The British have been going to Spain en masse since the 1950s, but we still don't understand how to prepare tapas. Michael Bateman takes a lesson from an expert

The best-known symbols of Spanish food may be gazpacho, seafood paella and sweet custard flan, but the country's culinary soul is to be found in its tapas bars. And, given the still-increasing number of tapas bars across Britain, you might be forgiven for thinking we had taken this aspect of Spanishness to heart.

The best-known symbols of Spanish food may be gazpacho, seafood paella and sweet custard flan, but the country's culinary soul is to be found in its tapas bars. And, given the still-increasing number of tapas bars across Britain, you might be forgiven for thinking we had taken this aspect of Spanishness to heart.

But not if you believe Elisabeth Luard, the award-winning author of many books on European food, including The Rich Tradition of European Peasant Cookery. Her latest work, Saffron and Sunshine, embraces Spanish tapas alongside middle-eastern mezze and Italian antipasti. And she is far from happy with the way the British have adapted Hispanic cuisine.

"There's very little Spanish about tapas bars in this country," Luard says. "Spanish food has been compromised and tapas bars are very often the excuse for some rather nasty old food. By contrast, in Spain the essence of the tapas bar is high quality, fresh food, cooked in front of you."

Luard agrees that the names on the menu have a familiar ring: chorizo (paprika-flavoured sausage), tortilla (potato omelette), stuffed olives, calamari (octopus rings fried in batter), mejillones (mussels), boquerones en vinagre (anchovies in vinegar). "But nothing is fresh. They all taste as if they have been produced in the same factory. Especially the anchovies. Somewhere in London there must be a central anchovy pickling depot."

Luard has strong views, having lived for 15 years in Andalucia, cradle of the tapas bar. For her, British tapas bars entirely fail to convey the authenticity of the original. She falls short of calling them a rip-off, since they clearly meet a perceived need, but it makes her sad that they exploit the name without offering the informality, piquancy and simplicity of the real thing.

The tapas bar is a phenomenon which emerged in the UK in the early 1990s. Yet while French and Italian, Chinese, Indian and even Greek restaurants have become well-established in our eating-out culture, we always seem to have rather missed the point of the food of Spain - despite Brits having visited the Iberian seaside en masse on package tours since the 1950s.

"But the British holiday-maker never got to see the real Spain," Luard points out. The British aren't very adventurous, and soon hoteliers settled on serving steak or fish-and-chips, pizza, spaghetti and the occasional paella on the beach. Confining themselves to the coastal strip, tourists seldom got to inland cities, least of all those of the south in Andalucia, where tapas bars originated. Because of the overbearing summer climate in the south of Spain, the midday meal isn't taken until 2pm or 3pm, and the evening meal at 10pm or later. So the tapas bar comes to life in the early evening to fill the gap.

Tapa is from the Spanish word tapar (to cover), and initially it referred to a titbit on a little saucer or dish placed on the top of a glass. In the south this was usually a copita of chilled fino, dry sherry, although many Spaniards today incline towards draughts of cooling lager. Some tapas were always free, such as split olives, or included in the price of the drink if it was sherry or wine, such as a slice of chorizo.

But the custom escalated and now you order tapas by the saucer or plate, each one constituting a portion or racion. Two or three or four people may order a plate or so, using toothpicks to dip in before moving to another bar to do the same. In contrast to an English pub-crawl, it is the food, not the drink, which activates movement from bar to bar, for each will have a reputation for its house speciality. All of which is a very different concept from what often happens in London bars, where each customer orders a selection of tapas, all to be served on one plate, Elisabeth says.

But this is the least of her objections. In Spain the emphasis is on freshness, and the food being cooked in front of you - much of it on a sizzling hotplate called a plancha. The essential beauty of tapas in Spain, Luard says, is that everything is local. If you were inland, you might find meat balls (albondigas) or tripe (callos) or carefully prepared snails. By the sea there will be anchovies from the catch of the day. While the more valuable fish, such as tuna and swordfish, are sent to the restaurants of the capital, oily fish such as sardines and anchovies, which do not keep well, are eaten fresh the day they are caught, deep-fried or frittered. The rest will be marinated in vinegar to last through the week.

But nearly everything will be spanking fresh, including squid, shellfish such as the roes of spiky sea urchins (erizos de mar - hedgehogs of the sea), almejas (clams) which are graded from one to five in order of plumpness, long fat navajas (razorshell clams). "Most of them will be cooked to order in front of you. It is very fresh food of very high quality, but it is eaten in small portions. Indeed, like the Araba mezze."

Luard is a diplomat's daughter who spent much of her childhood in Mexico. She was 21 when she married Nicholas Luard, one of the co-founders of Private Eye, who later became a novelist. At the age of 27, the mother of three daughters and a son, she decamped to Spain to bring up her family in a valley between Algeciras and Tarifa. It is a tale that she relates movingly inFamily Life, a tragicomic account of their lives, culminating in the loss of her daughter to Aids.

I was lucky enough to meet up with Elisabeth last year, returning to this corner of Spain for the first time since she had lived here with her family. She was researching the local Iberico ham, considered to be the best in Spain, made from the now rare pata negra (black-footed) pigs. We were guests at Finca Buen Vino in Saracena, where local chorizo-makers put on a dazzling display of craftsmanship for us. (For details of cookery weeks held at the hotel Finca Buen Vino, contact Pata Negra Cookery holidays 0207 736 1959.)

Chorizo is the universal tapa, but the ultimate and most expensive has to be cured ham. There are numerous types of jamon serrano (mountain ham) but the one made in nearby in Jabugo from pata negra, the oldest surviving breed of pig on the Iberian peninsula, is the most highly-regarded. And so one might expect, coming as it does from a small, extremely free-range beast which feeds on acorns in the cork oak forests.

Luard has her own theory as to why thisrare breed survived. "The pigs were never hunted during the 500-year Moorish occupation ofthe south because the Muslim regards the pigas unclean." As for the subsequent practice of salting their meat - a method of preservation for which there is no tradition in the south of Spain - she puts this down to the presence of a small community of Galicians, who would have been well versed in this craft in their homeland.

Elisabeth fears the days of the real pata negra are numbered. European Union regulations - designed to ensure a uniform standard of meat - do not encourage the farming of such free-range beasts. So now the pata negra is being cross-bred. "It will still be good ham," she says , "but never as great as the original."