History of Tapas from Spain

Tapas from Spain are the foundation for understanding the small plates that will be covered in this book, so it is necessary to define what they are. Spain has some of the most delicious cuisine in the world, but it is not as familiar to Americans as Mexican, Italian, French, or Chinese. Ironically, modern Mexican cuisine is derived partially from Spain, since the discovery of the New World brought an exchange of foodstuffs between the two countries.

The Roots of Spanish Cuisine

Spanish explorers brought Old World items, such as garlic and olive oil, to the New World and brought back tomatoes, peppers, chocolate, and corn to Europe. Spanish cuisine is not as spicy hot as Mexican, but it is flavorful and bright. It is also infused with spices from the East, because the Moors occupied the country for centuries.

The Moors brought peppercorns, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves from the Far East to Spain via Morocco in Northern Africa. They also planted cumin, coriander, and saffron, which made a major contribution to the distinctive flavor of Spanish cuisine.

The Birth of Tapas

The word tapas means “lids” in Spanish, and refers to a slice of bread being used to cover the top of a wine glass. Legend has it that such tapas were used in Spanish cafes with standing bars to prevent fruit flies and the like from getting in the wine glasses of the customers. Madrid's custom is to gather at wine and sherry bar cafes after work, before dinner. Patrons of the bars usually stand and drink their sherry and wine and enjoy selections from an extensive tapas list. This evolved from the bars offering free snacks, like a slice of ham, piece of cheese, olives, mussels, or bread. Basque tapas started on toothpicks, called pinchos, and eventually became something on a piece of bread, such as anchovy toasts. Gazpacho and paella are also offered in tapas bars, as well as Manchego and quince paste, flan, and tres leches cake.

Learn More

If you want to explore Spanish food, start by checking out a map of Spain. Study the different regions, such as Andalusia, Catalonia, and Basqueland, which all have different local ingredients, and the great cities around Spain, like Valencia, Madrid, Barcelona, and Seville, which have their own specialties based on the diversity of raw ingredients. There are microclimates in Spain ranging from sunny coast to lush mountains that allow for the growing of wine grapes and other specialized ingredients, like the olives for olive oil, oranges, and almonds.

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