Beautiful Mercado de San Miguel – all you need to know about tapas

Michael Edwards eats and drinks his way through tapas history

Tapas - Mercado de San Miguel

If Point Zero in Madrid is the epicentre of Spain’s road network, then the Mercado de San Miguel is Tapas Central.  Originally opened as a wholesale food market in 1916, iron pillars rising on the exterior of glass windows, support a crenelated roof. The building is now protected as a world heritage site. 

Tapas aficionados queue for a 10.00 am opening. Such is their love of tapas that they are queuing for breakfast. Their goal is to be in pole position for fruit, churros and chocolate, orange juice and coffee. Or champagne. Or oysters.  Or sangria. 

You may think that you know sangria. After all sangria is just red wine and orange juice. Or is it? The Mercado de San Miguel introduces a whole world of sangria. Some have sherry as their base. Others may feature campari, cider, cointreau, gin or white wine. Perhaps the campari, grapefruit and sherry sangria may be a little too strong for breakfast. Non-alcoholic sangria, headlining with tropical fruits or red cherry or white lemon are also available.

Beautiful Mercado de San Miguel

Mercado de San Miguel
Mercado de San Miguel

Tapas have come a long way. Though food historians are unsure of where or when that journey began. Legend has it that a tapar, usually a slice of bread or ham, was served as a covering for a drink. In the 21st century the pigs have to be acorn fed if they are to provide the finest ham, known as jamón ibérico.

Slices of bread with various toppings – cheese, fish or a slice of the afore-mentioned jamón ibérico – are favourite tapas. Such small treats are often known as pinchos as well. That is spelt pintxos in Basque country. In fact, pinchos and tapas can be interchangeable terms. 

Perhaps history also played its part in the rise of tapas. As Spaniards had a siesta after lunch, before resuming work, dinner tended to be rather late. Even today, it is only the tourists who sit down to dinner before eight o’clock. Consequently, a drink and tapas, to keep hunger at bay, were very welcome. 

Another theory on the origins of tapas,  is that back in the 13th century King Alfonso X The Wise encouraged his subjects to take a small portion of food with their alcoholic drinks. His objective was to reduce public drunkenness.

tortilla española - Mercado de San Miguel
Tortilla española with arugula and tomatoes

Whatever the history, tapas have acquired their own language. To go on a tapas crawl is to take part in a ronda. Perhaps the most poetic of tapas are the gambas gabardinas. That literally translates as prawns in raincoats as the batter covering the prawn looks like a raincoat. Though patatas bravas, potatoes in a spicy tomato sauce and tortilla, have become part of everyday language. Many chefs pride themselves on taking the humble tortilla española to new heights with a soft flowing consistency. 

Rich culinary history

To explore Spain’s tapas bars is to embark on a culinary history. Old school favourites can be found in many a dark-timbered bar where the chefs remember the tapas traditions of yesteryear. Battered sea anemones, stewed pigs trotters and snails. Whether you are seeking them out – or avoiding them – caracol is the Spanish for snail that you need to know. 

Perhaps the appeal of tapas is the freedom on offer. There is no need to commit to one bar, one restaurant or even one dish. If you like the tapas menu and the atmosphere settle at the bar or your table. If not wander on through the plazas until you find another place. Switch between  fish, meat and vegan. Have two, three or ten. There are no rules. That is the beauty of tapas. 

More about tapas

Read more about the history and features of Mercado de San Miguel 

Try tapas recipes yourself – Simple tapas – spectacular flavours for any fiesta

Tags: , Last modified: June 27, 2022

Written by 1:12 pm Europe, Food & Drink

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