The days of free bar snacks are almost completely over in Spain, unfortunately. Nowadays, the free tapas and pinchos I remember from my earlier Spanish forays have been mostly replaced by charcuterie slices or small cooked plates, and most cost money.
There is confusion, even among Spaniards, about whether tapas should always be free. Conventional wisdom says they should be, while pinchos are always paid for. Either way, tapas should never cost much money unless they are served at a fancy gastronomic bistro. Costly tapas and pinchos, or pintxos as they are dubbed in the Basque country in northeastern Spain, are targeted toward tourists.
Tapas or Pinchos?
Tapas may be cold, such as mixed olives, cheese wedges, and jamón, or they may be hot, such as albóndigas (small meatballs in tomato sauce) or gambas al ajillo (fresh prawns in sizzling olive oil with garlic and chili peppers). In most bars in Spain’s larger towns, tapas have evolved into a sophisticated regional cuisine.
A pincho or pintxo is a snack served atop bread, with a toothpick speared through it. The toothpick is not only used to keep the snack from falling off the bread, but also to keep track of the number of pinchos the customer has eaten. In most bars of the city of Salamanca, for example, pinchos are almost always a piece of meat, cheese, or pickled fish—or nowadays, even something more elaborate—skewered with a toothpick and served on a piece of bread. Sometimes they might be offering for free along with each glass of wine you drink.
Except in large cities, tapas and pinchos are avoided at lunch. They are more of a late afternoon or evening snack, shared with friends while having a glass of wine or beer. In the larger cities, such as Madrid, Zaragoza, or Seville, it’s generally acceptable to make a quick lunch of them.
In the regions of Catalonia, Andalucía, Navarra, and the Basque, tapas are regarded as the underpinnings of local culture and social interaction. It is very common for a bar or small local restaurant to offer eight to 15 different excellent tapas at the bar.
A Short History
There are many theories about how tapas and pinchos originated and came to be popular. Some say it was King Alfonso the 10th, following a bout of illness during which he could only eat small amounts of food with wine, who decreed that wine must be served with food. Others say it was farmers who began eating small snacks along with wine throughout the day to give them much needed energy between meals.
In the 17th and early 18th centuries, tapas (from the Spanish word tapar, meaning “to cover”) were pieces of bread large enough to cover the mouth of a glass. At the time, the average Spanish wine, especially sherry, was much sweeter, attracting fruit flies, bees, and other winged creatures. Tapas kept insects from getting into the wine glass.
By the mid-18th century, some enterprising Andalusian tavern owner realized that if your tapa had a piece of salty cured meat or cheese on it, the salt would cause thirst, and therefore customers would consume more wine. Another possible explanation for using a cheese tapa is that the strong smell of a very ripe cheese would cover the poor smell of cheap wine. That is why tapas of salty meat or cheese were free.
And the Rest
Piparras are a kind of pincho that consist of pickled items like olives, baby onions, cornichons, or chilies mounted together on a toothpick without bread. Sometimes they include a pickled white anchovy.
In Murcia and Madrid, a pickled white sardine (boquerón) and a salt-cured dark anchovy (anchoa) on a piece of white bread are called matrimonio (meaning marriage), and you will find them served in many bars.
In Seville and other parts of Andalusia, all small portions are called tapas. They are not free; neither are montaditos, the Catalan name for a tapa made of a filling in a small bread roll. The montadito is a tradition that predates even the sandwich, all the way back to the 15th century.
In most cities, portions large enough to share with at least one or two other people are called ración. There is also a media ración, which is smaller than a ración but larger than just a tapa.
Is it all clear now?
Manos Angelakis is a wine and food writer in New York City. As the gastronomy critic for LuxuryWeb.com, he has spent many years traveling the world in search of culinary excellence.