In Spain, where food and socializing play key roles, and influence nearly every aspect of life, perhaps nothing colors food culture quite so much as tapas (and pinchos), those small tasty inventive mouthfuls of food. But tapas and pinchos are much more than simply hors d’oeuvres or sandwiches cut into pieces. They are an integral part of Spanish social life, and vary from region to region and city to city. From Barcelona to Pontevedra, and from Seville to San Sebastian, some things are the same, and some things are different. You may get tapas. You may get pinchos. You may get pintxos. Or you may get tapas and pinchos (pintxos). You’ll just have to grab a plate and try a couple (dozen), and join in this movable feast.
Some rumors say that long ago, to keep up his strength, an ailing Spanish king was forced to eat small amounts of food (with wine, of course) between meals, and the rest, as they say, is Spanish culinary and social history. Still others tell us that tapas began as small, easily portable, snacks for agricultural laborers tending fields and picking crops.
What we do know is that tapas and pinchos (pintxos) are small bites of food, sometimes grilled potatoes, seafood, ham, beef, cheese, peppers, etc. It all depends on where you are, what the local specialties consist of, what’s in season, and the local tastes. Likewise, tapas and pinchos (pintxos) are usually eaten with wine or beer, again depending on personal preferences and local customs.
Given the Spanish predilection for eating “dinner” very late, tapas are often used as kind of social bridge between work and the actual late evening meal. In Spain it’s not uncommon for friends and family to leave work late (between 5-7pm) and meet at a local restaurant or bar, have a glass of wine, and share a selection of tapas or pinchos (pintxos) before moving on to another establishment (and another, and…..) where they’ll do the same.
A tapas outing might consist of 3-10 individual tapas pieces per person per place, and an evening’s tapas excursion might take the group to 2-4 places (or more). Often the price per tapas piece is indicated by the type of platter they’re displayed on. Or, in the case of pinchos (pintxos), the number of toothpicks in the piece of food may signal the price.
Tapas vs. Pinchos (Pintxos):
Depending on where you are, and the restaurant/bar where you order, you may get tapas or pinchos. To outsiders they don’t look all that different, except pinchos are often built on a small piece of bread, and traditionally have one or more toothpicks (or other skewers) holding them together. And, to my eye, pinchos always seem a bit bigger (more substantial) than, “tapas”. Granted that may just be me feeling guilty and overfed as the night goes on.
In the Basque regions all “tapas” tend to be called pintxos even if they are not bread based (like a rice dish, grilled shrimp, or tortilla, roasted potato, etc.). And in many places, like Valencia, you’ll have tapas at one restaurant, and the next will serve pinchos or pintxos.
Tapas in Valencia:
In Valencia we started off at a convenient and popular restaurant known for its wine and seafood tapas. We each had a glass of wine and 2-3 small starter tapas (some calamari, and Spanish tortilla, etc.). After about 45 minutes we moved on to La Taberna de la Reina, a busy bar/restaurant that specializes in tapas and pinchos (pintxos). Here we each had a glass of wine and 6-7 more substantial pieces, sausages and egg on peppers, triangles of soft cheese with roasted red pepper on bread, and croquettes on bread, etc.
Dropping the social component and noise level down a bit, our next stop was a quiet back alley family restaurant, where we mainly had some small nibbles and another glass of wine.
When making the tapas rounds in Valencia, one great way to end the evening (as we did) is with a glass of cool sweet Agua de Valencia, at the world-renowned Cafe de las Horas. The drink is a Valencian classic (not dissimilar to a mimosa), and the antiquated 19th century brothel decor of the cafe puts everyone in a festive state of mind. The result is a campy, playful end to a night of tapas with friends and family.
Given the lively, festive and social nature of tapas, many of the best tapas venues are quite crowded and loud. I’m not terribly social in those kinds of places. But, something about the mix of food, good wine, and locals all bent on enjoying the people and the food as much (if not more) than the alcohol helped me reach outside my comfort zone and (God forbid) chat and joke with strangers. In a society with strong food traditions and excellent wines, tapas and pinchos (pintxos) are the perfect social lubrication – a just enough mix of all the best things in life: food, wine, friends, and family.
A tapas and pinchos (pintxos) outing in Spain is typically a healthy combination of food, friends and fun. It’s an event that is equal parts socializing, eating, drinking, and just generally enjoying oneself. But, regardless of the small size of each piece, the food can be quite filling. The good news is that the individual ingredients are usually fresh and of excellent quality, ranging from fatty, meaty, and cheesy, to brazenly healthy (veggies and greens).
So, if you find yourself in Spain, going out for tapas and pinchos (pintxos) is a, “must do” experience, and a great way to make new friends and deepen existing relationships.
Text and photos by Glenn D. Kaufmann
Tour guide info.
The author/editor is indebted to others for the content in this article. While the final product on this page is ours, and we claim full ownership and responsibility for same, what you read here is based on our research, which led us to the following sources of information:
1. Personal Interviews and experiences