Tapas are the ubiquitous bar food of Spain, but no one is entirely sure how they originated. The word tapa means a top, or cover, which reflects how tapas have traditionally been eaten, on a little plate balanced on top of a drink glass. Some theories claim that taverns in Spain began the custom of handing out small bites of food with the portions of alcohol to soak up the booze and cut down on bar fights. Others claim that salty bits of ham, sausage and cheese were offered to make patrons thirsty and get them to buy more drinks. One story holds that in the 13th century, Castilian King Alfonso X, in order to recover from an illness, was prescribed copious servings of wine paired with small snacks. He survived (and presumably didn’t develop cirrhosis), and enjoyed the wine and light bites so much he ordered taverns to make the practice mandatory.
A more reasonable origin tale for tapas? In Andalucía, in Spain’s hot, dry south, commoners were accustomed to placing a piece of ham, bread or cheese (a tapa) over their glass of sweet wine, to keep the fruit flies from diving in. When exactly the tapas tradition started is unresolved, but it certainly had taken hold by the 1930s, when the food scarcity and hardships of the Spanish Civil War meant people had to survive on smaller portions of food. Bars in Andalucía and across Spain gave out free servings of tapas with drinks – in part to boost business and in part to quite literally sustain their clientele.
With the increased openness of Spain to tourism after the 1975 death of dictator Francisco Franco, the tradition of free tapas eventually gave way to profit. Today, tapas bars in most of Spain either charge for tapas or give out paltry bar snacks, like chips, nuts or a few olives. But in Andalucía, especially in the less-touristed eastern portion of the region, the tapas are still free and the drinks are still cheap.
“In Granada, a university town, free tapas satisfy a student clientele,” explains Fiona Dunlop, author of Andaluz: A Food Journey Through Southern Spain, a travelogue and cookbook celebrating the fabled birthplace of tapas. “But you have to keep finding new bars to go to, as once word gets out (that the tapas are good and free), a place will get overrun.” In Seville, the prosperous capital of the region, she says free tapas still exist but quality ones are harder to find. It’s in Almeria, in the region’s often-overlooked eastern corner, that local bars have best hung on to the custom of free tapas. According to Dunlop, who is also the author of New Tapas, it’s now one of the most authentic cities in Spain to partake of this culinary and cultural ritual.
“Almeria was once a major port,” explains Dunlop, “which exported silk to North Africa and the Middle East and brought in cumin, paprika, cardamom, cinnamon and a host of exotic spices.” The collapse of the spice trade, several devastating earthquakes and centuries of war, including the calamities of the 20th century, left Almeria slow to catch up to the rest of Andalucía, and its dusty provincial towns were best known as a setting for the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s. Today, Almeria is “booming” per Dunlop, but it still hasn’t forgotten its hardscrabble roots, or that when bar patrons buy a €2 glass of wine or beer, they deserve a little something to eat – for free.
“It’s just the way of life there,” explains Dunlop. “Tapas is about socializing, and you’ll see everyone and every age, from grannies to toddlers, at tapas bars until late at night.” The scene is a lively, free-wheeling one, as patrons move from one bar to the next, standing, chatting, and juggling drinks and tapas.
In Almeria, Nuestra Tierra Taberna is one of Dunlop’s recommended tapas joints, in part for its unpretentious ambiance and in part – well, in large part – for its ample and elaborate free tapas. Free small plates on a given night might include pork loin with roasted peppers and garlic soup, tuna belly in ajoblanco (a cold soup of bread, almonds and garlic), fried eggs served with ham, chives and bread, or crispy sausage with tomato jam. Local specialties here and at other taverns include migas, a dish of fried semolina flour or bread crumbs topped with savory vegetables or sausage, and zaramandoña, a codfish, tomato and red pepper salad.
As with all bars that serve free tapas, the plates appear in tandem with the drinks – the more rounds of wine, beer or sherry you order, the more portions of tapas you’ll get. Let’s to some math: A nice buzz and a dinner of tasty bites of interesting regional fare, for less than you’d spend on a glass of meh wine just about anywhere in Manhattan. Get on the next plane to Andalucía!
Dunlop, who leads foodie tours of eastern Andalucía with Spanish tour specialists Toma & Coe, suggests that rather than following the crowds to TripAdvisor-rated tapas bars that will be heaving with tourists, visitors to Andalucía’s cities and small towns should instead follow their noses and instincts. “Get away from the touristy main squares. Go to the small villages. Go down little side streets. Stick your head in the door and decide if you like the looks of a place.” And, in Andalucía, just as in every other part of the world where you want to eat well on a dime, go where the locals go. At a real tapas bar, you won’t find many people sitting down. “Only tourists eat tapas at tables,” says Dunlop. So wear some comfortable shoes, practice your drink and plate-balancing skills – as well as your Spanish, of course – and dive into this cheap, convivial and authentic Andalusian tradition.