The dubious origins of tapas

We’ve all read about the origin of tapas. You know, ‘tapa’ means lid, and someone at some point in the past – often referred to as ‘medieval times’ – put a bit of bread, or a bit of ham, or a Jacob’s cream cracker or something on top of a glass of wine, or sherry, or beer to keep the flies off, or the dirt out, or something like that.

The story often involves Alfonso X the Wise, who was King of Castile in the 13th century – although I have also seen his role attributed to Alfonso XII (late 19th century) and Alfonso XIII (20th century), and to Fernando VII (early 19th century). Anyway, let’s stick with Alfonso X for now.

Version one goes that he was recovering from some sort of  illness, and wasn’t supposed to drink alcohol, but he wasn’t having any of that.  So his doctor told him to at least eat something with every drink. The king thought this was a great idea, and decreed that alcohol should always be served with a small snack. There doesn’t actually seem to be any hard evidence for this though.

Version two goes that the king was travelling in Cadiz province, and stopped off at inn, possibly the Ventorrillo del Chato. At this point, it makes a lot more sense if it was Fernando VII, as the inn dates back to 1780. Okay, so Fernando was on the strip of land by the sea between Cadiz town and La Isla, and stopped off at the inn. He ordered a glass of sherry, and the innkeeper put a bit of ham on top of the glass, as it was – and is – a pretty windy spot where the sand gets into everything.  Fernando duly asked for another sherry ‘with the same cover’, and the rest is history. Or not. The Ventorrillo exists to this day, and its website  recounts the visits of the monarch, but doesn’t make any claims about inventing tapas.

Then there’s the more general tale of bartenders in Andalucia putting a bit of bread on top of the glass to keep the flies out, and this custom gradually getting more elaborate, with anchovies, chorizo or cheese etc. I’ve read quite a few variations of this over the years, but won’t bore you to death now.

I don’t think any of the above is true. A few years ago, I was reading a review by Giles Coren in The Times  of Barrafina, the terrific tapas bar in London, which now has a Michelin star. Giles was talking about these various theories, and said it was all a load of tosh, as his friend Bob had come up with a much more plausible explanation.

As it happens, I also know Bob. I haven’t seen him for years, but we have done some very thorough tapas bar research in the past, in both London and Andalucia. Bob spent years researching for his PhD, entitled Food, Art and Literature in Early Modern Spain, and, not surprisingly, is pretty hot on the history of Spanish food.

He found out that it was prohibited to serve food and alcohol together in Seville in the 16th and 17th centuries.  The powers-that-be apparently thought that hunger would stop men staying out till all hours and they would go back to their wives to eat. Innkeepers were however allowed to provide bread, salt, tablecloths and a small stove.

Of course, this didn’t really work out as planned, as the men would order their drinks, then just go and buy some cheese, sausage, ham or whatever from a market stall and take it back to the tavern. The innkeeper hadn’t actually served the food, so it wasn’t breaking the law.

Giles Coren goes on to explain that Bob found a reference to this in a story by Cervantes, Rinconete y Cortadillo, where two of the characters realise that preparing this food for the punters could be a nice little earner. To keep it all low key, the food was served as a series of small bites, often on a piece of bread to make it easy to eat. Of course, eating like this stopped people getting so drunk, and they may well have put the bread on top of their glasses to keep the flies out, but the point is that the food came first and the other advantages second.

So next time someone starts smugly banging on about lids and covers when you’re just trying to enjoy your patatas bravas or gambas al ajillo, you can just roll your eyes, take a swig of wine, and launch into this much better argument… ‘Well actually, I think you’ll find….’

14 thoughts

  1. All sound like they could be correct . I was told by a font of all knowledge ( well hes Spanish so it must be correct ! LOL) That the tapas ( lids) that where traditionally put on top of drinks where generally salty , meaning the more you ate the more you drank- which is good business for the bar owner!

  2. I love fanciful tales regarding the origins of traditions..the more fanciful the better. Hadn’t heard the Cervantes’ explanation; sounds plausible, but then so does the salty version.

    Wasn’t there also one about barkeeps covering the glass with strong flavoured cheese or ham to help disguise the taste of cheap wine?

  3. That is all new to me, hadn´t even thought about the origin of the Tapas, very interesting, and very is a nice touch, quite often saves on having to order lunch or dinner!…
    time for lunch I think.

  4. Hi Annie
    I’ve used the same snippets of tapas lore (but not the Giles Coren because you’ve just enlightened me on the subject), but it alway occured to me that if the story Fernando VII is true, and the wind blew the sand into everything, wouldn’t it get on the tapa? It would a been a bit gritty for my taste. I wouldn’t have asked for another!

    1. Evening Derek! Exactly. It’s hard enough drinking a beer down there with all that sand in the air. And you could say the same for the fly theory, as surely flies would be more interested in the chorizo or whatever as the wine it was supposed to be keeping them out of.

  5. But then why call it a tapa if it wasn’t used to cover something?

    To this day I still see English translations of menus offering not only “lids” but “special lids”.

  6. That last explanation by your friend, Bob, is very interesting for me as a person how has a passion for both history and tapas. By the way, I miss my favourite tapas restaurant in Sydney’s centre, Miró.

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