The culture of Tapas in Spain is one that dates back to the 16th Century. Its exact origins are often argued, but many say its core purpose can be found in its name. The word comes from “tapar”, or “to cover”, and many believe the tradition started with breads and meats being used to cover drinks – typically Sherry – and protect them from flies. Bartenders started noticing that the more snacks they provided with their drinks, the more people would drink. And so a culture was born. Or something like that…
Many bars continue to serve complimentary snacks with their drinks, but “Tapas” is a food culture of its own. No longer prohibited to bar snacks, almost anywhere you go in Spain – be it a restaurant, cafe, bar or even Bakery, will have some influence from the popular Spanish dining option. That is, small, shareable portions that one can combine to make into their lunch, dinner or late night snack. Or indeed, as a light accompaniment to a drink or three. And as today is World Tapas Day, we wanted to reflect back on our recent experiences in Barcelona – in part with Urban Adventures’ Tapas Tour – and give you some insight into exactly what the locals enjoy.
We start our journey at Lonja de Tapas (Plà del Palau, 7, 08003 Barcelona), which sits opposite the beautiful Santa Maria del Mar cathedral, where we enjoyed a mix of essential tapas choices – both the ones you’d expect and ones you may have not heard of. Above on the bottom right you’ll see a mix of Chopitos – fried baby squid – and above it is a staple of any tapas spot, Pimientos de Padrón, jalapenos cooked in olive oil. Most are mild, but they say one in ten will back a punch! On the left you’ll find a variation of a popular dish throughout Spain, Huevos Rotos, here served with truffled potatoes, covered in crunchy pork jowl (comparable to prosciutto) and egg (The full name in Spanish? “Huevo frito trufado con patatas y papada crujiente”).
In the basket are another delicious staple – Croquettes – here served with ham (“Croquetas caseras de jamón”). You’ll also see some Galacian style Octopus (“Pulpo a la gallega”), Traditional catalan flatbread with tomato and olive oil (“Pan de coca con tomate y aceite de oliva virgen”), and snuck in at the bottom left is one of our personal favourites, Potato meatballs with spicy sauce and garlic sauce (“Bombas de patata y carne con salsa brava y “all i oli””).
As we continued to explore the city with the Urban Adventures tapas tour, we would find plenty of variations of many of the staples seen above – alongside many other specialities. At La Candela* (Plaça de Sant Pere, 12, 08003 Barcelona) we had the ham croquettes as well as fried eggplant slices served with honey and cinnamon. They would get very addictive. Bar Borrell* (Av. del Paraŀlel, 84, 08015 Barcelona), who ensured we all had an Estrella in our hands, put emphasis on another classic, the patatas bravas, which is essentially fried potatoes with a mix of salsa brava and aioli or mayonnaise. You’re unlikely to go anywhere without seeing that dish.
La Confitería* (Carrer de Sant Pau, 128, 08001 Barcelona), which was a sweet shop in the early 1900s, had more of a focus on wine than beer – Cava being a popular choice, which is their local sparkling wine – and also delivered another staple of Chorizo (often cooked in wine), served here with dates. And the Boquerones (Anchovies served in vinegar) are a must have for any lovers of the fish delicacy.
You’ll notice seafood is a common thread of Tapas cuisine, but few seem to be as common nor as popular than the Octopus. Though dishes like the Calamares Fritos are common all over the world, it’s rare to see Octopus legs served whole like you’ll see above. At many traditional tapas bars, you will find “Pulpo a la gallega“, which is sliced octopus, boiled and served hot in olive oil, usually with paprika and salt, and often served over potatoes. But as part of Robadora‘s (18, Carrer Robador, 18, 08001 Barcelona) “Gastronomic” menu, the leg is presented whole, for you to slice up yourself, served over potatoes with a teriyaki sauce just to bring a suitable level of fusion to the dish (“Mar y montaña de pulpo “teriyaki””). This incredible dish just melted in your mouth.
One of the other rumoured origins of Tapas was its tradition in place of a menu. Since most in the 16th Century couldn’t read or write, rather than provide a menu, a bar would provide small samples of dishes to their guests as they drank. If they were interested, they could purchase the full meal. Places like Blai 9* (Carrer de Blai, 9, 08004 Barcelona) carry on that tradition – at least in part – providing small single portions of dishes (“pintxos”) that you can grab yourself from the bar.
Depending on the sort of plate you get, it will cost you 1 Euro or 1.5 Euro, and though there are some staples as part of their selections – such as the churro you can see hidden in the back, many of their selections are a lot more inventive, bringing together savory with sweet and raw meats with cooked. The selections above fit it all into a crepe and are beautifully presented. Think about it as the Spanish version of a sushi train. Minus the train. Or the sushi.
But if you’re really looking to get creative with your tapas, the best we experienced in Barcelona was Gilda by Belgious (Carrer Ample, 34, 08002 Barcelona). The dish above is one of the most inventive dishes we’ve ever tasted, in Catalonia or otherwise. Crispy Argentinian Prawns, served hot on top of Curry Ice Cream, sitting on top of a bed of basil puree and spinach leaves. It sounds bizarre – and it is – and you may be confused by the mix of hot and cold; savoury and sweet. But it is one of the best dishes we’ve ever eaten, and was only one part of a massive tapas feast we enjoyed at a truly incredible culinary experience. A night out at Gilda is essential for anyone visiting Barcelona.
Tapas doesn’t stop at savoury dishes, of course. You saw some churros earlier, and here is a dessert tapas from Robadora that keeps us in the more experimental world of Tapas cuisine; chocolate ice cream made in part from olive oil. Served almost at room temperature on crispy bread, with a small drizzle of salt, the dish tastes and feels more like a moose than an ice cream, and is a thankfully light selection to be enjoyed after what is inevitably going to be a coma enducing meal. And of course none of this is enjoyed without alcohol, though if you really want to live like a local, don’t order Sangria – instead go for the “Tinto de verano“, which is essentially red wine with lemon fanta. It’s surprisingly delicious, and a favourite of locals. In fact, we’re told that Sangria is only really enjoyed by tourists; though almost everywhere you go will be happy to do up a jug for you.
And if ever in doubt, between the tapas staples and the experimental selections, there’s always Paella. Though far from the definition of “tapas”, you’ll find the dish as a mainstay of most restaurants alongside their tapas menu. Served in a hot skillet, the dish is ready to be shared and sits as an excellent accompaniment to your tapas selections. The dish is usually priced “per person”, and you will usually have an option to have it with seafood, without seafood (usually chicken) or mixed. A mixed selection is pictured below, at a place called Ricon Del Artista, opposite the famous Teatre Apolo.
There’s definitely no right or wrong way to do tapas in Barcelona. Try to avoid the overpriced tourist traps though and explore the back streets. There are so many hidden culinary gems in this city – some just doing the staples (but doing them perfectly) and others thinking it’s a great idea to put prawns on some ice cream. But it’s that sort of thinking that makes Barcelona a foodie’s dream destination.
*When in Barcelona, you can get a taste of many of these dishes as part of the Urban Adventures’ Tapas Tour “en el barrio”. For more details on the tour head HERE. The author kindly participated in the tour as a guest of Urban Adventures. The places we visited as part of the tour are represented in the asterisk’s throughout the article.