Feb 22 2022

The Spanish Tapa: from Humble Savoury to On-Trend Culinary Icon

Michelin-starred chefs as Ferran Adrià, Paco Roncero or Nacho Manzano share their views on this symbol of Spanish gastronomy, from patatas bravas to sophisticated small bites.

he laidback polygamous vibe surrounding the Spanish tapa has proved irresistible to fast-tracked northern Europeans and Americans who find it so distinct from their own individualist dining rituals as to be downright exotic. What could be more chilled, after all, than soaking up the buzz on the street while sampling an array of Spanish dishes, washed down with a light Verdejo or a beer or two?  

It has taken time, of course, for non-natives to Spain to catch on to the essence of the tapa which, in its original form at least, means sharing. At times there would even be bafflement that the dish of their choice – perhaps a plate of stuffed mussel Tigres or garlic potato salad – was being treated as a communal platter. But sharing is fundamental to the tapa’s appeal and an attitude that comes naturally to the Spanish. “We have more Arabic influence than Viking!” explains Michelin-starred Spanish chef and entrepreneur, Paco Roncero.

According to Ferran Adrià, the Catalan maestro of innovation who helped nudge Spanish cuisine onto the global stage with his thrice Michelin-starred El Bulli restaurant and a 2003 New York Times cover story, “It’s a very informal way of socializing while you eat and as informality is where it’s at nowadays, it’s been very successful.” An appetizer consisting of anything from paella to pigs’ ears, the once humble tapa has long been at the heart of Spain’s spontaneous and highly social culture, reflecting a relaxed approach to cuisine that is all but foreign to the US and northern Europe, where eating out often appears designated to either fast-food or formal dining.

Falling into neither category, the tapa has effortlessly carved a niche for itself abroad while continuing to be the go-to grazing experience at home in Spain, with Spanish chefs taking the concept and building glamorous international reputations on its versatility. “The tapa reflects the diversity of our culture, and allows for infinite gastronomic creativity,” says Asturian-born chef Nacho Manzano who has just won the 2021 National Royal Academy of Gastronomy Award. “The tapas in our restaurants are from all Spain’s different regions and reflect the character of each. It’s an attractive way of introducing people to Spanish cuisine.”

A little bit of History

The sacred Spanish tapa may have become synonymous with innovative cuisine, but its origins are likely more prosaic. Legends abound, mostly involving monarchs and the act of putting a lid on either a drink or an undesirable alcohol-fuelled outcome. According to the former Royal Academy of Gastronomy’s president, Rafael Anson, the 13th century king, Alfonso the Wise, was the first to formally advocate that alcohol be served with something to eat as he himself had noted the benefits of tapeando – or lining – the stomach before drinking the wine recommended by his physician. In the same vein, the 15th century Catholic Kings ordered taverns the length of the country to serve a bite to eat with drinks to avoid drunken brawls.

The tradition has also been attributed to an incident involving a slice of ham, a glass of sherry, an innkeeper and the late 19th century king, Alfonso XIII on a trip to Cadiz. When a gust of wind threatened to shower the King’s sherry with foreign bodies, the ingenious innkeeper used a slice of ham to tapar –or cover– his glass, and so the tapa was born.

More recently, the tapa well and truly became embedded in Spanish culture after the Civil War as an affordable way of eating out; it also made it feasible to hold onto your drink while eating, and so prevent either waiter or opportunist from swiping your glass, as Anson points out. From such pragmatic beginnings, this peculiarly Spanish hors d’oeuvre has risen through the ranks to lead the small plate revolution and become the cornerstone of Spanish eateries far and wide, including Paco Roncero’s €1,500-a-head Sublimotion tecno-restaurants in Ibiza and Dubai.

Yet still, it defies definition. At once leisurely, and dynamic, it can be eaten standing up or sitting down; in one place or in various venues; can be free or price-tagged; eaten with a fork, spoon or fingers; traditional fare or haute cuisine. “What tapeando means is debatable, and even more so with the advent of the gastrobar,” says Adrià.

The 'gastrobar' era

Inarguably, the gastrobar has broadened the tapa’s gastronomic range and is considered, by experts to be “eating tapas” as opposed to “going for tapas.” Yet the inspiration for the more sophisticated edition is still taken predominantly from traditional homegrown recipes. “When I set up Estado Puro in Madrid, we worked on favourites from our grandmother’s cooking which often included croquetas and tortilla,” says Paco Roncero, who gives these classics a culinary twist in restaurants from Shanghai to Mexico.

Along with sharing, this touch of authenticity has been key to maintaining the tapa’s allure. “People from other countries feel a little Spanish when they’re having tapas,” says Adrià. The cult of the tapa is now a global phenomenon, but it wasn’t until the turn of this century that the genuine tapas bar came into its own beyond the Spanish border.

According to Nacho Manzano whose restaurants in Asturias now have counterparts in London and Leeds, “There were tapas bars in the early 90s in London, but they tended to be opened by Brits who had enjoyed tapas in Spain and the quality was mediocre.” This view is backed by Extremadura-born chef, José Pizarro, who set up his first tapas bar in 2011 in the UK where he is now known as the Godfather of Spanish cooking. “People used to think of Spanish cuisine as greasy platters of patatas bravas and fried everything. But tapas now use high quality ingredients that reflect authentic Spanish cuisine, and that has allowed people to understand what Spanish food is all about,” he says, adding that Iberian ham is the star of his hip London restaurant chain.

As the tapa distances itself from its proletarian roots, the free tapa still endures as a tradition in many Spanish bars, particularly in Andalusia – the home of the tapa – where it is possible to dine out on the courtesy olive, pepper and anchovy gildas, grilled prawns, meatballs or patatas bravas without parting with a penny. Some say this fraternal gesture will soon die out, but not according to Paco Roncero. “The free tapa will always be around whether it’s a croqueta or a slice of Ibérico ham or Manchego cheese, because it’s an integral element of the traditional Spanish bar,” he says.

Whatever its origins and current role in Spanish cuisine, the tapa is now universally recognised as a symbol of the easy-going generosity from which it emerged, making it one of the inimitable features of Brand Spain. As Napoleon reportedly said in 1808 after the Battle of Bailén: “Spain is different.”