“Do you know how many times the Spanish eat per day?” I always ask tourists when I guide them around the city. “No? Five times.” “Five times?!” they answer standard in disbelief. Yep, and isn’t it wonderful? One of the great things about living in Spain is the food. And they take meal times very seriously.
I admire the Spanish for their sacred keeping of mealtimes. Ever got stared at in Spain while munching on a sandwich on the go? Exactly. Nobody does that. The amount of boxed ready-made sandwiches full of additives I have eaten from Marks & Spencers in Scotland in my lifetime is incredible. There I was at 1pm, queuing up to pay for my “meal deal”: a cold, soggy sandwich from the fridge, a bottled drink and a bag of crisps or bar of chocolate. Eaten on a bench in the park, or more often back at my desk. Scoffed in about 10 minutes. Plastic waste in the bin. Every day.
Enjoy a beer with your almuerzo
So how do the Spanish do it? What are those sacred five Spanish mealtimes? They start with a small desayuno, a cup of coffee and a croissant or a bit of toast for breakfast, mostly at home. For the kids, some ‘galletas‘, thin biscuits dipped in a glass of milk. Then at 10.30 it gets more serious. Almuerzo. Terraces fill up, workers gather at the bar of a cafetaria. Bring it on. Tortilla, chorizo, ensalada rusa, bocadillos with cheese and jamon, ‘tostada con tomate’, croquetas…lots of dishes you can choose from mid-morning, all freshly prepared on-site. Fresh bread from the bakers. And hey, let’s just wash it all down with a glass of beer or wine. Yes, you read that right.
Menu del dia, the best thing since sliced bread
A few hours later, somewhere between 2 and 3 o’clock in the afternoon it is time for la comida. Lunch. Restaurants open, but shops close, and it is siesta time until about 5 for shop keepers and banks. Most office workers go back earlier. Yes, people do work in this country, believe it or not, a lot of people don’t finish work until 7 or 8 o’clock. And no, they don’t go to sleep during siesta. Maybe when you’re 80.
People either go home to cook their lunch or meet with colleagues outside on the terrace of a restaurant. For three courses, usually. On week days you can eat a 3-course home cooked Menu del dia for around €10, which includes a starter, main course, coffee/dessert and a drink. Apparently a leftover from the time general Franco was in power, who in the sixties and seventies ruled that each restaurant should provide an affordable meal for people on work days. He may have been an awful dictator, but at least he got one thing right.
Carbs are for Comida
After a few more hours of work or school (kids also enjoy that 3-course meal at lunchtime! I drool when I read their menu each week…), it is time for number four on the list of Spanish mealtimes. This little meal, or rather snack, is still taken quite seriously and happens at around 5pm when the schools are out. Merienda. “Quieres merender?” You often hear mothers ask their kids when they tumble out of the classroom, tired and hungry. No kid ever refuses, as merienda involves bread, biscuits, chocolate milk, fruit or other items children could practically live on. Most parents will just have a cup of coffee.
I suppose this bit of snacking is needed because most kids are ferried off to football, piano or tennis lessons, and they will have to sit it out until at least 9pm when the final meal of the day is served: la cena. Dinner. “Wow” the impressed tourists usually gasp by now, when I get to meal number five. But cena is not usually a very big meal. Not like our evening dinner. No plates full of pasta or otherwise carb-heavy recipes. After all, you already have that 3-course meal in your belly, right? Exactly. And a tip from the tour guide: paella is never eaten at night. Remember that next time you visit Spain.
You either eat or you talk about eating
As I am learning more Spanish by the day, I am starting to understand random conversations in the street between people. It is always about food. “We either talk about food, or we eat,” a Spanish mum from school explained to me with passion the other day, while we’re out for a walk in the hills. “The whole objective of going out somewhere is eating together. It is the most important thing. Got something to celebrate? You go out for a meal. Meeting up with friends? It has to be centred around a mealtime and finding a nice place to eat.”
I asked her why Spanish people are not all morbidly obese with all that eating. “It’s not about the quantities”, she said, “I never have huge plate fulls, but I love eating. It’s about tasting different things and appreciating the flavours. And about the social aspect.” I remember being told by a Scottish colleague once years ago that “eatin’ is cheatin’“, when I suggested we should go for something to eat before hitting the bar. I never got into that pint drinking on an empty stomach habit. I love a beer, but give me some croquetas, por favor.
An all day activity and no one knows where the kids are
Needless to say that the Saturday morning hill walk was heavily interspersed with almuerzo (and cans of beer at 11am), followed by a leisurely lunch on the village square….and my new favourite thing: the ‘sobremesa‘, which basically means you all stay at the table after the meal, talk, laugh and keep bringing out drinks and snacks. For hours. The kids were playing somewhere, stole food off the table every so often, and nobody really cared. Everyone had a great time. We went home at 6pm, all happy and tired.
I was wondering about what makes Spain such a pleasant and laid back country to live in. Ignore politics and bureaucracy, as these things will make you angry no matter how much vitamin D you are soaking up, but Spanish people really know how to enjoy life. The climate helps for sure. Sunshine year-round brings everybody out of their houses and together in the street. No staying indoors or in cars all day. Being outdoors, chatting and eating. Did I mention food? Spanish meal times take a bit of getting used to, your old schedule gets thrown out of the window. But it is pleasant, as long as you go with it. “No pasa nada” is a great expression and used all the time in Spanish. “It’s OK”, relax, don’t take it all too seriously, here, have some olives.