The aperitivo is an amorphous activity. A Shapeless and timeless event where there is no telling what form it will take or where it will go or how it will end, not unlike the first 30 minutes of my morning. In theory, it is supposed to start and finish before lunch. It was designed that way by some divine force. Designed to whet your appetite with this country’s finest delectables before moving on to the main meal of the day known as lunch.
But it doesn’t have to. Before you know it, it can become the main meal right there and then.
Though I am sure I have mentioned this before, the teacher within me beckons me to bring up the following point to clarify an often misunderstood concept: the tapa. This little morsel generally plays a tiny but vital role. It is a small nibble which is placed alongside whatever you are having as a drink. It’s free, or at least should be. The origins of this tradition are hard to trace but the legends abound. Several stories involve a king of some kind who happens into a bar and orders some wine. In order to keep the drink from getting dirty, the tavern keeper lays a slice of ham over the top. The monarch likes the idea and a new trend is set. Other tales have the king passing a law requiring the bars to provide food with the drink to reduce the effects of the alcohol. To ensure that the customers stick to the rules, the food is placed over the opening of the drink, meaning it must be eaten before moving on to the drink. You see, the word “tapa” can be translated as “cover” or “lid”.
These are quaint little stories and they are repeated to foreigners of other countries time and again. Trust me, I hear them. But they are about as factual as a comic strip. A closer examination of the facts suggest it may have to do with a military provisions break from centuries back. It was what we called in the summer camp my parents forced me to go to as punishment for the crime of being an 11-year-old boy with not enough to do, as a “dope stop”.
What is true is that the habit has been around a long time and it is practiced in different ways around the country. Madrid is a particularly fertile tapas land. Nowadays it has become fashionable to make upscale version of the classic fare with top-notch chefs toying around with whatever they have in their fridges to come up with works of art…at auction prices. There is nothing wrong with innovating; I hear it is good for the mind. But in no way do they reflect the true nature of the concept of tapas. That is my fancy way of saying to forget the culinary crap and get down to the real homestyle chow. Or something to that effect. Real tapa-going is immensely more sincere.
On weekends, especially Sundays, the aperitivo can acquire dimensions that border on the insane as their time span can reach hours in length. It is a kind of Spanish brunch, but without all the brunchiness about it. That’s food for thought with a terrible pun to boot. It’s my little tapa for you today. And it’s free.