Samui Wining & Dining
What Makes it Unique?

Discovering the secrets of Tapas.

What Makes it Unique?It’s a Spanish thing. Its origins are steeped in history. And, traditionally, you do it several times a day, standing up. But never at home - always somewhere outside. And normally with lots of friends. Perhaps you’ll even find yourself doing it with someone you’ve just met.

But tapeo – the art and culture of eating tapas – isn’t a casual thing. It’s woven into the fabric of life in Spain and other parts of the Mediterranean. It’s a lively, animated animal. It’s all about conversation and gossip, banter and wit. And tascas – the Spanish tapas bars – are bubbling hubs of the local community, quite a separate thing from the more sedate atmosphere of the restaurants.

The whole business of tapas is closely linked to the way people eat. And that’s related to the type of climate that prevails. In hotter countries, people start work early, when it’s cool. And they usually take a siesta during the hottest part of the day, then begin working again later, when it’s cooled down a bit.

The custom of eating three set meals a day – morning, midday and evening – has never caught on in countries like this. Because of the length of time between the early morning breakfast and the next meal break (often in the early evening) snack-breaks are the norm. This is quite a common thing in hot climates all over the world – people tend to eat little and often, the Thais being a great example.

But to paint a fuller picture of the emergence of the tapas culture, we need to go back in time a few years – back to the middle of the 13th century, in fact. The Spanish monarch of this time, King Alfonso the Wise, was, at some point, a bit poorly. As a result, he was only able to take small mouthfuls of food, along with a sip or two of wine. Perhaps this combination inhibited the effects of the alcohol, who knows. But what is known is that on his recovery, he wisely passed a new law. No wine was to be served in the taverns and inns of Andalusia, unless accompanied by something to eat.

Thus it came to pass that wine began to be served along with a snack. Bear in mind the distinction between taverns and restaurants. Workers wanted a glass or two of wine after their daily toil was done. And they didn’t go to a restaurant for this libation. They retired to one of the local botillerias (bottle shops) or tabernas (taverns). And they found that their glass of wine was now being served covered with a slice of cheese or ham. It was a convenient way to carry the wine and food at the same time. And it also came in handy for preventing those suicidal little fruit-flies from diving headfirst into the brew.

The Spanish word for lid is tapa. And this is the origin of ‘tapas’ – a solid food that acted like a lid on the wineglass. And it’s become a word that’s now deeply-rooted in Spanish tradition. It didn’t take long for small dishes to replace the ‘lids’ of ham and cheese, and then for them to begin to contain a wider variety of snacks. And because this tied in so very neatly with the local habit of eating little and often, the tapas bars rapidly became both popular and widespread.

Today, there’s no law in Spain that requires food to be served with the wine. But, over the following centuries, tapas became an established part of the Spanish culture. Nowadays, people will go to a tasca before lunch or supper, to meet up with friends and chat about football and politics, gossip – or simply to watch what’s going on. The food isn’t intended to be a meal; it’s more of a complementary accompaniment to the fine wines and company being enjoyed.

You can group tapas into three sorts, according to how easy they are to eat. Firstly there are the finger foods, the cosas de picar – things to nibble or to ‘peck at’. These are probably the most familiar of all tapas – olives, nuts, patties and so on. Anything that’s more substantial – that needs a fork or a toothpick to get to grips with – is known as pinchos, from the Spanish noun, a pin. Most pinchos are recognisable because today they are usually served with the ‘pin’ – the toothpick – already in place. And, finally, there are the cazuelas. Meaning ‘little dishes’, these are the tapas that usually come in sauce, such as meatballs, or prawns fried in garlic.

The idea of a tapas bar is a popular one, and has taken off, worldwide. And, in doing so, has evolved into different shapes and forms. The main trend has been to create a more restaurant-like environment: one where customers can sit in comfort and enjoy their food. And the type of food being offered has been extended, too. It’s now quite usual to find substantial dishes, such as the rice-based paella, or the Madrid stew, callos. Tortillas, fritters and croquettes are de rigeur, and it’s likely there’ll be an international influence in such morsels as smoked salmon, paté, caviar, German sausages and Swiss or French melted cheeses.


Rob De Wet


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