We probably all know what tapas are (if you don’t they are those little plates of food that come with your drink, popular all over Spain, particularly in Andalusia, and even more particularly in Seville, the “home of tapas”). But why are they called “tapas”, how did they originate and why have they become such an integral part of the lifestyle?
The first of these questions is relatively simple. In Spanish a “tapa” is a lid or cover, and the story is that tavern keepers would give their customers a slice of bread or ham to cover their drinks to keep out the dust and the flies (fruit flies are partial to a bit of sweet wine or sherry). It’s also possible that something strongly flavoured, like cheese, could be used to disguise the taste of poor quality wine.
This is also part of the answer to the second question, but not by any means the whole story. The most general reason probably goes back to Spain’s agricultural past. In the summer heat workers in the fields would start early, but the main meal of the day would be eaten just before the hottest part of the day, and was followed by the siesta, so to keep them going during the long mornings they would eat small snacks.
This is also a tale of three kings (but not The Three Kings). It is said that when the 13th century king Alfonso X “The Wise” became gravely ill his recovery was aided by eating small quantities of food and drink throughout the day, instead of full meals, while Felipe III in the early 17th century decreed that tavern keepers had to serve food with their drinks as a measure to combat the problem of drunkenness, especially among off duty soldiers and sailors. Later Alfonso XII (or possibly Alfonso XIII, an indication that the story may be apocryphal) is claimed to have been visiting a tavern in Cádiz and was served his drink with a slice of ham to keep out the sand blowing in from the beach. When he ordered another drink he asked for it with “the cover”. Over time the food that was served became more varied and more substantial, and going out for tapas became a common practice. The activity is also a very social one, and families and groups of friends would share their tapas while socialising, making this a very convivial activity in a way that is unusual for a more formal meal.
Introducing our History and Tapas Tour – a unique way to experience great food and learn about the history of both tapas and Seville