As one story goes, the practice of serving la tapa began when a Spanish innkeeper placed a piece of bread atop a glass of wine or sherry to shield the beverage from fruit flies. (The Spanish word tapa comes from the verb tapar, which means "to cover.") In time, weary travelers and hungry imbibers began to nibble on the bread covering, allowing the enterprising innkeeper to charge a bit more for the topping. Eventually, the tapa became something more—ham or cheese were served with the bread, and some eateries even began placing the tapa on a saucer atop the wineglass.
Another tapas tale relates that a very ill King Alfonso of Castile improved by taking small sips of wine and little bites of food during his recovery. When he was well, he proclaimed that all tabernas (taverns) should serve small portions of food with their wine.
One final chronicle tells of King Alfonso XII (another King Alfonso), who ordered sherry at an inn in the windy city of Cádiz. The waiter covered the cup with a slice of ham before serving it to keep beach sand from blowing into it. After drinking the wine and eating the tapa, the king requested another sherry "with the same cover."
However tapas came to be, these tasty little dishes are celebrated throughout Spain and also have become very popular in the United States and the United Kingdom. Tapas generally are served in small quantities accompanied by a beverage—traditionally wine, sherry or sangría. Tapas are a social food, often enjoyed where people can gather to have a drink, enjoy a tapa or two and carry on a lively conversation. They can be eaten before lunch, for lunch, before a late dinner or—when grouped together—as a main dinner meal. But for authentic Spanish flavor, serve your tapas a few at a time—the staggered progression allows you and your guests to savor the nuances of each delightful dish.
Each region in Spain specializes in different tapas based on local ingredients; a bar might offer a menu of eight or 10 different tapas, which could be as simple as a bowl of olives or roasted and salted almonds. Tapas of seafood, meat or vegetables fried in olive oil also are popular. Sauces range from garlicky olive oil to spicy tomato sauces, and bread often accompanies the sauced dishes.
This simple tapas menu features a bounty of fresh, seasonal flavors. Most of the dishes are quick and easy to prepare. Invite a few friends and neighbors, and you’ll have the makings of a fun late-summer gathering.
Contributing editor Susan Belsinger of Brookeville, Maryland, cooks up an astounding array of delicious herbal recipes, articles, books and lectures.