Spain is the home of some of the most friendly and vibrant people with a famously social way of life. The overwhelming culture of the country is often best represented in the cuisine. Nothing epitomises the vivacity of the Spanish social life better than tapas and raciones. But do you really know what they are? What if you get up your nerve to wander into a bar, and you find that there is no such thing on the menu?
Tapas are small, appetiser size portions of almost anything. They can be a small plate of ham and cheese, or tiny sandwiches, or a plate of olives, a small skewer of pickled vegetables or seafood; the list goes on and on. Many bars will serve a complimentary tapa with each round of drinks, but order further portions and you’ll begin to rack up a bill.
Wander into a bar and you’ll see half a dozen or a dozen different types of food under glass on the bar. Choose a couple and enjoy them with a glass of wine or beer. The first time we did this, we were unsure of the price, so we asked for the bill after a beer and a couple of tasty choices. The price was so reasonable that we stayed to enjoy more.
It’s likely that you’ll be having such an enjoyable time socialising and eating tapas that you’ll want to stick around for a bit longer. Raciones are the best solution – they’re slightly larger portions of tapas food, meant for sharing between people. They can extend a social drink into a proper meal. If you still want to try a variety of the delicacies on offer, it’s possible to order a ½ racion (media-racion) so you can eat without getting too full.
Outside on the Plaza Mayor in Madrid having a racion of Serrano ham and cheese may be the most expensive way to go, but if you can afford it it’ll be well worth it. On the other hand, if you want to get a little more intimate with Spanish life, find a little bar on a back street, stand at the bar and take in the swirl of life around you. As you’ll find out, location is key. Depending on where you choose to drink your Spanish beer and consume your tapas, you’ll be charged a different amount.
Standing or sitting at the bar will get you the best price, and the added bonus of a little Spanish practice by mingling with the bar staff and local patrons. If your legs are a little sore from your adventures of the day, sitting at a table inside will cost you a bit extra. The highest prices are reserved for sitting out on the plaza, but keep in mind you’ll have the best views and fresh air.
There are a huge variety of tapas bars scattered around Spain. There’s no point wasting your precious time searching fruitlessly for a particular bar you’ve read about. The tapas on offer constantly change at the whim of the chef. Just find a bar that looks lively and that you’ll be comfortable in. Sometimes you can order a small sampler plate. While this isn’t the technique of the locals, it may help to ease you into buying tapas.
Tapas bars teem with personality and vigour, and each one is slightly different from the next. To experience the array on offer, do as the Spaniards do and hop from bar to bar in the evening. In Spain, dinner is traditionally eaten late at night. It could be 10 or 11 pm before they sit down to their evening meal, so tapas help to fuel their post-work socialising in bars.
So Buen provecho!
Hey – have you been to Spain? We’d love to hear about your experiences – as always comments are welcome and encouraged.