Story and Photos by Manos Angelakis
Tapas, Pinchos, Pintxos and Montaditos
Unfortunately, the days of free tapas are almost completely over in Spain. Nowadays, the free bread-based tapas I remember from my earlier Spanish forays have been mostly replaced by charcuterie slices or small cooked plates; and the vast majority costs money.
Tapas may be cold (such as mixed olives, cheese wedges or jamón and sausage slices or raw fish) or hot (such as ‘albóndigas’ which are small meatballs in sauce or ‘gambas al ajillo’, fresh prawns in sizzling olive oil with garlic and chili peppers). In most bars of the larger towns in Spain, tapas have evolved into sophisticated regional cuisine.
Tapas should never cost much money unless served at a fancy gastro bistro. Costly tapas and pinchos or pintxos, as they are dubbed in the Spanish northwest, are targeted towards tourists.
A pincho has a toothpick speared through it. The toothpick is used to keep whatever the snack is made of from falling off the slice of bread and to keep track of the number of tapas the customer has eaten. Differently priced pinchos have toothpicks of different sizes or color. With the exception of large cities (Madrid, Zaragoza, Seville etc.) tapas are avoided at lunch. It’s more of a late afternoon or evening tidbit shared with friends while having a glass of wine or beer; in the larger cities tapas replacing a quick lunch are generally acceptable. In the Basque countryside, Catalonia, Andalucía and Navarra tapas are regarded as the underpinnings of local culture and social interaction. It is very common for a bar or small local restaurant to offer 8 to 15 different excellent tapas on top of the bar.
There is still confusion, even amongst Spaniards themselves, on whether tapas are free and pinchos are paid for or the other way around. In the 17th and early 18th century, at the time tapas originated, tapas (the Spanish word for cover) were a piece of bread large enough to cover the mouth of a glass; they were there to stop insects from trying to get into your glass of wine. At the time, the average Spanish wine, especial sherry, was much sweeter and would attract fruit flies, bees and other winged creatures. By the mid 18th century some enterprising Andaluz tavern owner realized that if your tapa had a piece of salty cured meat or salty cheese on it, you would eat it; the salt would cause thirst therefore you would consume more wine. Another possible explanation for using a cheese tapa was when the tavern sold poor quality wine; the strong smell of a very ripe cheese would cover the poor smell of cheap wine. That is the reason simple tapas of salty meat or cheese were free, to cause thirst and more wine drinking or cover the bad taste of cheap wine. It is much later on, by the late 1920s, that tapas started appearing as small amounts of cooked food on a piece of bread.
In the Basque Country, you are served 'pintxos'; it is never written 'pinchos' and they are never called 'tapas'. You always pay for your pintxos. In Salamanca, in most bars, you are served ‘pinchos’. They are almost always a piece of meat or cheese or pickled fish and nowadays even something more elaborate, skewered with a toothpick and served on a piece of bread. However, here sometimes they might be free, one for each glass of wine you drink. In Granada and some other nearby cities as well as in some bars in Madrid, a small portion of food, whether served on bread or not, is a ‘tapa’. It is not free. ‘Piparras’ are a kind of pincho that consist of pickled items like olives, garlic cloves, baby onions, cornichons, chilies and pieces of pimentón mounted together on a toothpick without bread; sometimes they include a pickled white anchovy. In Murcia and the capital city of Madrid, a pickled white sardine (boquerón) and a salt-cured dark anchovy (anchoa) on a piece of white bread are called ‘matrimonio’ i.e. marriage; and you will find them served on many bars. In Seville and other parts of Andalusia all small portions are called 'tapas'. They are not free; neither are ‘montaditos’ the Catalan name for a tapa made of something in a piece of bread-roll the size of a tapa. The montadito is a tradition that predates even the sandwich, all the way back to the fifteenth century. In most cities, portions large enough to share with at least another person or two are called ‘ración’. There is also 'media ración' which is smaller than a ración but larger than just a tapa.
Is it all clear now?
For more information on tapas read More about Tapas
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