Tapas: Tiny Treasures of Spain

Picture yourself in Spain. It's early evening and you've just finished running with the bulls. Well, even it was just a regular day in Spain, we bet you'd be eating tapas, the country's beloved collection of small plates and delicious bits that accompany wine and great laughs all night long.

Tapas bars are the quintessential place to sample Spain's tapas fare, which includes stuffed piquillo peppers, roasted almonds, salt cod, olives, Serrano ham, Manchego cheese and slices of salty, rich chorizo.

The assertive salty flavors of most tapas make them ideal paired with almost any wine, beer, sherry, or cider for sipping and supping. We think eating tapas with a glass of wine is the ultimate food lover's ritual for unwinding at the end of the day.

The Origins of Tapas

Tapas used to refer to a variety of little snacks like olives, almonds and cubes of sheep's milk cheese generally consumed while standing up in neighborhood bars with a glass of beer, wine, or sherry. And you want to know the best part? They were often handed out for free.

These days, it still includes those same items, but the tapas menu has expanded. Now, visiting a tapas bar is both a social opportunity and a way to relieve hunger between meals. In Spain, the day's largest meal is lunch, and since dinner is routinely eaten late in the evening, tapas bars are generally very busy with folks who want to tide themselves over until dinner.

Tapas Today

Over time, tapas has come to encompass everything from simple marinated olives, slices of Serrano ham, and cubes of artisan Manchego cheese to small portions of traditional hot dishes like paella and salt cod croquettas. It's not uncommon now to make a whole meal of these savory small bites. Here are a few favorites:

Tortilla Patata: a classic simple dish of potatoes cooked in olive oil with eggs and onions in olive oil

Patatas Brava: crisp fried potatoes topped with a spicy tomato sauce.

Preserved seafood: tinned anchovies, tuna and shellfish are served alone or used in preparations

Fresh seafood: sautéed shrimp or mushrooms with olive oil and lots of garlic are common

Note: In some tapas bars, everything is served on toasted bread. In others, everything is served pincho or on a toothpick; the empty toothpicks are used to tally the bill.

Entertaining with Tapas

From handcrafted olive oils, to pungent cheeses and premium canned tunas, the culinary offerings of Spain are as rich and varied as their people — from the tough hearty countrymen of Extremadura to the trendsetting urban dwellers in Catalonia's Barcelona.

Preparing your own tapas at home is a great way to get to know Spanish food. To get you started, we've put together a uniquely Spanish menu that you can use to spice-up your next gathering.

  1. Set out in little bowls or cazuelas:

    • Marinated olives

    • Marcona or tamari-roasted almonds

    • Sautéed shrimp or mushrooms in oil and garlic

  2. Spread toasted bread with a dollop of roasted garlic aioli and top with:

  3. Grilled or marinated anchovies or sardines

  4. Piquillo peppers

  5. Serrano ham and Manchego cheese

  6. Marinated tomatoes with garlic

  7. Anchovies wrapped around piquillo peppers

  8. Olives stuffed with chiles, almonds, goat cheese or sun dried tomatoes

  9. Cubes of Manchego or Urgelia cheese

  10. Fried or roasted cubed potatoes with aioli for dipping

  11. Chunks of spicy chorizo sausage with aioli for dipping

  12. Skewer on toothpicks:

What does "tapas" mean?

Need a bit of trivia for your next party? Ask folks what the word "tapas" really means. It's actually derived from the word "tapar", which means "to cover." Why? Because tapas were originally small pieces of bread topped with a slice of cured ham that bartenders used to cover your glass of wine, reportedly to keep the swarms of fruit flies away.

As clever bartenders discovered that salty ham spurred beverage sales, the delicious tradition of tapas was born. Today, the concept has evolved to include little dishes of hot, cold and marinated foods.

Don't go thirsty

Just as important as the tapas themselves are the beverages they're served with. Consider opening a few of these special bottles to celebrate the occasion of eating tapas:

  • Spanish sparkling wine, called Cava, such as Sumarroca Brut Riserva

  • Spanish rosé

  • Red or white Rioja

  • Red or white sangria

  • Beers like Negro Modelo or Estrella Galicia (a Spanish tradition)

  • Your favorite sherry