All around the world now it is fashionable to go to tapas bars, but guess what!! It all started here in the Basque Country and Navarra. Tapas, or “pinchos” as we say in the Basque Country, is not just food, it is so much more. Lonely Planet has said that San Sebastián Tapas experience is the best food experience in the world.
What is a Tapa?
A Tapa in the rest of the world is a small bite. Yes, that is what it is, but here in the Basque country those bites represent perfection. Normally served over a piece of bread, you can find toppings of crab salad, cod fish, sirloin, Blood sausage, mushrooms, you name it. Be aware, because you will see amazing tapas displayed on the counters, but the special ones are called “Pinchos Calientes‘ ‘ and you will not find them exposed, they will be written on a black board behind the counter. These tapas are made at the very last second just for you.
When I am doing a tapas tour, I always tell my guests that unless they have an allergy, they should eat whatever appeals more to them, and just don’t ask what it is until they have eaten it. Many times, we say no to amazing food, because we think we are not going to like something that is in it, something like anchovies, leek or octopus. Just think that if you don’t like one tapa, you don’t have to eat it all, and you are just throwing away 3 or 4 Euros.
But it is not only the food. It is about the vibe around the bars. At the beginning you will be a bit intimidated by the chaos, but once you get a hold on it, you will love it. Relax and start talking to the people around you. That is when the magic will start. We are losing the pleasure of talking to strangers, today we all communicate with our smartphones, and we don’t know how to talk. In this relaxed atmosphere, you will get to meet people from all the corners in the world. Share with your new friends your favorite bars, talk about food, wine, life. You are on vacation, you have time. Enjoy your time, you don’t need to rush. Food is just the excuse (and what an excuse)
TAPAS CRAWL in COVID TIMES
Whenever you went to a tapas bar before COVID, the waiter would have handed you a plate and you would have helped yourself getting all the tapas directly from the counter. As you can imagine, this has changed in the last year. Now there is a glass between you and the tapas, you can see them, but you can not touch them.
Each bar is trying to figure out the best way for them to work around this new situation.Here are the three ways I have encounter so far:
- The good old fashion way, you ask directly to the waiter. This is a great way if you speak Spanish, you have an opportunity to ask the waiter for their specialties or if they have a seasonal tapa. To tell you the truth, if you don’t speak Spanish I don’t think it is a very efficient way. Although in most of the tapas bars they speak some English, I am afraid it is not good enough to make it work.
- Paper and pencil. In most of the bars you are going to find numbers in front of each tapa. You will also find a stack of papers around the counter. In those papers you will find the number and a short description of the tapa you are about to order. The problem comes when they run out of pencils. People, once they have used their IKEA look alike pencil instead of returning them to the counter, they either keep them or throw them away.
- Numbers and voice. The third way I have encountered is a mix of the two ways I have explained. You will find the numbers in front of each tapa, on the blackboards behind the counter, you will find the same number and a short description of the tapa. Once you have decided what you want to order you just tell the waiter “I want one number 3, three number 5 and two number 2” Will this be the way to do it?
I personally don’t know how COVID will affect tapas, but for sure we will figure out a way to make it fun and still be one of the most exciting food experiences in the world.
Rick Steves loves tapas when he visits the Basque Country. Here is a link to his radio show where my friend Agustín Ciriza and myself talk about Basque food with Rick. The talk about the Basque country starts at minute 33:32´. Click in the picture to listen to the Podcast.