On one end of Spain’s culinary scale are the glitzy, Michelin-starred establishments. On the other end are the humbler, smaller bars where locals go to enjoy small bites, pintxos or tapas.
Tapas are synonymous with Spain. But contrary to popular opinion, tapas are more than just a snack. They can be a whole meal, or a whole lot of little meals!
Where did tapas originate, and how are they different from pintxos (Basque spelling) or pinchos (Spanish version)? As early as the seventh century, the Moors who inhabited the land introduced such exotic spices as pepper and saffron. Those living along the coast learned to infuse their food — mostly seafood — with an array of ingredients.
The Moors invented small delicacies, and they ate them with a glass of wine. Tapas, often on small bread slices, were used as a sort of lid over the wine glass, to keep flies at bay. Over the centuries, these varied and intricate nibbles became almost a culinary tradition.
Even before you get to savor a bite, you should know that much of the culinary skill lies in preparing and choosing ingredients. Whether it is the perfect slice of seared sirloin, sizzling over toast, or a fresh fish caught that morning, spiced with garlic and vinegar, it’s all a feast.
When eating, let your eyes lead first. Take whatever looks good. This is a journey for all the senses. Croquetas are a great first finger food, jamón ibérico or chorizo, gambas (shrimp either simply boiled, fried or grilled with a generous helping of garlic) and boquerones en vinagre (anchovies) will charge you with their zingy flavor.
The main difference here is simply that a pintxo (called pincho outside of Basque), are the types of snacks that are pierced and held together with a cocktail stick. While traditionally, they were often sandwiched with small slices of bread, today they may be rolled-up meats without any pastries at all.
Don’t worry about ordering pintxos when in northern Spain or the Basque region. When at the bar, it is customary to just take and start enjoying what is served up on the plates. You’ll be charged later, unless you’re somewhere that the tapas come free with drinks, such as in some bars in Granada or Madrid. When unsure, simply ask your bartender — but we do hope you’ve brought good local company.
“They have a saying here that roughly translates into: A Little bit, Often,” says Anthony Bourdain, in his A Cook’s Tour “San Sebastian: A Food Lover’s Town.” “This is strange behavior, but I kinda like it!” He visited Basque country, with its culture of eating, cooking and eating some more. It’s a great base to experience your own pintxos tour of San Sebastian.
Go on your own type of pub crawl when in Spain; the tapas keep you level-headed as you sip the wine and make new friends. And remember, you don’t even have to sit down to a full meal. Standing at the bar while trying a little bit of everything is a common practice. Then, move on to the next bar on your tapas tour.
But, by far the best way to enjoy a tapas or pintxos tour to the full, is going with locals. Even us locals love going with friends who live in specific cities or town, or even a district, to get an authentic taste of life in Spain, from those who know it best. Madrid, San Sebastián, Seville or Barcelona are the four top tapas tour destinations where you better go with a local to avoid the filled with tourists establishments and target the right addresses.
Eating and drinking with friends as you move from one spot to another in search of the best tapa or pintxo is a way of life here, and a great way to make new friends in town. As you savor each bite, each sip and each conversation, you get a glimpse of extraordinary life in Spain. It doesn’t exist quite like this anywhere else in the world.