How the Spanish eat five times a day and still don’t get fat

“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.

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A terrace waiting for the lunchtime rush next to the Mercado Colon in Valencia. Don’t expect to be fed between 12 and 2! If you’ve missed almuerzo, you’ll have to wait until the restaurants open for comida.

I admire the Spanish for their sacred keeping of meal times. 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 meal times? They start with a small desayuno, a cup of coffee and a croissant or 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.

Spanish eating habits
Almuerzo usually means fresh bread with Spanish ham or cheese or a slice of tortilla. A plate of olives on the side and a bottle of beer on the table.

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.

Valencia cafe culture

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 meal times. 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. And 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 😉

Spanish dinner times
The beautiful Central Market of Valencia, where it’sall about fresh produce.
Photo by Juan Gomez on Unsplash

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 were 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 centered 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.

Spanish dinner times
Photo by Victor on Unsplash

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 leasurely 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’re 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’s 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.

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Husband doing siesta

Curious festive traditions from around the world. The season of death, darkness and peculiar saints

Moving abroad means meeting people from all over the world, all with different backgrounds and customs. You chat to them about life, family traditions and “what are you doing for Christmas?” and soon discover that people have all been brought up with different things. It is very educational to say the least, and wonderful to learn about what everyone celebrates from October to December. Here are some of the known and lesser known traditions you can find around the world this season. Some rather scary ones too.

Halloween. No, it is not an American invention

An American lady here in my hometown of Valencia posted in a Facebook expat group how she was keen to “organise the typical American experience of trick or treating” in Valencia and invited us all to take part. I don’t think she saw what was coming next, namely a whole host of Scots and Irish expats telling her that she “didn’t have to show them, thank you very much, as halloween is a holiday of Gaelic origin – not American.” I guess that was her told – ouch.

Halloween, or the ancient Samhain, is considered the time of year when the veil between our world and the spirit world is at its thinnest. Samhain (pronounced sah-van or sow-in) is the traditional Gaelic festival marking the change of seasons and the approach of winter. Dead and departed relatives played a central role in the tradition, as the connection between the living and dead was believed stronger at Samhain, and there was a chance to communicate. The idea that souls return home on a certain day of the year is repeated across many cultures around the world, including the Day of the Dead in Mexico around the same date. During Samhain or Halloween eventually, mumming and guising (going door-to-door in disguise and performing in exchange for food), or pranks, were a way of confounding evil spirits. Pranks at Samhain date as far back as 1736 in Scotland and Ireland, and this led to Samhain being dubbed “Mischief Night”. The original lanterns in Ireland and Scotland were carved from turnips, not pumpkins.

As a Dutchie who didn’t grow up with Halloween, I went around my local Spanish neighbourhood with an Irish friend this year, as well as a group of Spanish parents and a Swedish mum, who also felt a bit out of place. It was a laugh, and kind of odd trick or treating in a T-shirt in still 24 degrees at night. For the Spanish this halloween thing really is a novelty. Hilarious and entertaining to see everyone learning from each other and adapting to new customs.

All Saints Day in Spain

The day after Halloween the Spanish celebrate All Saints’ day, or Día de todos los Santos, where they remember their dearly departed and bring flowers to the graves of their deceased loved ones. Of course nothing goes without eating in Spain and there are a few traditional sweets that the Spanish eat on All Saints’ Day. The most common are the so-called huesos de santo (literally, “saint’s bones”), which are made of marzipan and sweetened egg yolk. Another treat you’ll find are buñuelos de viento, puffy fried balls of dough filled with pastry cream, whipped cream, or chocolate. Yum!

Yum, how about a bite in the old Saint’s bones?

Day of the Dead, more than just a costume

Day of the Dead, taking place in Mexico the first few days of November, is currently a bit of a fashionable theme for people choosing their halloween costumes, but is actually an ancient celebration that is way more than a bit of makeup and a lot of flower displays. Some of the earliest origins of the tradition can be traced as far back to 2,000-3000 year-old rituals honouring the dead in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Celebrating the lives of deceased family members and friends, people believe that during this part of the year, loved ones can return from the Chicunamictlán – the land of the dead – because the border between the real and spiritual world melts away.

When Spanish colonisers came to the region, they carried the Catholic holidays of All Saints Day and All Souls Day, celebrated on the first two days of November. Day of the Dead was moved to correspond closer to these days. In 2008, UNESCO added the country’s “indigenous festivity dedicated to the dead” to its list of so-called Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Day of the Dead in Mexico, with their colourful parades and iconic face masks

St Martin and the paper lanterns

In the Netherlands, at least the north where I grew up, as well as parts of Germany, we celebrate Saint Martins Day on the 11th of November. The day is named after St. Martin of Tours, a Roman soldier who became a monk after being baptised as an adult. He was eventually made a saint by the Catholic Church for being a kind man who cut his cloak in half to share with a beggar during a snowstorm – although as a child I never knew this part of the story. All I remember is that we went around the streets after dark with paper lanterns knocking on people’s doors, sang songs about St Martin and received sweets and oranges in return. It often rains that time of year, so you can imagine the sight: soggy lanterns and frozen children.

Saint Martin, going around the houses and singing songs in return for sweets

Saint Nicholas or ‘Sinterklaas’ in the Netherlands

Staying in the Netherlands, we are also the first to kick off the festive season with our Saint Nicholas on the evening of 5th of December, or 6th of December in Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and Northern France. This saint is a legendary figure based on the historical figure of Saint Nicholas (270–343), a Greek bishop of Myra in present-day Turkey and the patron saint of children. Saint Nicolas, who is believed to also be the predecessor of good old Santa Claus, introduced to the United States of America by Dutch immigrants, who, just like myself, couldn’t shake off some of their old customs. Some people refuse to believe this, but Santa Claus actually received his jolly, cuddly image from Coca Cola, who felt the old bishop needed a non-religious makeover.

The Dutch with their peculiar tradition of St Nicholas and his black helpers…coming on a boat from Spain and bringing presents to the children in the Netherlands.

In the Netherlands however, we have kept the St Nicholas tradition alive and well. It is also the cause of wide eyes and disbelief among the international community when I try and explain what in my mind has always been a very innocent tradition. St Nicholas is depicted as an elderly, stately and serious man with white hair and a long, full beard. He wears a long red cape over a traditional white bishop’s alb, dons a red mitre and ruby ring, and holds a gold-coloured crosier, a long ceremonial shepherd’s staff with a fancy curled top. For some reason the old man with the beard no longer comes from Turkey, but he now arrives every year on a boat from Spain. Until recently our St Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, was assisted by a large number of Zwarte Pieten (“Black Petes”), curious helpers dressed in Moorish attire and in blackface, who would take naughty kids back to Spain in a sack. Wowzers. As a child I know for certain we thought nothing of it: they were just the Saint’s helpers, not a racist imitation of people with a black or brown skin colour. Their black colour was because they climbed through the chimney, obviously. And somehow they ended up wearing gold earrings and curly black wigs with it. Cue: gasping audience. You will be glad to hear that Zwarte Piet has left the scene and was in recent years replaced by Rainbow Pete

Did Black Pete made you cringe? Meet Krampus, his evil Austrian brother

A beast-like demon creature that roams city streets frightening kids and punishing the bad ones – nope, this isn’t Halloween, but St. Nicholas’ evil accomplice, Krampus. Just like in the Netherlands, in Austrian tradition, St. Nicholas rewards good little boys and girls, while Krampus is said to capture the naughtiest children and whisk them away in his sack. In the first week of December, young men dress up as the Krampus (especially on the eve of St. Nicholas Day) frightening the living daylight out of kids with clattering chains and bells. Holy shoot. Give me back rainbow Pete any time.

Hide your broom in Norway

Perhaps one of the most unique Christmas Eve traditions can be found in Norway, where people hide their brooms. Yes, that’s right. Nevermind the manic last minute gift wrapping or preparing the Turkey for Christmas dinner. Get that broom safely in the cupboard. It’s a tradition that dates back centuries to when people believed that witches and evil spirits came out on Christmas Eve looking for brooms to ride on. To this day, many people still hide their brooms in the safest place in the house to stop them from being stolen.

Page turners. Holiday Book recommendations

Off on your holidays soon? Or just in need of some book tips? Holidays are the ideal time to catch up on that reading list. It is always helpful to get some book recommendations, so you don’t have to spend too much time browsing the shop – or amazon. I have been reading a couple of great books lately, so I thought I give you a little review of both. They are both very different, but great reads and not too heavy on the brain. Let’s face it, you are on holiday after all.

man in a hammock reading


book recommendations:
The Circle. Dave Eggers

This book really gave me a wake-up call about our obsession with the internet. What will it be like in the future? Mae, a young professional gets hired to work for the Circle, the world’s most powerful internet company. She feels she’s been given the opportunity of a lifetime. Run out of a sprawling California campus, the Circle links users’ personal emails, social media, and finances with their universal operating system, resulting in one online identity. They are promoting a new age of transparency and want everyone to be on board. Mae can’t believe how lucky she is to work for them. But how dangerous is the Circle really, when even governments are being convinced to buy into their systems? The Circle is a book that is obviously fiction, but is not that far from our current reality and the way we use social media. This is a very topical book that draws you in, making you feel slightly uncomfortable at times, but is also highly enjoyable. A great holiday read.

Buy the book

book recommendations. the circle dave eggers


book recommendations:
The Forgetting Time. Sharon Guskin

Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I read a book so quickly, because I couldn’t put it down. The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin is a wonderful and touching story about previous lives, whether or not you believe in it. Four-year old Noah lives with his mother in New York. He keeps having nightmares and calling out for his ‘other mother’ and that he wants to ‘go home’. He says his name is ‘Tommy’, not Noah. His teachers at school can’t handle Noah and his strange stories and behaviour. Doctors suspect schizophrenia. His mother is desperate and one night when she is googling her son’s symptoms, she comes across a researcher whose work is centered around reincarnation. She is obviously sceptical, but decides to find out more, to try and ‘cure’ Noah from his troubled mind. When they go on their mission to delve into Noah’s past life, they find out the gruesome truth… The Forgetting Time is a great book about life, love, motherhood, and loss. Two mothers, two different sons, one soul. It is a story that will definitely stay with me for quite some time.

buy the book

book recommendations. the forgetting time sharon guskin


*This post contains affiliate links to Amazon. This means that if you decide to order the books I recommend, Amazon will thank me by giving me a small percentage of the earnings.

Beautiful shady terraces for hot days

If you are lucky enough to live in warmer climates, or get a decent summer, you probably sit in the shade quite a lot when the sun is at its hottest. Trees are obviously great as natural umbrellas, but here are some more inspirational images for creating a beautiful hideout for the summer, under reed covered pergolas, sails or wooden veranda roofs.

(To enjoy this post even more, I suggest clicking on this Youtube link and use the calming lapping waves as a background sound…Done it, yes? Told you it was good.)

And…relax.

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AirBnB

A fabulous way to experience – or pretend you own – a house in the sun, is to rent a house through AirBnB. Much more interesting than a boring self catering apartment in a complex within a resort, often off the beaten track and certainly more personal. Have a look for some stunning places in Greece or Spain.

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Beautiful shadows and shelter created by the roof made of branches. Image source

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One day…my dream house in the sun

Living in Scotland is great and we are lucky to be surrounded by beautiful countryside, lots of space, nice people and generally a good quality of life. But oh, how I curse the climate, even though we do get the odd wonderfully hot day in summer which makes you appreciate it all the more. Wouldn’t it be nice to have your winter clothes put away in April – and wear your summer clothes…like, all summer? Today I am posting about dream houses in the sun! Yes, because, well, you can dream, right? I have been collecting some gorgeous inspirational images again, making us all wish we lived in the Med. I guess we could always try and replicate the ideas…in our summerhouse or glass extension. Or just book a holiday. Perhaps you’re already there.

Enjoy, get inspired, imagine the sound of lapping waves as you lounge on your bohemian veranda full of plants and floaty drapes, sitting in your white linen dress, sipping a mojito. Bliss.

(To enjoy this post even more, I suggest clicking on this Youtube link and use the calming lapping waves as a background sound…Done it, yes? Told you it was good.)

And…relax.

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AirBnB

A fabulous way to experience – or pretend you own – a house in the sun, is to rent a house through AirBnB. Much more interesting than a boring self catering apartment in a complex within a resort, often off the beaten track and certainly more personal. Have a look for some stunning places in Greece or Spain.

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Not an outdoor space, but I love the interior and how the light comes into the house. Image source

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Beautiful shadows and shelter created by the roof made of branches. Image source

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Vintage shops in Scotland: Louis Little Haven

I help you discover vintage shops in Scotland. This month we are putting the spotlight on yet another vintage shop that not everyone might have heard of: Louis Little Haven in the small village of Durno, a few miles outside Inverurie.

A lover of dogs and vintage

When I think of the true meaning of ‘vintage’, I feel this shop embodies it perfectly with its pretty romantic florals, pastel colours, dainty tea sets, quirky collectables and solid old wooden furniture. This gem, tucked away in rural Aberdeenshire, is owned by Melanie Wilson who not only has an obsession with old china but is also a great lover of dogs. It was opened in 2013 and named after her beloved labrador Louis, who sadly passed away last year. Her new buddy bassett hound Briony has since joined her on her treasure hunts and can usually be found sleeping in the corner of the shop.

louis little haven

How did you end up having this shop, Mel? Where does the treasure hunting bug come from?

I’ve collected since the age of ten, starting off with handbags and hats and moving on to teacups where I became obsessed! My mum would often take us around Thainstone (carboot sale ed.) on a Sunday and in addition to that I come from a family who can’t throw anything out as “it could be useful”. Growing up across from my grandparents’ farm also had an influence. I loved having a “nosey” to see what treasures I could find. I still can’t help myself when I see a shed!

Louis Little Haven


What makes your business special in the area?

I am breathing new life into the old village shop in Durno and we have found some great black and white photos of what it used to look like. I feel I am bringing something to the local community here. Everyone is always welcome to pop into Louis Little Haven for a look around or just a chat.

Louis Little Haven


What is the weirdest and most beautiful item you have ever had in your shop?

I have had a few strange items in stock as I like picking up unusual things. At the moment it is definitely a Victorian Scottish pottery spittoon in the shape of a shell. I have had lots of beautiful things as well and those are really hard to part with! I’d say two of the items I loved are a gorgeous blue 1940s Paragon tea set and a stunning 19th century 8ft kitchen larder cupboard.

Louis Little Haven


What is the best thing about doing this job?

I don’t consider it a job, rather a passion I have had for as long as I can remember and I feel lucky to do what I do. I love meeting new people, hearing their stories and finding out the history behind the items I’m buying. I’d like to think I am a curator of beautiful things who finds them their new home, their next chapter in life.

What is the hardest part in running a vintage shop?

Finding good quality, beautiful pieces and trying to keep them at a reasonable price.

Louis Little Haven

Why should people buy vintage, in your opinion?

There is a charm to vintage items, they don’t make things anymore like they used to. Buying vintage also means buying a little piece of history. I always think that if the tea cups I sell could talk about all the stories and gossip they have heard, wouldn’t that be wonderful!

Louis Little Haven


Louis Little Haven, Mel and her dogs are here:

Durno, north of Inverurie (off the A96)
Open: Friday 10.30am-3pm, Saturday 10.30am-4pm, Monday 10.30am-3pm
Online:
Facebook
Etsy

And at vintage fairs in the area.