The first curious thing about tapas lies in the name. Both scholars and amateurs of this emergency gastronomy agree to recognize that the term “tapa” comes from a deep-rooted habit that existed in Andalusian groceries, taverns and bars and consisted in serving glasses of “manzanilla” or sherry protected or covered with a delicious slice of pork meat. On the one hand, this prevented the numerous flies enjoying the shade of the bar from diving into the golden wines, and on the other hand, it enabled drinkers to have some solid food as they enjoyed their drink. The word “tapa”, is said to be rather antique by some scholars. Yet, it didn’t enter the sacrosanct columns of the “Diccionario de la Real Academia” until the sixteenth edition, dated in 1939, meaning “food accompanying the aperitif”.
Néstor Luján narrates in his book called “The ritual of the aperitif” that the golden age of tapas “took place after the Civil War, when they were used to deceive or to satisfy the appetite in bars”. One thing is sure: both the word “tapa” itself and the habit of accompanying wine with delectable morsels come from Andalusia and spread throughout the rest of Spain with the passing years. The sharp tavernkeepers soon realized that customers would drink more and would bring more money to the fund if they were helped by a tasty morsel that would make them be thirs-tier. In next to no time they were displaying a wide range of tasty culinary temptations at the bars. This was a big qualitative step forward for the world of catering, and most tavernkeepers didn’t think it twice before doing it.
So all over Spain we can find enclaves deeply devoted to tapas, such as Seville, Madrid, Granada, Cordoba, Saragossa, Salamanca or Pamplona. But there’s a little drawback, as in all these places tapas have to be paid for and are rather expensive. But this doesn’t happen everywhere, as there still are some privileged places in Spain where tapas are offered by altruistic tavernkeepers who don’t care as long as the accounting books keep on increasing exclusively with money coming from wine, beer, or from any other alternative to thirst, as there are a lot of them in the busy world we are living in! Let’s hope this will last!
'Tapas' in Leon
Leon is one of these privileged lands. Here tapas are a present, a gift, a donation gently offered to accompany a drink, and they beco-me another attractive feature for the well-informed visitors coming to the capital of the Old Kingdom to enjoy the miraculous balance of the white architecture of the Cathedral, the solemn austerity of the ancestral stones of San Isidoro, the renaissance style golden colours of San Marcos… and, last but not least, the intoxicating atmosphere of the Wet District, El Burgo Nuevo, La Pícara, Eras and many other places for having fun, drinking and enjoying food. Of course, the most renowned wines for these banquets are the ones named Mencía del Bierzo and Prieto Picudo coming from the lands of the south-eastern quadrant of the region. These wines are harmoniously accompanied with “cecina” (dried beef typical from Leon), cured ham, chorizo (Spanish sau-sage), blood pudding, sausages, tripes, giz-zards and some more fried and stewed food free of charge.
As any other thing, the culture of having tapas has developed with the passing time. Until the beginning of the eighties, in Leon tapas were only served in the morning, but little by little people went on serving them also in the after-noon and in the evening, and now, at the dawn of the 21st century, they are even served with the coffee of the morning. There are not many bars or cafeterias that don’t serve white cof-fee, coffee with cream or tea with a drop of milk with a pastry cake, a biscuit or a donough. Undoubtedly, due to this habit the number of hungry office-workers having a twenty-minute coffee break to satisfy their hunger eating these atypical tapas has increa-sed notably. The tapas served in many establishments of Leon deserve this name as much for their qua-lity as for their quantity, but in the past tapas in Leon were just a “banderilla” (a cocktail snack) or “pincho”, a light morsel to accom-pany wine or beer and make the ingestion easier. Actually, they didn’t appease the need for food, as on the contrary, they were so little that they sharpened the heartburn, and they really were little appetizers and the prelude of a more or less lavish feast that would take place soon. Nowadays, most bars and cafés serve authen-tic tapas, and if there are two or three rounds, they can supply the vitamins and proteins required for lunch or dinner, and people enjo-ying them go directly from the aperitif to cof-fee, a practice called “café olé”. Some establishments combining a bar and restaurant service also use tapas to present their very best dishes. Little shells featuring ink squids, meat or salt cod with potatoes, giz-zards in sauce or hot mussels serve as a guide, as a free advertisement intended for the customers who are already tasting a tapa, to persuade them to have a complete lunch or dinner at the restaurant.
In Leon there were and there still are some tapas that can be considered as a reference, as an example, as the basis of a whole tradi-tion. The potatoes with yellow sauce of the old
“Racimo de Oro”, located in the ancient “Casa de las Carnicerías” (House of the Butchers’) are really unforgettable. The ones that could be tasted in the bygone “Bar Bayón” were a bit different. This bar was located in the corner of Gil y Carrasco and the Burgo Nuevo, just in front of “Casa Llanos”, one of the last grocery & tavern that existed in the capital and where tapas were never served. The boiled blood of the “Bodega Regia” when it was located in the San Martín square is another classical tapa of Leon; nowadays, it can be tasted in some bars of La Pícara. Fried squids served in “San Román” or “Madrid” two typical bars of the Romantic Distric are worth a mention; they were generally served in succulent sandwi-ches, but could also be tasted as tapas at the bar. “Casa Miche” was also renowned for squids; they were dressed with breadcrumbs and served as a crusty “gabardina”. Miche was a very rapid winger of the “Cultural y Deportiva Leonesa” when the capital’s first football team was in First Division. When he gave up football he went into the world of catering and opened a bar in the heart of the Wet District, and ser-ved as tapas squids with breadcrumbs that delighted and amazed both locals and tourists. “La Madrileña”, located in the Cervantes stre-et, was a different place, a little bar that was a former cider factory, and where the bartender used to offer just a few olives as a tapa, but where it was possible to taste a wide variety of high-quality canned food, such as mussels, bonito and mackerel in vinegar and garlic mari-nade, anchovies… but one had to pay for this food…
The former eating places
“La Gitana”, “Casa Benito” and “El Besugo”, have always been unavoidable meeting places to know the ins and outs of Leonese cuisine and the tapas offered in these places have always been in line with this well deserved status. Formerly these taverns were eating-houses with huge tables and benches where farm workers coming on Wednesdays and Saturdays to sell their products in the markets of the Main Square used to devour big fried mackerels to improve their deficiency of phosphorus, but where they also were allowed to savour the food they had brought from the village, provided they paid a bottle of wine. This situation changed drastically, and nowadays, some of them have become illustrious restaurants.
Treatises on tapas
It must be clear that in Leon there was and there still is an important difference between the so-called “pincho”, “ración” and “tapa”. The pincho free of charge used to be and still is very successful. Tapas, just as a “tapa” have never been a very common habit except on some honorable occasions. And as regards the “ración”, that is to say an abundant “tapa”, it is a dish that could be found in any menu, and is very appreciated by people. Although they are rather abundant and tasty, “raciones” are generally eaten at the bar. In Leon they are tasted during the never-ending rounds from one bar to another, while friends meet infor-mally to talk. Let’s return back a few years ago! Post-war couples used to gather on Sundays and for-med happy groups of people; they tried to for-get everyday problems while tasting some tri-pes at El Angelillo”, or fried blood pudding at “Casa Lorenzo”. This food was not that expen-sive, and accompanied with a jar of good wine or beer with soda it would be easier for them to forget for a moment the miseries that were about to come. The typical “raciones” of León, the good old ones, are the above-mentioned tripes, stewed gizzards, liver with onions, kid-neys with sherry, octopus Galician style (an unforgettable dish thanks to the brothers who managed “El Cimanes” and “El Cuervo”, in the Sal street, a famous spot as it is a passage place for the procession of Genarín on Holy Thursday night), or also octopus in vinaigrette (as it was cooked at the former “Farola Roja”),
fresh anchovies in vinegar, prawns with garlic or “gabardina” prawns, fried or ink squids… and also potatoes cooked using different methods and featuring more than a hundred different sauces, although this “ración” is not that accepted, because potatoes are not very appreciated by Leonese cooks despite their unchangeable gastronomic virtues. In the sixties, mushrooms became very popu-lar. This fungus grows in dark gloomy taverns and because of it, the manager of “La Taberna”, a magnificent bar located in the Paso street gave up the bar that disappeared and dedicated himself to growing and selling this little fungus all over the bars of the capital. The potatoe omelette or Spanish omelette deserves a different paragraph, as it has always been a cheap alternative to gather around a jar, especially in the bodegas of the Wet District, ready to drink, eat and sing. The so-called Peña del Jarro was very renowned. This group of friends used to gather in the depths of the “Bodega Regía” in order to give free expres-sion to the members’ singing fondness, and the most famous voices of the Orfeón Leonés and of the Coral Isidoriana were discovered here. Here there only are potatoe omelettes, as the classic and genuine one, with onion, pep-pers from Fresno or from El Bierzo, with bonito and even with asparagus and ham.
In Leon generally people don’t drink alone. Going to a bar, to a tavern or to a cafeteria is just the best excuse to socialize, or to increa-se the circle of friends. Washed down with a sparkling wine from Leon or from the Bierzo, the conversation arises easily, controversy is maintained, and definitely everything is sorted out. But people from Leon think it is a non-sense to drink if there’ s nothing to eat, and an ancient controversy stirs up continuously bet-ween restaurant & bar owners and customers, a kind of debate concerning the “Right and Gift”, like the one celebrated yearly by the representatives of the town hall and those of the Chapter of the Cathedral and and San Isidoro. The proprietors of the bars and restau-rants say that “tapas” are a present, a proof of their good will that they are offering to have some peace, whereas customers claim that “tapas” are a right, an authentic duty that bar-keepers always have to serve free of charge with any glass of wine. There will always be a discussion concerning this, and as town coun-cilors will keep on going year after year to the first Leonese temples, barkeepers will also keep on offering with the same magnanimous generosity tasty tapas for the glory of Bacchus and so that lucky customers can keep on enjoying and fattening.