The last time I was in Spain (in Granada to be exact), I stopped counting the number of different tapas I had after 22 - and that was after only 4 days! Admittedly, I had to do a little lunchtime drinking too to get to that number, but it was certainly worth it. Nowadays, ‘tapas’ is a word which is understood and used in other languages too. But do you know the history of tapas?

You can find them in every big city across the world: tapas bars! With their delicious, varied appetisers ranging from olives and cold cuts of meat to fried fish and patatas bravas, it is a great meal to share with friends. What you may not know is that in Andalusia, and in particular Granada, tapas are traditionally served free with your drink!

Nobody is quite sure where the name comes from. Generally, people believe that it comes from the Spanish word “tapar” which means to cover. Barkeepers would cover their patrons’ drinks with a thin slice of bread to prevent attracting flies. Over time, the barkeepers became more creative, decorating the bread with thinly sliced jamón or chorizo. The salty snack made their patrons even more thirsty, helping them to sell more beer! Another tale (and my favourite) suggests that serving tapas was a law brought in by the king at the time, so that workers would not get drunk on an empty stomach while working!

How to get (free) tapas (in Granada)

Granada is considered the home of tapas: “free” tapas is very common here and across the whole Granada region. The rules in Granada are pretty simple: order a small beer (caña) or “summer wine” (tinto de Verano - a mix of red wine and lemonade) in one of Granada’s spectacular bodegas or bars, and soon after your drink has arrived, it will be followed by a small plate of Andalucian specialties! Nowadays, you'll also get a tapas when ordering non-alcoholic beverages too.

What you are served is a surprise, so it might be a good idea to notify your waiter immediately if there are any vegetarians at the table. Other than this, it is generally frowned upon to make demands about what you are essentially getting for free.

With each round of drinks, you receive a new serving of tapas. First you might get a slice of Spanish omelette, the next might be a plate of fried fish. I spent three weeks learning Spanish in Granada, and was amazed by the quality of tapas on offer in the bars. I don’t think I ate the same thing twice in the time I was there! In my experience, the tapas seemed to get more elaborate and tastier with each round, so I would recommend choosing one bar and sticking to it for the whole evening.

You may also be surprised to hear that locals generally don’t only go for the free tapas. Most of the bars have a list of ‘raciones’ - a price list of all the things you can order a portion of. What the Spanish tend to do is have a few drinks and tapas first, and then decide on what they fancy as a larger portion of food from the list. I've also met Spaniards who were out for a tapas while their "real" meal was waiting for them at home. At some bars, if you order a drink while you have your ‘racion’, they won’t serve the drink with an additional tapas. Or sometimes the barman will ask if you would like tapas. They are just trying to be considerate - not wanting to overfeed you while you have food in front of you already.

Tapas traditions in other parts of Spain

If you have been lucky enough to enjoy the tapas culture of Granada, tapas in other parts of Spain can be perceived as a bit of a disappointment: suddenly having to pay for something that you had got for free in Granada is going to have that effect on you! However, there are some great positives to the other traditions too. A lot of the experiences are sometimes simply down to the bar itself - for example, I’ve come across the Granada-style free tapas in Madrid and in Barcelona. Here are some of the other methods tapas are served across Spain.

I had several different (and nice!) experiences in northern and north west of Spain. In Bilbao and San Sebastian, the tapas are known as pintxos. They are typically served as a slice of baguette with a topping. Toppings can be cheese, meat, fish, sausage, vegetarian or a combination, and often with delicious sauces or dressings. The big difference from Granada is that you pay for what you eat. In La Coruña and Santiago de Compostela I was in bars where the waiters carried a tray of the pintxos-style tapas around and when they approached your table, you simply chose what you wanted. Each of the pintxos had a toothpick in it. When you’re ready to pay, the waiter will simply count the number of toothpicks to work out the price for you. This will all be explained by the staff when you arrive.

Another method I came across was what I would call the “stack ‘em high” method. This happened to me in Alcalá la Real and in Priego de Córdoba in the north of Andalusia. It actually seemed crazy the first time, but there is a method to their madness I suppose. My partner and I sat down outside a bar in Alcalá la Real and ordered two small beers. Soon after, we were served the beers AND a plate full of very nice tapas - actually pintxos style bread with toppings. The plate was stacked 3 high and came as a shock at first. However, the method was revealed when we ordered our next round. This time no tapas were served. The method here was to serve everything with the first drink, and that encourages you to order more drinks until you’ve finished the food. 

The next method is very uncomplicated and involves simply ordering your tapas from a tapas menu. I’ve come across this in places as far from each other as Sevilla and Barcelona. This method means you actually get what you want (unlike in Granada where the tapas are courtesy of the bar). Prices will be shown and it’s really as simple as that.

By the way, if you're a beer drinker, the typical way to order a beer is to ask for a 'caña'. Generally speaking, it'll be 200-300ml - a small beer. It leaves plenty of room for the food. If you specifically want something more like a pint, you can ask for a 'cerveza grande' or even a pint (una pinta). However, some bars won't even have that size of glass. A friend of mine once bought us both a pint in a tapas bar. Our tapas didn't turn up so I eventually asked the barman. I think he was maybe trying to make a point and Spanish barman can have a very dry sense of humour, but he said: Anyone drinking a beer that big can't have room for tapas. We got our tapas of course, but I totally got his point.

Wherever you go in Spain you are likely to see tapas in one form or another. It's usually a positive experience and probably one of the things you'll miss. If you would like to learn more about the ins-and-outs of life in Spain and learning Spanish, why not follow us on Facebook, where we will be posting regularly on these topics. If you'd like to learn Spanish in Spain, Estudia-España offers great deals and discounts at schools in 13 cities throughout Spain!