Tapa traditions vary in Spain. Where we lived near Cadiz, when I was a kid, tapas were set out on the bar with a toothpick in each one, and you paid so much per toothpick. In Granada, where I spent most my time on my two trips back to Spain as an adult, the tapas come free with each drink, even if all you’re having is a coke.
There are two common stories about the origin of the tapa. The one you usually hear is that bartenders began putting a piece of bread on top of each glass of wine to keep the flies out. Tapa means ‘lid’ or ‘cover.’ The other is that some king, as a measure against inebriation, decreed that bars must serve food with every drink.
To save you the trouble of trying the experiment yourself, I should state here and now that tapas are in no way proof against inebriation. At a good tapa bar, they may even encourage it.
In Granada, each bar generally has a cycle of ten tapas. The idea is, each tapa is fancier than the last. So to get the best ones, you need to do a lot of drinking. I’ve never made it through all ten. At a certain bar in El Zaidin, where my Spanish friend Yuyo used to take me, you could choose your own. They had some good ones, too: pinchitos, tiny morcilla sausages, fried quail eggs with jamon serrano.
We spent a weekend down in AlmuZecar, on the coast, where one lunchtime we met some of Yuyo’s friends at an open-air bar and managed to while away several hours snacking on habas beans con jamon and assorted plates of seafood that appeared every time we ordered another round.
One thing that I absolutely wanted to do this last trip was to come home with a good book of tapa recipes. Couldn’t find the right book, however. Mostly what made it into cookbooks were concoctions a million times fancier than anything I’d seen in tapa bars, or else they called for ingredients you can’t get here in the states. I decided to work up my own tapa recipes based on fieldwork instead.
Down on the corner, twenty steps from the front door of my apartment building, was a perfectly typical tapa bar. Can’t for the life of me recall its name. I would stop in for a quick glass with my apartment mates after school, or for a few, more leisurely, glasses in the evenings. Their first tapa was a plate of olives, followed by excellent pinchitos and truly outstanding marinated and grilled mushrooms. Number four was a slice of mortadelo, but since we lived in the neighborhood, and we saw the owners every day on our way to and from school, they let us skip that one after the first time we ran across it. I was tickled when I ran across a line in a novel, La Sombra del Viento, that I read during the trip. A character is speaking metaphorically of different kinds of women. There is mortadelo, he says, and then there is jamon; each has its uses. Mortadelo is sort of like heavily salted and very chewy Bologna. It is also the name of a character in a popular Spanish comic book. Tapa number five was a slice of bread with jamon. Don’t know what came after the jamon.