A Brief History of Tapas

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?

wine glasses and tapasThe 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.

1-jamon ibericoThis 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

Eating times in Seville

As the observant visitor to Seville will quickly notice, the day here has a different rhythm from what’s typical in either North America or the countries of Northern Europe. Most of the shops close for the afternoon, and then open again late into the evening, and the streets start to fill with people just when the guiris (foreigners) are heading home to bed. A lot of this has to do with the weather, of course. In summer (basically from April to October) it makes good sense to be out and about in the cool of the morning and the cool of the evening, and the consequent short nights and the afternoon heat means you really need that afternoon siesta.

This Mediterranean timetable also affects the times that people normally eat meals. Naturally this varies a bit from person to person according to circumstance, as it does anywhere, but there are some regularities. Meals are generally eaten later here than in northern Europe.

Breakfast (desayuno) is often not much more than coffee and a quick bite, eaten at home, and equally often is repeated in a bar or café around 10.00 – 10.30 am (so not the best time to go to the post office or bank). For children a typical breakfast would be cola-cao (a chocolate milk drink) and a sweet roll or magdalena, a typical Spanish cake. The famous churros and chocolate will usually be reserved for weekends (it’s a great hangover cure).

The main meal of the day is lunch (almuerzo), usually eaten between 2.00 and 4.00 pm. For working people who have to eat lunch out on a regular basis most tapas bars have a menu del día (a daily special), a two or three course meal with several options and usually including bread and a drink, costing between 6.50 and 12 euros. Don’t confuse the menu and the carta (main menu).

It’s common to fill in the gap between lunch and dinner with a merienda, the Spanish equivalent of the now sadly almost defunct English high tea. This takes place between 5.00 – 7.00 pm and is typically a light snack, or more often, a cake with coffee.

Dinner (cena) tends to be a lighter meal and starts around 8.00 in the evening, or even later if you’re eating out. At home this will be something like an omelette, or maybe some soup or salad. If you’re out with family or friends, tapas is the name of the game. For most people full restaurant meals will be for special occasions only.

Opening Hours:
Tapas bars and restaurants are usually open from 1.00 to about 4.00, and again from 8.00 to about 11.30. Some will stay open all day but few have all-day kitchens, other than very touristy places. If you stick to earlier mealtimes than what’s normal locally the bars won’t be busy when you arrive, and if they get busy later you’ll already have the best seats.

For more about tapas and tips on how to order them, take a look at Tapas 101.

A Day Trip to Cádiz

A totally different way to beat the heat in Seville is to follow the Sevillanos and get outta town! One of my favourite summer day trips is to Cádiz on the Atlantic coast, one of the most picturesque cities in Spain, with a history that stretches back around three thousand years. Not only that, but if there’s any summer breeze going, Cádiz, on a headland surrounded on three sides by water, is the place to take advantage of it.

Although it has plenty of that quintessential Spanishness, Cádiz has a completely different feel to it than Seville. The streets are generally straighter and longer, and generally pedestrianized, and there are a number of “grand plazas” that give the city an air of nineteenth-century civic pride. My favourites are the contrasting pair of Plaza Mina, full of trees and ornamentation, and the wide open marble-paved Plaza San Antonio.

But that’s for later. My first stop after arriving is usually the Cathedral Plaza and my favourite pastry shop for some elevenses with a view. This is the oldest part of town, and apart from visiting the Cathedral, its worth going through the Arco de la Rosa and taking a stroll through the Barrio El Pópulo to the Roman amphitheatre, which was rediscovered entirely by accident in 1980.

The next stop has to be the central market, only recently returned to the renovated market hall, for a browse around the displays of fresh fish and fruit and veg so typical of Spanish markets. The area around it is always full of life, too, with little stalls selling flowers, jewellery. and all-sorts.

For me, the best way to see most of the city is simply to walk around its edge, taking whatever detours I need to see things that I want to. There’s plenty of those but there are a few that I always want to go back to no matter how many times I visit. Foremost of these is the brooding mass of San Sebastian castle, and the causeway that leads to it, although unfortunately, the castle itself is not open to the public. The best view is from another favourite place, La Caleta Beach, where you can check out the Balneario de la Palma, a “Victorian-style” beach spa, and have lunch at the beachfront restaurant there, watching the sun sparkling on the water and the little fishing boats bobbing on the waves.

Further on are the fortifications of Santa Catalina Castle, built to protect the city in the 17th century. The little turrets that you see dotted around the seafront are called baluartes, and are a distinctive feature of the city. Also here is the Parc Genovés, a botanical garden with many species brought over from the Americas. This is a fascinating place, with an artificial cataract and the strange topiary of the trees on the main path.

Now’s the time to visit those plazas, before ending the afternoon with a drink and a bit of people watching in the Plaza San Juan de Dios, opposite the old town hall. It’s a short walk to the train station from there and during the pleasant ride home I look forward to arriving back in Seville just in time to meet friends for an evening tapeo.