What's in a name?
"Tapas" is the generic term that has been adopted outside Spain to refer to the range of small plates designed to be enjoyed alongside a drink-wine, beer, sherry most appropriately. But depending which part of Spain you're in, and on the portion size, such snacks go by different names.
True tapas are small dishes, eaten in one or two mouthfuls - perhaps a bowl of cured olives, fried almonds, a small wedge of potato tortilla, or several grilled prawns.
Upsize a tapa and you have a racione, a portion which might be two to three times bigger. In some bars you might be able to order a media-racione, which would be in between a tapa and a racione. Often, and especially outside of Spain, the tapas and raciones are different menus rather than just different sizes of the same dishes. So in bars and restaurants here, tapas are often finger food or lighter dishes, while raciones might be heartier things - slow cooked pork, panfried chicken with garlic or an octopus salad.
In the north of Spain, you're less likely to hear the word tapas, instead bars there serve pinchos- or in Basque language, pintxos. The name refers to the stick (toothpick) each bite of food is skewered with. Different sizes or colours of stick determine the price of each pinxto and at the end of your drinking and nibbling session, the proprietor simply tallies the number of sticks: genius!
Tapa means 'lid' or 'cover' in Spanish and there are a number of theories on how the tradition of serving tapas, which stretches back to the 16th Century or so, came about.
The story has it the King of Spain was travelling in Cadiz, a famously windy city on the Atlantic coast. The barman who served the King gave him placed a slice of jamon (ham) over the top of his glass of sherry to keep the wind blowing sand from the beach into his drink. Or, that the food offering covering a drink mirrored the practice of covering sticky, sweet sherry with a lid of some kind to keep out the fruit flies. Or maybe it was that other King of Spain, who, concerned at a rise in drunken debauchery, ordered that each drink was to be served with a morsel of food to slow down the effects of the alcohol, or conspiracy theorists would probably pick the notion that tapas stem from strong smelling cheeses served to 'cover' the smell and taste of bad wine.
The variety of tapas on offer is infinite, because just like any cuisine, tapas are open to interpretation. Broadly speaking there are more traditional tapas dishes, and there are modern interpretations, there are tapas that hail from different regions of Spain and then there are, with today's loose use of the term tapas in bars and restaurants, any number of takes on these small plates, with influence from cuisines around the world.
Here are a few of our favourite classic tapas, which of course vary depending where you are:
If you think it's hard to go past ordering a cheeky bowl of fries when you're enjoying a drink or two, try resisting the urge to add an order of patatas bravas to your tapas hoard. Cubes of floury potato are fried until crispy and topped with a piquant tomato sauce and aioli.
salt cod, and just such a pleasing word to say out loud. Bacalao is a Spanish staple and as a tapa it is often coated in crumbs and fried, served in a tomato stew, or blended with mashed potato to make a spread to smother slices of bread.
meatballs in tomato sauce. They might be chicken, pork, beef or a combination. Add a glass of temperanillo and you're sorted.
Jamon serrano: air-dried salted ham. A Spain without jamon serrano would be a sad Spain indeed, and, as you've read, this was probably the original tapa. A good jamon serrano will be sliced incredibly thin, be semi-translucent with a nutty, buttery taste. Jamon iberico (also known as bellota) is the king of jamon serrano, and comes from black pigs fed on acorns. You should eat jamon serrano with your hands as metal can taint the delicate flavour.
Tortilla espanola: Tortilla in this case is a savoury egg 'pancake' - a frittata if you will - and at its most spare, espanola, is made with heck of a lot of eggs, even more olive oil, slices or chunks of potato. Regional variations may add onions, spicy sausage, or offal. As a tapa it's served sliced into bite-sized pieces and skewered with a toothpick.
Pulpa alla Gallega: In Galicia on Spain's northwest coast, octopus is a common catch, and a right pain to prepare-beaten to tenderize and cooked for hours. This tapa sees octopus tentacles cut into bite-size pieces and cooked with plenty of garlic, olive oil, paprika and perhaps potatoes.
Boquerones: white anchovies, which are marinated in vinegar, are a very common dish, and are nothing like the heavily salted anchovies you buy in a jar. A few of these transforms a hunk of bread into something sublime.
• This story is sponsored by Sylvia Park.