History of the Tapa

The tapas that are found throughout Spain, and in particular in Andalucia, form a traditional part of our food culture. Various legends exist concerning the origin of tapas.

Some writers say that the tapa was born as a result of an illness endured by King Alfonso X of Spain during which he was forced to eat small mouthfuls of food and sip his wine. Once he had recovered the King decreed that in the houses of Castilla wine must not be poured without being accompanied by something to eat.  This seemed a sensible approach as the food would help avoid the problems of drinking to excess in people who, in many instances, couldn’t afford to buy wholesome food.  In the bars and pubs across the whole of Spain the King’s legacy lived on: for this reason, a glass or carafe of wine would be served covered with a slice of cold meat, ham or cheese that had two functions; it stopped insects or other things from falling into the wine and it helped soak up the alcohol, as was previously recommended by King Alfonso X. This, they say, was the origin of the name of this Spanish tradition, the ‘tapa’; the food that covered the glass of wine. The widespread tradition of the tapa, still evident across Spain today, has also been adopted by, and is seen in many different guises in, other countries.

Another version is more inclined to consider that the tapa was born out of the necessity of farmers and other tradesmen to eat small amounts of food throughout their working day so that could continue to work right up to their main mealtime. These snacks required some wine to bolster the strength and enthusiasm of the workers and, in winter, to warm them against the fierce cold of the fields or medieval workshops.

It is also noted that following an official visit to the province of Cadiz by King Alfonso XIII the King stopped to rest for a while at the "Ventorrillo del Chato". The King asked for a glass of sherry but there was a draught blowing into the restaurant; to avoid the wine being filled with sand from the beach the waiter had the bright idea of placing a ham slice on top of the King’s wine. The king liked the idea, ate the tapa and drank the wine, and asked for another to be served with ‘the same lid’.  Seeing this, all the members of the court that accompanied the King asked for the same.

In another, more modern version, some writers claim that the tapa could have been born in Andalucia (specifically in Jerez de la Frontera). In the beginning it would have been a thin slice of Serrano ham or cured pork loin which was placed over the glass of sherry so that it didn’t lose its aroma; this way the drinker could continue to socialize and chat with friends.

The word that we use for this aperitif today, tapa, thus has both a literal and practical origin. In Anadalucian the meaning is literal- referring to a slice of sausage placed over a glass to protect the wine. According to the dictionary of the Royal Academy of Language, the meaning is more practical’ a tapa being defined as "a small portion of food served to accompany a drink at bars, taverns, etc. Cervantes, in ‘Don Quixote’ called tapas ‘flashy’ and Quevedo thought them an affectation.

The tapa is the daughter of wine and of formal food but it definitely has its own personality related to the delicacy of something small. The only thing that seems certain is that the tapa was born in Andalucia. Wine is the drink that usually accompanies a tapa although more and more it is taken with a beer as can be seen in any bar that you visit.

Tapas have changed a lot over time; in times past you were generally offered only slices of meat or cheese, as described above. Now, however, a tapa can be a typical dish served in small portions that may well be sufficient to replace lunch or dinner.  Tapas vary according to local tastes and traditions but olives, in many varieties, dried nuts and cold meats are the most common. In the Middle Ages and times of hardship the tapa was supplemented with bread and constituted a main meal but these days tapa are less likely to be the main food and are much more commonly eaten as an appetizer.

Tapas reflect the creativity of each village and as they are often homemade they tend to differ from one place to another. They are also enjoyed in company, and as a regular part of socialising, they have become something to enjoy.

The eating of tapas, known as ‘el tapeo’, can even replace lunch or dinner if the quantity and variety of tapas is enough to satisfy your appetite. But surely the most singular aspect of the tapeo is its collective character and the fact that diners stand up during the informal ritual.

The elegance of the tapeo, and the aesthetics of the ritual, lies in the demonstration of indifference to the table and chair, and to the food itself, which, although delicate and tasty, can be in such small proportions that rather than using the verb ‘to eat’ we use ‘picar’, to pick,  as in the pecking antics of small birds! Talking and gesticulating are a major part of the tapeo but it has nothing to do with gluttony or materialism; the art of eating standing up is almost sacramental. Tapas are so characteristic of Spanish food culture that they would seem impossible to transfer or export to other cultures and yet they have become popular throughout the World.

Of course the tapa is undoubtedly the best type of ‘fast food’ and the tapeo a time to practice, with Spanish elegance, the art of eating standing up!.