in many different ways.


A solid tapa is the favorite lunchtime food of North Americans as it helps them to keep going throughout their working day right up to the early evening. Although popular with North Americans, the tapas tradition has not caught on in Europe , where the Old Continent is faithful to the custom of eating three main meals a day - breakfast, mid-day and evening.


Because of the length of time between the early-morning breakfast, and the midday meal, which in fact is really only eaten in the early evening, some Mediterranean countries have adopted the custom of taking a “tentempié” (snack), an appetizer or the “tapita”. This break gives people a chance to socialize and to discuss work-related topics.

The traditional drink with the tapa is wine, either “peleón” (young and cheap) or “reserve” wine (matured in oak-barrels) of each region: young “txakolí” in the Basque Country, Penedés wine or Cava in Cataluña, “ribeiro” in the Northwest, young Valdepeñas or Rioja wine in Castile and in the centre, or fine sherry in the south. In Asturias and in northern parts, where apples grow in abundance, cider replaces wine.

Tapas recipes vary according to the taste and gastronomic traditions of each region. But the tapas most often served are usually those including  the many variety of olives, dry nuts, as well as many kinds of cold cuts. Nowadays, the tapa includes many other recipes for appetizers. In the Middle Ages and during periods of economic hardship, those courses were supplemented with bread. However, today, those courses are included in the tapas world. Tapas recipes use a wide variety of animal-derived products, such as meat, fish and eggs and agricultural products such as vegetables.

The many varieties of olives - green, Manzanilla, machacadas (crushed), gordales (big), rellenas (stuffed), aliñadas (flavoured) or deshuesadas (stoneless) - are in themselves the subject of a book. Together with the olives, slices of garlic or smoked-ham sausages, slices of cheese or jamón curado, became famous worldwide. After all, this is the real origin of the cover of the Middle Ages’ jar.

Among others, there are fried tapas and tapas prepared with sauces. Sometime in the past, the fried tapas had more success and are more in demand than the ones prepared with sauces, apart from some small exceptions. “Boquerones”(whitebait), calamaries, sausages, fritters, croquets, potato and “torreznos”, belong to the world of fried tapas. Casserole stews as well as the Madrilenian “callos”, the Almagro's aubergines or flavored string beans belong to the tapas prepared with sauces. Finally, animal and agricultural-based recipes such as potato tortilla, cod fritters, croquets and escabeches, remain obligatory at this time of the day so that, if accompanied by a salad, they could perfectly replace a complete lunch.

Today, alongside with these traditional snacks, many new ones appeared, some of which were only meant to be served on an elegantly laid table. Such newcomers include the "paella" or the stewed potatoes with meat; and others taken from foreign recipes that finally ended up in our tapas world such as smoked salmon, pate or caviar, vegetable spring rolls, smoked fish from the Northern countries, German sausages, Swiss or French melted cheese and cakes or pate from Central  Europe.




Tapas can be eaten at lunch or dinner if the quantity or variety of tapas is enough to satisfy the appetite. But without any doubt, the most singular aspect of the “tapeo” (the art of eating tapas) is its ability to bring together people from all walks of life who gather round the table to enjoy this informal ritual together.

Despite the elegance of the tapeo and its aesthetic ritual, there is a measure of indifference to both table and seating arrangements and even to the food itself, which, although delicate and tasty, is eaten standing up an in such small quantities, that people refer to this action as pecking at the food, bird-like ("picar") instead of "eating" (comer). At the time of tapeo conversation plays an integral part of the tapeo ritual. The art of eating standing up has become almost sacrosanct. The tapas are a very characteristic part of the Spanish cooking tradition that seem unlikely to be exported to other cultures, but have now become popular throughout the world.


Why not! The tapeo would be, without a doubt, the best fast food formula if it did not require time and a break long enough to practice, with Spanish elegance, the art of eating on foot.


Madrid , Spain 1999

Y.V. Fadón

English text review made by Madeleine Lewis in 2005.

Fonts:
"Tapas, pinchos y tentempies" por Emilia Gonzalez Sevilla
"El libro de oro de las Tapas" por Itos Vázquez


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