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Everyone who visits Spain wanting to taste the real España will return home having tasted wonderful regional and also seasonal dishes, perhaps during a leisurely lunch in the shade, drinking that ever familiar jug of Sangria, or dinner in the evenings, relaxing with an exquisite bottle of wine, perusing the menu and ordering delights such as paella, pan-fried hake, clam, chorizo & white bean stew, gazpacho, cocido, cod pavías, amazing soups and stews, tasty roasted meat dishes and fresh salads, and let's not forget about the Churros with chocolate dipping sauce. There is something else we are familiar and head over heels in love with from Spain, and that is tapas. Tapas entice all the senses; they can be a dining event or a snack with a beer, and you cannot help but fall in love with the sociality of them. From bar snacks to fine dining experiences, tapas are a traditional taste of España and a concept that is inextricably part of Spanish culture.
Now, I was told by my late Spanish uncle, Ángel Samperez Vicente, many years ago that tapa quite simply means "lid," and they were small lids placed on top of drinks in bars to prevent fruit flies from landing in your beer. What a great idea, I thought. I first experienced a beer with a tapa-lid in Madrid some 24 years ago. Every bar would place a small ceramic or wooden lid on top of the drink with perhaps some peanuts or olives on, or a small piece of bread with some tomatoes, anchovies, or jamón and so my uncle's story came to life. However...there are lots of stories as to the origins of why these delicious morsels of food were placed on the top of glasses. Here are a few of them...
Some say that Alfonso X made the serving of tapas by royal decree after he recovered from a serious illness. It is said that, during his sickness, he recovered by having small dishes of food served with wine between meals. Upon his recovery, he ordered that taverns could only serve wine to customers if it was served with a small snack, so making it illegal to serve a glass of wine without a tapa.
Another King and another story. Felipe III, it seemed, could no longer stand the displays of drunken behaviour amongst his people, including his sailors and soldiers. In an attempt to solve these unsavoury displays of drunkenness, he passed a law that stated for every drink served in a tavern, a lid was to be placed on top of the drinking vessel with a small serving of food in an attempt to soak up the alcohol.
Another story and, yes, another King, this time Alfonso XIII. The King was in the town of Cadiz in Andalucia and due to the high winds during his visit, there was sand in the air. He stopped at a tavern near the beach and ordered a glass of wine. With him being a Royal customer, the waiter wanted to ensure his wine remained without grains of sand, so he placed a lid on top of his glass with a slice of jamón on it. The King drank the wine, ate the jamón, and asked for a second glass of wine "with the cover." Others believe that the placing of a top on a drinking vessel originated in taverns in Castilla-La Mancha in the 16th century. Why, you ask? Quite simply in order to disguise the cheap wine they sold. It is said they covered the cups with a lid and placed strong smelling and tasting cheese on top to disguise the cheap tasting bad wine.
Maybe there is an element of truth in all of the stories above, but wherever tapas came from, whoever can claim from history to have come up with the idea would truly be honoured by you, me, and the Spanish people for introducing or even enforcing—according to the stories by Royal decree—such a wonderful part of Spanish culture. What was once a drink with a cover has developed into a gastronomic event, so next time you are in your favourite tapas bar, raise a glass to the three Kings: Alfonso X, Felipe III, and Alfonso XIII, and of course, my uncle, Ángel Samperez Vicente from Badajoz, and remember these quirky tales as you are eating your fabulous selection of tapas...
Look out for Eat Play Stay Spain—A Story of Tapas Part 2.