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RESTAURANTS

Snack goes gourmet in tapas revolution

Long taken for granted as a mere bar snack, Spain's humble tapas has graduated from the neighbourhood cafe to the realm of haute cuisine.

Inspired by its simplicity and versatility, top Michelin-starred chefs are taking on the traditional finger-food to whet the appetite, or making a meal of it with tapas-only restaurants.

"Tapas used to be considered something common and almost second-rate," says Angel Moreton, head of the International School of Gastronomy in Valladolid.

"But in recent years there has been a boom and now we are seeing some real marvels."

His school holds an annual tapas competition for visiting chefs from a dozen countries.

The rise of tapas was part of the Spanish food revolution of the late 1990s, driven by legendary Catalan chef Ferran Adria and his prize-winning eatery El Bulli, which closed in 2011.

Adria and his brother Albert opened a tapas restaurant in Barcelona, which still serves El Bulli treats such as tomato tartare, cod with avocado or octopus and squid crisps.

Other chefs have followed their lead in opening bars exclusively for tapas, bringing gourmet nibbles to the street at affordable prices.

"That has been the great revolution in Spanish cooking over recent years," said Moreton. "You find such creativity now even in small neighbourhood bars."

The word tapa means "lid", and the culinary term is thought to date to the Middle Ages.

Some say it stems from a practice of laying slices of meat over the mouths of cups to keep dust and flies out of the wine.

Others claim an old law obliged drinkers to take a snack with their alcohol to curb drunkenness, and the "lids" were plates of food placed atop wine jars for that purpose.

Either way, to this day tapas are served free with drinks in Spanish bars: often a simple slice of bread topped with ham, cheese, tortilla or whatever else is to hand.

Their versatility encourages creativity, says Sergi Arola, a Spanish chef with two Michelin stars.

"A tapa is not intended necessarily as a starter nor as a main course, nor a dessert," he said.

Among Arola's tapas creations are Portobello mushroom carpaccio marinated in white truffle oil, chicken wings with kimchi sauce, and his own take on a

The essence of tapas, Spaniards say, is above all in the way they are eaten: with the fingers, standing up and sharing, going from bar to bar to try as many as you can.

In Madrid's trendy San Miguel food market, locals and tourists stand elbow to elbow, tapas in one hand and a glass of red wine in the other.

"Eating tapas is all about the atmosphere," says Maripaz Sanchez, a retired secretary of 72, sharing a table in the market with her sister and two young strangers.

"We have made many friends this way," says her sister, Merche, 74.

Nearby, US tourist Clare Dreyer, 33, leans at a bar with her fiance, Jared Hendee, 36, in rapture at the range of gourmet tapas.

"This is an experience all on its own," says Dreyer. "We're going to have tapas at our wedding reception."

The boom has caught on, with "creative tapas" workshops — such as the sell-out one at the De Olla y Sarten cooking school in Madrid.

In class, journalist Marta Morales, 31, learns to make filo pastry stuffed with spinach and miniature baskets of parmesan cheese with corn salad and
salmon.

"Since you have to prepare more recipes than in a normal menu, you end up with more ideas and you can experiment more," she says.

Top chef Arola revels in the spreading trend. "There is a risk," he warns, however. "That they start serving tapas in fast food restaurants and it ends up getting discredited."

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FOOD & DRINK

Where can you get free tapas in Spain?

Not everywhere will offer you free tapas in Spain, but there are some cities where the tradition lives on. Read on to find out where they are, how you can get a free 'tapa' and the slight differences between each place.

Where can you get free tapas in Spain?

Tapas are an important part of Spanish culture, not only because of the gastronomical aspect but because of the social aspect of sharing dishes too. 

The word ‘tapa’ – meaning ‘lid’ – is thought to derive from a 13th-century law passed by a Castilian king requiring taverns to serve food with alcohol, perhaps in a bid to avoid inebriation of the serfs.

A ‘tapa’ was a small plate of ham or olives used as a lid to keep insects and dust away from a drink and usually came free. 

The tradition of free tapas has died out across much of Spain, but there are still some cities where it is alive and well. Most of these cities can be found in three regions – the eastern part of Andalusia, Castilla y León and Galicia. 

READ ALSO: Fourteen classic Spanish dishes to celebrate World Tapas Day

Granada

Granada is the undisputed king of free tapas in Spain, famed for its offerings which can be anything from a piece of Spanish tortilla to almost a whole meal, such as a mini burger and fries or small fried fish. It works like this – each time you buy a drink, you will be given a free tapas dish. If you order consecutive drinks in the same bar, each of the tapa dishes you get will be different. Free tapa will come with everything from beer and wine to soft drinks and sparkling water, but not with coffee or tea. Keep in mind that the price of drinks in Granada is slightly higher than in some Spanish cities, which helps to cover the cost of the food.

Calle Navas, Calle Virgen del Rosario and the area around the Cathedral offer some of the best tapas in the city. Remember that if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, ask for una tapa vegetariana o tapa vegana. While most bars in the city should have a suitable alternative, some of the more rough and ready ones might not, or you may just get something simple like bread and cheese. One of Granada’s best-loved vegetarian tapas dishes is berenjena con miel (deep fried aubergine drizzled with treacle). 

READ ALSO: What to order at a restaurant in each region of Spain

Almería

Just southeast of Granada on the coast, Almería is another of Spain’s great free-tapas cities. The tradition is a little different here than in other Spanish cities because you get to choose your tapa instead of just getting a surprise. Many of the tapas menus here are vast and you’ll be spoilt for choice. It could be anything from a goat’s cheese and caramelised onion montadito (small sandwich) to paté on toast. Almeríans love their toast, so don’t be surprised if you find many different variations of topped toasts on the menu.

You’ll also have to speak up here, waiters will often come over to ask for your drink order, but not come back and ask for your tapa order. It’s best to tell your waiter what you want when your drinks arrive.

You may be able to get a free pulpo (octopus) tapa in Galicia. Photo: MIGUEL RIOPA / AFP

Jaén

The city and province of the same name to the north of Granada is also known for its tapa gratis when ordering a drink. Like in Granada, here you’ll be given the tapa of the house and generally won’t be given a choice in what you get. The prices of beers here are not as high as in Almería, but tapas portions are generally pretty generous, meaning you can easily have enough for dinner by going to just a few places.

Dishes here may include a plate of migas (fried breadcrumbs or flour with pieces of meat and fried peppers) or morcilla (blood sausage or black pudding). You can try asking for a vegetarian or vegan tapa here too, but the bars may not be as accommodating as the ones in Granada and may not have so many options, although they will try with what they have. 

León

It’s not just the eastern provinces of Andalusia where you can get free tapas. One of the best foodie cities in northern Spain that has carried on this tradition is León. Some of the most typical tapas dishes you may be served here include patatas leonesas (León-style potatoes), or morcilla de León (blood sausage or black pudding from León).

During the pandemic, a few bars in León started charging around €0.30 to €0.50 for tapas, but you’ll be happy to know that the majority of them still offer it for free. Bars will generally charge less for the wine, beers and other drinks here than in Granada too. The best places to go are around the famed Barrio del Húmedo or the Barrio Romántico. There are even some bars that will offer free tapas with your coffee order for breakfast here, which is unheard of elsewhere. 

Ávila

In almost every bar in Ávila you will be served a free tapa along with your drink. You’re unlikely to be served a simple piece of bread with a topping, here the dishes are almost like mini meals. Much of the cuisine here is based on meat, so you might expect a small plate of stewed wild boar or kidney with potatoes.

You will also find that they’re pretty big compared to free tapas in some other cities and filling too, but along with that, you will be paying slightly above average for your drink. The best street to head to for free tapas here is Calle San Segundo.

Alcalá de Henares

There may only be some bars left in Madrid that will offer you a free tapa with your drink, but head just east to the student town of Alcalá de Henares and you’ll find that they’re given out freely. Lots of places here will let you choose what you want too. You’ll pay above average for a caña here, around 3, but for that you’ll get a fairly decent tapa which could include patatas bravas, burgers or scrambled eggs with potatoes.

READ ALSO: Top ten Madrid bars serving free tapas, one for each barrio

Santiago de Compostela

When you’ve finally completed the Camino, what could be better than sitting down to a nice cold beer and plate of free tapas? The majority of bars here offer simple tapa such as a piece of bread with some type of meat on top, such as jamón or sausage or a small slice of tortilla de patatas (Spanish omelette).

Lugo
Another Galician place, known for offering free tapas is the walled city of Lugo. Here you’ll be given a free snack with your glass of Albariño wine or beer. Lugo’s tapas scene works differently from elsewhere too, here a waiter will come around with a tray of various types of dishes and you’ll select the one you like the look of best. These may include anything from pulpo (octopus) to empanadas (Galician-style pies), tortilla rellena (filled omelette) or anchoas (anchovies).

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