Some assert that "the tapa" was born when, due to an illness, the Spanish king Alfonso the 10th (Alfonso the Wise), had to take small bites of food with some wine between meals. Once recovered from the disease, the wise king ordered that in all the inns of Castile's land, wine was not to be served unless with something to eat. This royal providence was considered wise in order to avoid drunkenness in those who drunk the wine, and feed those who, hadn't enough money to buy themselves a normal meal.
Alternatively consider the theory that "the tapa" first appeared, because of the need of farmers and otherworkers to take a small amount of food during their working time, so allowing them to continue on the job until the main meal time.
This main meal, with lots of fat, left the body so busy digesting that a "siesta" had to be taken for a couple of hours before going back to the fields or in the workshop. The longer the morning working hours took the less one had to do after the meal.
This snack needed wine, because alcohol enhanced the enthusiasm and the strength, and in winter it warmed the body up so as to withstand the very cold days in the fields and in the workshops. In summer, the drink to be taken in the South was "gazpacho" (cold tomato soup), instead of wine.
Once the "botillerias" ("bottle-shops") and "tabernas" (taverns) were open throughout Spain, the King decreed that the glass or jar of wine was served covered with a slice either of smoked ham or cheese, with two aims: first to avoid that insects or other impurities could fall into the jar and also for the customers to soak up the alcohol they drunk with something solid. That was the origin of "la tapa" (a lid), a word rooted in Spanish tradition, a solid food that covered the wineglass. So the tapa's tradition spread all through Spain, right to the present day, when it has been adopted and modified in other countries.
Spain still eats three main meals: breakfast, mid-day and evening.
The long time between breakfast, and the midday meal then the late evening meal, encourages the taking of a "tentempié" (snack), an appetiser or the "tapita", when it is time for a social chat or discuss how the job is going.
The traditional drink to be taken with the tapa is wine, either "peleón" (young and cheap) or "reserva" (aged in oak-barrels) wine of each region: young "txakolí" in the Basque Country, Penedés wine or Cava in Cataluña, "ribeiro" in the Northwest, young Valdepeñas or Rioja wine in Castile and in the centre, or fine sherry in the south. In Asturias and in northern parts, where apples grow widely, cider replaces wine.
The tapas' receipes vary according to the traditions of each region. But usually, olives in its many varieties are often used, as well as different dry nuts and all kinds of cold cuts.
The green, Manzanilla, machacadas (crushed), gordales (big), rellenas (stuffed), aliñadas (flavoured) or deshuesadas (boneless), could by themselves fill a book of tapas. Together with the olives, slices of garlic or smoked-ham sausages, slices of cheese or jamón curado became world-wide known. Tapas recipes use all sorts of food: meat, fish, vegetables, eggs and any other product could enter the tapas' world.
There are fried ones - "boquerones" (whitebait), calamaries, sausages, doughnuts, croquets, potatoes and "torreznos" -- Casseroles and stews, like the madrilenian "callos" or the Almagro's aubergines, or the flavoured string beans. And finally, recipes like potato tortilla, codfish doughnuts,. Croquets and escabeches remain obligatory at this time of the day and, accompanied by a salad, could perfectly replace a complete lunch.
Today, additional to those traditional snacks, new ones have appeared, some of them used to be only to be seen on a properly dressed table, like the "paella" or the stewed potatoes with meat -- other foreign recipes have arrived as tapas like smoked salmon, pate or caviar, vegetables spring rolls, smoked fish from the northern countries, German sausages, Swiss melted cheese and cakes or pate.
The art of eating tapes can replace the need for lunch or dinner where there is sufficent quantity and choice.
But, without any doubt, the most singular aspect of the "tapa" is in its position promoting companionship, and informal ritual. The elegance of the tapeo, the aesthetic of the rite, belongs in a sort of indifference to the table and the chair, and even to the food that, although delicate and tasty, is eaten standing, and in small portions, even the verb "to eat" is rejected in favour of "to scratch" as used in the bird world.
Speech and gesture is all part of "tapeo". The art of eating on foot has almost sacramental appearances. The "tapas" are a very characteristic part of the Spanish cooking tradition that impossible to be exported to other cultures, but it has become popular everywhere in the world.