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Tales of Spain's Tapas History

Updated on September 16, 2016

Traditionally in Spain lunch is eaten between the hours of two and four in the afternoon and dinner between nine and midnight. That leaves a lot of time between the two meals for bar-hopping. Tapas are snacks used to provide sustenance while drinking. Region, culture, and climate determine the type of snacks served. There seems to be as many stories regarding origin as there are snacks. The earliest account told by most is about the Castilian king, Alfonso. He was prescribed a glass of wine for an ailment and while drinking it, he would eat a small snack. When he recovered, he commanded all the bars or taverns in Spain to serve bits of food with wine.

Other stories revolve around the meaning of the word tapas itself. In English it means “lids” or “covers.” One tale is that the word stemmed from patrons covering their glasses with a piece of bread to deflect flies from entering their drinks. Another is that patrons usually ate while standing and would put their plates like covers over their wine glasses. A third story focuses on the period ruled by Catholic monarchy. Drunken cart drivers created havoc by causing quite a number of accidents. So the rulers ordered cheese or ham to be served with covered wine. The wine could not be consumed until the food was eaten.

A yarn from the 16th century focuses on the Spanish word “tapear” which defines bar-hopping. It explains that tapas origin came from the rest stops soldiers made to eat and drink during their lengthy daily travel. Another account from this century states that the word stemmed from the act of tavern owners serving cheese to mask the taste of their cheap wine. The 17th century’s version states that the word was derived from neighborhood store owners who covered the drinks ordered by the elite clubs of Seville to keep out dust.

There are also those who believe the name surfaced centuries later when scarcity of food caused people to eat a little. There are still others who attribute it to those sneaky bar owners who deliberately served salty snacks so their patrons would order more to quench their thirst.

Whatever the truth about its history, today, tapas is more than pieces of bread, or bread and cheese or ham. They could be fried fish, other seafood, meats, vegetables, fruits or combinations thereof. Bars throughout Spain create their own signature dishes. Tapas are no longer served as a gratuity with drinks either, unless you are willing to have a simple piece of bread. And depending on the type of bread, you may have to pay for that too.


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