In a way it seems strange to write an article about the 'etiquette' of tapas. The nature of tapas should mean that manners and protocol are forgotten in a flurry of sharing, finger-using and general 'digging in'. This is the essence of what tapas are all about. But in spite of this, there is no denying the fact that, on first arriving in Barcelona the tapas experience can be a daunting one. When I first moved to Spain it took me some time to work up the courage to take a deep breath and wade in to a busy bar to fight my way to the front and place an order in pidgin Spanish. Over time I have learnt little tricks of the trade to make trips for tapas easier and more enjoyable. Now's my chance to share these tips with you.
|Quimet y Quimet|
|Quimet y Quimet|
I went to one of Barcelona's oldest and most authentic tapas bars, Quimet y Quimet to investigate the tapas - eating habits of the locals.
This page will cover the various names for tapas dishes, how to order tapas, some common tapas dishes in Barcelona, what to drink with your tapas and how to pay.
Tapas: This is the general name for small dishes of food that are served to be shared. They can vary widely and cover anything from a bowl of almonds or olives to a plate of grilled prawns.
|A 'Plato Combinado' at Quimet y Quimet|
Raciones: On menus you will often see the dishes marked with two separate prices - one for tapas and one for raciones. This will simply be the same dish, but a bigger portion of it - ideal for when you're really hungry.
Pinchos. This is a concept that originates from the Basque region of Spain. Pinchos are like mouth sized tapas - always served on top of pieces of bread. They are also sometimes called 'Montaditos' (this is what they are called in Quimet y Quimet).
Platos Combinados: This is the name often given to what we might call 'meat and two veg' - an entire meal on a plate. However, it sometimes also relates to tapas. In Quimet y Quimet a Plato Combinado is a larger plate containing a variety of the tapas that are on offer.
The best tapas are often served standing in a crowded and smoky bar. Rule number one is to get stuck in - do not be intimidated by a crowd at the bar, all waiting to place orders. Make your presence known and let the bar staff know what you want. If you are unsure about quantity, you can ask the person serving you whether they think that you have ordered enough. They are generally honest in their response.
It can be worth telling the waiter that you intend to eat, rather than simply order a drink. They will then find you a small table or a space on the bar top where you can place the food that you order.
|Tapas on the Bar Top|
You will sometimes find on entering a tapas bar that the options on offer are displayed in glass cabinets along the bar top. These displays can be the closest that you will get to seeing a menu. Simply point at what you like the look of and let the bar staff plate it up for you. If it is something served hot, they will send it to the kitchen and will grab your attention when it is ready for you to eat.
If you are feeling overwhelmed by what to order and have no idea how much anything costs, it is often a good idea to place yourself in the hands of your trusty waiter or waitress. Simply tell them how much money you have to spend, any likes and dislikes and anything that you are particularly in the mood for (e.g. shellfish or local meats). Then leave it up to them to make the order on your behalf. They will know what is fresh that day and the house specialities. This can often be where the best tapas experiences come from.
If you go to a Basque style pincho bar such as Euskal Etxea or Golfo de Bizkai, the etiquette is slightly different. All of the pinchos (see above for a description of pinchos) are displayed on plates along the bar top. Simply ask a waiter for a plate and get stuck in. Work your way along the bar and do not be afraid to squeeze between people perching there. Load your plate with the pinchos that you like the look of. Whilst eating make sure that you save the small toothpicks that are stuck in each one. This is how the bar staff will work out your bill - by counting the number of toothpicks on your plate.
Tapas vary from region to region. Barcelona is not particularly well known for its tapas culture, in comparison to other areas such as the Basque country and Andalusia. However, it does have a few classics that you will see again and again on menus. Tapas are not always the chorizo and garlic prawns that you might have come to expect. Some typical tapas that you might expect to see in Barcelona:
Pan con Tomate: The quintessential Catalan tapa. White bread rubbed with tomato and drizzed in oil and salt. A perfect accompaniment to the rest of your tapas.
Patatas Bravas: The chips or french fries of Spain. Small deep fried cubes of potato served with two sauces - alioli (a garlicky mayonnaise) and a spicy tomato sauce.
Chipirones: I have never seen these deep fried baby squids outside of Spain. They are tiny and you will receive a plate heaped with them.
Anchoas: These anchovies are not normally the very salty kind that you may be used to. They are served in vinegar with parsley and garlic. Delicious.
Russian Salad: Not the healthiest of salads. This is a heavy dish made up of potatoes, peas, hard boiled eggs and potential other vegetables, covered in mayonnaise.
Croquetas: Croquetas are often made with ham, fish, chicken or spinach. They are made from a sort of béchamel sauce, breaded and deep fried.
A little known fact about Barcelona is that it is one of the top cities in the world for sampling high quality tinned foods. Take a look in the local food shops and you will be bowled over by the prices of some of the tins of seafood. A tin of clams can sell for up to €40.00. Bear this in mind if you receive a plate of tuna, mussels of razor clams that have come from a tin. These can be considered to be as good as their fresh equivalent on a quality batch. Leave thoughts of jellied eels behind, tuck in and see if you can find the subtle flavours that are so popular with the locals. Quimet y Quimet specialise in serving this kind of seafood.
There are no hard and fast rules on what to drink whilst eating your tapas. Of course, it may depend on what type of tapas you have ordered. However, you will notice that the locals tend to opt for lighter accompaniments to their tapas. In pincho bars, a Basque cider or a light white wine called Txacoli are common. In local Barcelona bars a quick survey of the room will find most Barcelonans sipping on cava or vermouth. Strong red wines are not recommended when eating tapas since they can overload the taste buds. What you need is a light, refreshing slightly chilled white wine or cider that will clear the palate between tapas dishes so you can enjoy the variety of flavours you will experience during tapas dining.
Barcelona locals love to talk about the 'guiris' - the tourists and foreigners who come to the city with no knowledge of the culture. A sure - fire way to blow your guiri cover is by trying to pay for your drink or tapas whilst ordering. In Barcelona you will be impressed by the abilities of the bar staff and waiters to remember the various orders of hoards of people - sometimes not even writing them down. Relax and enjoy your food and simply request "la cuenta" (the bill) when you're finished and ready to leave.
|A selection of tapas|
The whole notion of tapas is intended to grease the wheels for an evening of chatter, liveliness and camaraderie with friends. It is important to leave your pre-conceived notions of how to enjoy lunch or dinner behind. There will be no 'I'm ordering this' -all of the dishes will be shared and devoured. And do not, under any circumstances, politely leave the last prawn sitting on the plate for someone else to enjoy - if you don't take it the waiter will have whisked away the plate before you have time to shriek in protest. Take example from the locals and enjoy the moment - you are likely to be standing in a crowded space all night, but this is part of the fun.
For some ideas of places to go with your new-found tapas knowledge, check my Barcelona's Top Tapas Bars.