What’s more Spanish than a good night of tapeando through the town? Not much, I’d say. Especially if you include a glass of red and some jamón serrano in your journey. But the art is not always straightforward and during my first stay in Spain (Toledo 2008), I had no idea what it was all about. So, here’s your guide to the art of tapas in Spain.
As Wikipedia tells me, the word “tapa” comes from the Spanish verb “tapar,” literally meaning “to cover.” Supposedly, the original tapas were slices of bread and/or meat that covered the sherry that Andalusians were drinking, thus preventing pesky flies from taking a bath in the sweet sherry. Such snacks generated more thirst, thereby generating more income for bar owners, who caught on and started regularly serving such snacks. Soon enough, the tapas were considered just as important as the sherry (or other alcoholic drink) itself.
To start, there really is no tapeando until 8 PM or after. Before that, you’re better off sitting down in a normal café and ordering a small snack called a pincho because it’s just not time for tapas yet. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.
Gather your group of friends. Be sure to include someone aggressive in case things get serious. You’ll need someone with a loud voice if and when the bar gets crowded and noisy. An ideal group can be anywhere from 3 to 8 people. After that, things get complicated. Don’t go overboard.
Choose the first bar. Ideally, the first bar is not too crowded and has good wine. You want to start out with the best. (There is no need to worry about beer. There is always, always beer.) A good place will either a nice variety to please everyone—patatas ali-oli (roasted potatoes with garlic mayonnaise), tortilla (Spanish potato omlette), croquettes, or any kind of pork are always winners.
Start the bote, the pool of money into which everyone puts a certain quantity of money, usually around €5-€10. One person should handle the money. Choose a trustworthy person with basic math skills. Hopefully all your friends qualify but, hey, the world we live in isn’t perfect, now is it?
Find a good table. Being on your feet isn’t a negative. The best tables are round and fairly clean, big enough to accommodate several small dishes and various drinks. Find some napkins. (Mayonnaise can get messy.) Throwing the used napkins on the ground is perfectly acceptable and even expected. Have your selected person tell the bartender what you’re all having (drinks are usually wine or cañas, beers from the tap). Chat and wait hungrily for them to bring out your order. It should never be more than 5-10 minutes. Eat with relish and enjoy the company. After you’re done, the trustworthy person in charge of the money pays, keeping the change for the next stop.
Move on to the next bar. A little more crowded than the first is okay. The slightest buzz from the drink helps. Order something different. Sometimes they have menus, sometimes not. Other times they’ll have their signature tapas on the wall. If you don’t know the meaning in Spanish, consult your dictionary (mine’s named Mario). There are seemingly endless varieties of cuts of meat, and Spaniards love them all. Avoid: morros, lengua, callos and orejas, if you don’t like “interesting” textures. Savor and sip, and hope the music’s not too loud.
You can visit anywhere from 2-5 bars on a normal trip, depending on your hunger and thirst levels. At the end of the night, the bote should be empty, meaning everyone has paid equally. Part amicably and say “¡Hasta la próxima!” (“Until next time!”)