Published in Dungarvan Leader Page 11 on Tuesday 13th of July 2021
Few Spanish terms have enjoyed a wider international success than these morsels now to be found in most countries and languages. The Royal Spanish Academy defines them as Pequeña porción de algún alimento que se sirve como acompañamiento de una bebida (Small portion of food served as accompaniment to a drink), and indeed that is how tapas have originally been served, although their popularity has also made them a dish in their own right.
In a curious etymological twist, few people might know that the word is actually a distant cousin of the English "tap" in its meaning of "valve" or "plug", which stems from the Old English tæppa, and in turn from the Proto-Germanic *tappô. The latter also evolved into the Gothic *TAPPA (*tappa), introduced by the Visigoths in Spain in the Early Middle Age, and thence the Spanish tapa.
Indeed, those readers with certain knowledge of the language might have realised that the meaning of tapa in Spanish is "lid" or "cover", and might be tempted to ascribe it to a simple morphological coincidence. But is that the case? Let us look at the origin of the dish.
Two main theories have been posited to explain the source of this peculiar titbit. One of them claims that King Alfonso X stipulated that all the inns of the realm serve a small portion of food with all drinks to curb their inebriating effect and thereby the incidence of road accidents. This visionary move predates the Road Traffic Act 1961 by seven centuries; no wonder Alfonso received the soubriquet El Sabio (The Wise). Innkeepers started to serve the regulatory snack —typically a piece of cheese or cured meat— on a small plate balanced on top of the drinking vessel to prevent undesirable items from falling into the drink, which would have been frequent at a time and place of rather insalubrious conditions. The second theory attributes it a more recent, albeit equally royal, origin. When King Alfonso XIII was on an official visit to Cádiz at the beginning of the 20th century, he and his retinue ordered some wine at a local pub by the beach. As the waiter was serving the wine, a breeze sprang up and, in order to prevent sand from falling into the glass, he had the felicitous idea of covering it with a slice of ham before serving it. The king liked the idea, ate the ham, drank the wine and it soon became popular across all hospitality establishments.
As we can see, whichever theory we opt to believe, it seems that the tapa was indeed originally used as a cover for the drink, making it literally a tapa. Since I am certain that in this day and age no one will take to the road after a session and our local pubs in Dungarvan display far more hygienic conditions than mediæval Castilian inns, we can now enjoy our tapas any way we like: with or without a tipple, covering our glass or safely resting on the table. Que aproveche.
Sergio Fernández Redondo
Sergio hails from Asturias in northern Spain and has recently relocated to Dungarvan, where he is a PR assistant at Spaniology. Having an eclectic background in engineering, translation and linguistics, he is also a keen aficionado of history and languages.
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