The tapa is to Spanish cuisine what pasta is to Italians.
This modest and exquisite gastronomic work, but without the air of grandeur, has become the letter of introduction of Spanish cuisine around the world. As journalist Juan Ferragut recalled more than 80 years ago, the tapa is “a distracted way of eating without realizing it”.
Small bites that have marked Spanish gastronomic culture.
But where does its origin come from? And what does a tapa literally mean? As usual, there is no shortage of stories that attribute their birth to several Spanish monarchs, probably to dignify the pedigree of this small culinary creation.
One of these theories ensures that tapas would have their birth none other than in the Middle Ages, in the hands of Alfonso X the Wise, the King of Castile who, to combat gout, welcomed the medical order to combine alcohol with light meals.
Another monarch, of the nineteenth century, that inadvertently helped invent the tapas would be Fernando VII, although according to another story, Alfonso XII is the star of the show. The fact is that the king enters a tavern and before the presence of flies, in attention to his regal figure the tavern owner serves a glass of wine covered with a slice of ham, to prevent insects from getting in his wine.
It’s about stories without real basis.
Another very interesting theory, far from the tapa as synonymous with the edible that “covers” the drink, is formulated by the gastronomic journalist Ana Vega Pérez de Arlucea, who recalls that in the Golden Age tapa, was used as a word derived from French étape (stage) to refer to the provisioning that the soldiers made after a day’s march. Tapear would therefore be to stock up.
It is curious that the theory of the military origin of the cover is closely related to the work that Miguel de Cervantes did in Spain as a commissioner of supplies, when he collected provisions for the soldiers and sailors who were going to participate in the famous Armada Invencible, the failed attempted invasion of England during the late sixteenth century.
In El Quijote by Cervantes, by the way, we can find the ancestors of the tapa, the classic aperitifs, in some very nourishing scenes. In one of them, in chapter 54 of the second part published in 1615, Don Quijote and Sancho Panza run into a group of well-fed pilgrims “at least of inciting things that call for thirst at two leagues”. Those things that incited to eat and called for thirst were “bread, salt (…) nuts, cheese slices, bones of ham (…), caviar… All paired with six wineskins.
But although these are a premonition of the tapas of our days, the most reliable clue is not to be found in novels or in the French étape but in the dictionary, which reflects the evolution of Spanish throughout history, as a fixed photograph of the words used at every moment by speakers.
And so, there is no trace of the word tapa in the little-known Etymological Dictionary that the doctor Francisco del Rosal published in 1601. Nor in the Dictionary of authorities of the Royal Spanish Academy, published between 1726 and 1739. Actually, we must wait until the 16th edition of the RAE dictionary of 1936 to see tapa with this definition in its eighth meaning: “A slice of ham or sausage that was placed on top of the glass or carafe of wine and was accompanied or not with bread.”
This late definition shows that the tapa, with the current format we know, is a not so old gastronomic invention, possibly from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. One of the earliest mentions we owe to the Asturian journalist Nicolás Rivero Muñiz, who after lunch at the Venta de Eritaña in Seville, in June 1903, wrote that, before lunch “we had conveniently prepared our stomachs with some ‘chatos’ (small glass) with ‘tapaera’ (cover), capable of resurrecting a dead person”
Ana Vega Pérez de Arlucea believes that tapas began to be served in the grocery stores or mountain shops run by Cantabrians based in Andalusia. Specifically in Cádiz, around the year 1900, there is evidence of the proliferation of this type of stores in which a glass of ‘manzanilla’(dry wine from Cádiz) was served along with fried fish or tortilla, in addition to the famous cold cut-cover, which probably had the purpose of protecting the
drink from flying beings and dust.
From all of these theories, one thing is clear: It all started in Andalusia.
What accounts for the consolidation of the tapa is the visit in 1930 – now yes, verified – of a king, Alfonso XIII to the Venta de Antequera in Seville, whose owner, Carlos Antequera, besides getting the title of Real for his business as a royal supplier, he resented the monarch with a selection of 32 tapas and ‘raciones’ (bigger portions) including chorizo, squid, ham, loin, sausage and coated hake.
As pointed out in an extensive article in the Spanish Gastronomy Magazine, after he Civil War the eating of tapas became widespread, at a time when hardships required you to eat cheaply. So you can have tapas as an aperitif but also as a meal. Tapeo became popular in those years and no longer discriminated social classes.
From 1944 is the first book on these small pleasures of the kitchen: Tapas and appetizers , by Jose Sarrau. Another historical date for tapas is their official jump to the United States in 1985 with another work, Tapas: the little dishes of Spain , by the American Penélope Casas, who was married to a Spaniard.
From there to the spread of tapas in North American lands by the chef José Andrés, from the 90s, there is only one step.
In Spain, meanwhile, Basque pintxos emerged and haute cuisine did not forget to incorporate tapas in their menus, such as the El Bulli of Ferrán Adriá, for a few years, the best restaurant in the world.
In 2018, the Royal Academy of Gastronomy and the General Directorate of Fine Arts and Cultural Heritage initiated the procedures for the tapas to be declared Intangible Cultural Heritage.
A happy ending for tapas and tapeo, which in the opinion of the gastronomic critic Rafael Ansón suppose “the arrival of freedom to good food”.