Keeping a lid on it

Peter Williamson , 01 May, 2018
With World Tapas Day looming, Peter Williamson lifts the lid on this very Spanish foodie tradition...

It can sometimes be a long wait for dinner. Especially if you’re hungry. And even more so if you’re hungry and in Spain where dinner is traditionally served between 9 and 11pm.

Fortunately, the food-loving Spaniards have come up with the perfect way to keep you going until your evening meal – just keep eating, though nothing excessive, just a few tasty mouthfuls to assuage the pangs of hunger. They call it tapas... and Thursday 21 June is World Tapas Day.

Its importance to Spain and world gastronomy is such that Íñigo Méndez de Vigo, Spain’s Minister of Education, Culture and Sport, has demanded that tapas be given World Heritage status. He argues that although it came from a very local tradition, it is now global and that if you ask for tapas anywhere in the world, you’ll know what you’re going to get.

Now tapas are nothing new. Allegedly they were invented in the 13th-century by Alfonso X, ‘The Wise’, King of Castile and Léon, who was known for eating small portions of food with a glass of wine between meals. A more popular theory is that the name comes from the piece of bread and cheese placed over a farm labourer’s drink to stop the flies getting at it – tapa is the Spanish word for ‘lid’, and tapas the plural.

However, venture along Spain’s northern coast and you won’t find mention of tapas. This is the land of pintxos, a similar concept though done better – if you ask anyone from the Basque country! Here, you’re as likely to find a top-end restaurant selling them as a back street bar. In San Sebastián (European Capital of Culture for 2016), in the heart of pintxos country, leading the creative way are the trendy ‘A Fuego Negro’ and ‘Bar Zeruko’ though you may prefer to just follow your nose and look for where the locals eat.

The name pintxo derives from the little pick or wooden skewer that often holds two or three titbits together and implies that northern pintxos are slightly more sophisticated than the simpler southern tapas – but I’m not going to enter that debate here (they’re all delicious). When you’re ready to leave, the number of empty skewers will be used to tot up your bill – so no hiding them under your beermat! In Andalucia, they are also sometimes called banderillas as they are said to resemble the small colourful flagged spears used in bullfighting.

Whatever the origin (or name), ‘tapas’ today are one of Spain’s most recognized cultural icons and have been exported to almost every corner of the world, though in many places, something of their true nature has been lost in translation. Not that there’s anything wrong with most food served in commercial tapas restaurants. Many such establishments have enticing tapas menus from which you select a handful or so dishes (more if you’re with someone!) and make a meal of it.

The variety on offer can be quite mind-blowing at times and selecting just one or two from the dishes lining the counter is an almost impossible task. They can be hot or cold, featuring a choice of seafood (mariscos) – anchovies, sardines, prawns, mussels, mackerel and squid; cooked meats – chorizo, pork and chicken; and vegetable dishes like croquettes, tortilla española (Spanish omelette) and stuffed peppers. In the Canary Islands, look out for specialities like papas arrugadas con mojo (wrinkly potatoes with a spicy sauce); almogrote (a cheese paté from La Gomera); escaldón (a gofio/flour paste); and queso asado (grilled cheese with spicy mojo sauce).

What you’ll find common to all is how much flavour is packed into each mouthful. They are bursting with garlic, chillies or paprika, cumin, salt, pepper, saffron and, more often than not, lashings of olive oil, whetting your appetite for your forthcoming dinner. Small bites maybe, but big on flavour. Tapas are very rarely bland.

According to the purists, though, the key to una tapa auténtica is its simplicity, and to experience the real thing you really need to get off the beaten track, whether that’s a back street bar in Granada or a village square in rural Asturias. You’ll know if you’re on the right track when you order a drink – and a small bowl of garlic-stuffed olives or pickled anchovies is brought to your table. In such places, these are complimentary, a way of saying thank you for your patronage. Again, the etiquette is that if you are given the tapa without asking, it’s free (though this lovely tradition is certainly dying out in the more touristy areas); if you choose from a menu – you’re paying.

Sampling tapas is a very social affair, too, and there’s even a verb tapear which means to graze your way round a number of bars before dinner – never over-indulging in any one place, just simply sipping a nice wine, nibbling a tasty treat and chatting with friends. Almost as far removed from two pints of lager and a packet of crisps as you can get.

So next time you’re in Cantabria (or Canterbury, for that matter) and you’re feeling peckish, seek out the local tapas bar, order a caña (small beer), a chato (glass of wine) or sidra (cider) – if in Asturias – and indulge in a real taste of Spain.


The Three Faces of Green Spain

Savour delicious pintxos (tapas) in their spiritual home, the delightful coastal city of San Sebastián in the heart of northern Spain, after a week exploring the contrasting regions of Asturias, Burgos and the Basque Country.
More about our walking holiday in northern Spain >
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