A trip to Spain without eating Tapas is like a trip to Germany without enjoying a wurst or two. Yeah, you can do it – but why would you?!?
The origins of the word tapas are unclear. Meaning ‘top’ or ‘cover’, some think they originated as a ‘top’ to keep fruit flies out of drinkers’ sherry whilst others think they referred to using mature cheese to ‘cover’ the taste of bad wine. No matter the origins, though, one thing is clear – Tapas in Spain are everywhere. We’ll explain the whole story and help make sure you can confidently rock up to any tapas bar and work out what to do!
What are tapas?
Simply put, tapas are bar snacks. They’re small dishes of, for example, olives or chorizo, designed to be enjoyed with a drink. But whereas in Britain your pub probably has a basic choice of crisps or nuts, in a tapas bar in Spain you might have a choice of a dozen or more different snacks to help line your stomach while enjoying a few pints of Estrella!
The idea of a tapas restaurant in Spain would be like a ‘crisp restaurant’ in Britain. An interesting folly that people might love but that would be, ultimately, unrepresentative of the country as a whole.
Tapas can be cold, such as olives, or hot, such as chorizo or squid rings. They range from simple, such as sliced meat or cheese, to complex, such as beef stew or ham and cheese croquets.
Mostly they’re simple dishes of good food served well for very little money – a euro or two. Some of the more upmarket bars, however, are really pushing the cuisine and creating fabulous tapas – with equally fabulous pricetags!
How to eat tapas
On the whole, you eat tapas when you’re drinking. The phrase ‘ir de tapas’ (literally, ‘go for tapas’) actually means ‘Go for a few drinks and some snacks before dinner’. In that sense it’s a bit more like afternoon tea but with beer or wine instead of tea! It’s a social post-work or weekend brunchtime activity rather than a meal in its own right.
There are two types of tapas bar – free and paid. Or more accurately – some paid or all paid! The free tapas bars will basically give you a snack with each drink you order. You don’t get to choose what it is though the value of each dish will usually increase the longer you stay. You’re welcome to decline certain dishes if you know you won’t eat them but it’s rude to ask for substitutes – they are, after all, giving you something for free.
Free tapeos will also have a menu that you can choose from. They’ll be inexpensive but not free and it means you get to avoid having an unwanted plate of anchovies thrust in front of you!
It’s also worth noting that some bars will only serve tapas if you’re standing at the bar so if you sit at a table you have to order ‘raciones’ – which are larger portions more akin to the size we get in our tapas restaurants in Britain.
Tapas bars where nothing comes for free will usually have a higher class of tapas and whilst some may be cheap, most will be slightly higher priced and also higher quality.
The best way to order is to start with something that you know they’ll definitely have, like olives, and then have a look around and what others are eating. If half the customers have croquetas then it’s a pretty safe bet that they’re going to be good.
Avoid the temptation to over-order. If you’re ‘ir de tapas’ properly you’ll only want one or two per bar. If you’re planning on staying put in a single bar you’re still better off ordering just one or two dishes at a time. You might see something being taken to another table that takes your fancy and if you’ve got 5-6 dishes already in front of you then you could miss out on something special.
Finally, the best thing to do is just dive in and try something new. You might not think a plate of anchovies will be your kinda thing but if you try it you might like it. No one will be offended if you try something and don’t like it!
Tapas are available in every city and every town around the whole country. There are some variations from area to area. In coastal areas, you can expect to find a lot of fish and seafood. In the Basque Country in particular you’ll find tapas served as ‘pintxos’ – each tapa will be served on a piece of bread with a cocktail stick through it.
In the North of the country, where it’s colder and wetter, you’ll find heartier dishes such as empanadas – small pasties – that can fill you up on a cold winter night whilst in Central areas, such as Madrid and its nearby cities, roast meats are the order of the day along with the country’s most famous cheese – Manchego – which hails from here.
In Navarra and Aragon you’ll find dishes cooked al chilindrôn. This is a tasty local sauce made with fresh peppers, tomatoes, onions and garlic. You’ll also find freshwater fish such as trout from the crystal clear streams that rise in the Pyrenees.
In Catalonia, the food is fairly similar to French Mediterranean cuisine with a lot of herbs and garlic whilst across the country in Extremadura you’ll find the country folk prefer tucking into hearty stews.
In Valencia and Murcia there’s a distinct Moorish influence, with rice being a staple here. It’s no surprise that Valencia is the true home of Paella.
Finally, in Andalusia, you’ll again get a lot of fish on the coast and – as the home of Spanish olives – there’ll be plenty of those to go round too.
Along with the usual Aceitunas (olives), Albondigas (meatballs), Patatas Bravas (roast potatoes in tomato sauce) and Calamares a la Romana (battered squid rings) that we’re all familiar with, there is a huge variety of tapas that are less well known in the UK.
On a fishy theme, Bacalao is salted cod, sliced thinly and often served with bread and tomatoes. Boquerones are the accursed anchovies, either pickled or deep fried. Gambas are prawns – usually served in salsa negra (peppercorn sauce), al ajillo (with garlic) or pil-pil (with chilli peppers) and Pulpo is octopus – usually cooked Galician style with lots of paprika.
If you prefer your food to have lived on dry land then you’ll be looking for some Carne Mechada – slow cooked tender beef, Chorizo – usually cooked in either cider or red wine, Roxo – pork with garlic and parsley, or Solomillo – pork scallops usually served with a cheesy or boozy sauce.
For the vegetarians, perhaps a Tortilla Española – potato and onion omelette, some Setas al Ajillo – garlic mushrooms, Pimientos de Padron – Padron peppers simply fried in olive oil, or any one of the Queso dishes where cheese, usually Manchego, is allowed to shine.
There’s something in tapas for everyone, so find a bar and get stuck in.