Time is what? Precious. Fleeting. Of the essence. Or the enemy? Time is money. It waits for no one. And for most of the western world there’s not enough of it. In the working week food, particularly lunch, is an inconvenient time-consuming wedge interrupting the flow of output. In order to minimise the disruption, our work desks become dining tables and we stuff sandwiches in our mouths without looking away from our screens, or on a trip eat in the hotel room.
Spain’s attitude to food
Thankfully, there are countries that take a different approach to mealtimes. Spain is one of them. This is a nation that makes food and companionship the focus; and time the generous friend, allowing for leisurely cultural attaches that go beyond being solely an aid for digestion. Below is an exploration of a day in the life in Spanish dining. Welcome to the world of sobremesas and siestas.
Lunch, or almuerzo, is the most important meal of the day. In Spanish cities it often starts around 2pm or 3pm, and would last on average two hours. It’s true to say some companies, particularly those of international stature, will insist on shorter breaks. But otherwise, two hours. And if it’s the weekend, or you’re in the countryside or the hotter southern part of the country, this would certainly be a minimum.
But there’s a lot to do within this time frame.
First and foremost an aperitivo and general chat. Menus are placed on the table but they won’t be observed in any great detail until the end of the first drink. If it’s a weekday the menu is likely to be set courses. El menu del dia will feature a few choices for starter, main and dessert. This is to make decision-making a swifter exercise, around 30 minutes. Longer is necessary at the weekend and with a full menu.
Conversation is had during the courses but the most social part of the meal is yet to come.
Where dessert and coffee may signify the end of the meal for most nations, in Spain it denotes the beginning of the next segment of lunch, the sobremesa. This literally means ‘on the table’ and that’s where a number of items will be placed at its onset. Following coffee will come more drinks, the digestivos; shots of aguardiente, brandy, anis, sherry, whisky, and Spain’s present favourite, gin. This comes in a bowl-sized glass, and the space isn’t just filled with a splash of gin and a ton of ice and tonic – there are no measures so it contains a generous amount of alcohol. In fact, the server is going to pour from the bottle in front of the patron, the onus is on the patron to tell them when to stop, if they feel the need. And time passes and conversation continues and, with the help of bowls of free-poured alcohol, that time is filled with raucous laughter.
If this is a business lunch, there’s temptation for an outsider to assume this is frivolous jollity and nothing to do with business. But it’s everything to do with business. In a country that relies on contacts – on who you know – this is the method in which to solidify them. If it’s with family and friends, this is time given over to bonding. After the busy week, the long weekend lunch with relatives and amigos is a time to catch up on goings on, including where and with whom you had lunch in the week. In either circumstance, the sobremesa encapsulates the Spanish lifestyle: relaxed, sociable and most importantly, in the moment. The only time that matters is the present.
For those with no pressing afternoon work demands it’s then time, in the period of the post lunch lull, infused by an alcohol-induced haze, for a rest. The siesta. Contrary to most people’s idea of siesta, it doesn’t have to involve putting on pyjamas, climbing into bed, and setting an alarm. It could simply be a snooze in a chair, a rest of the eyes in front of the TV. A siesta that’s too deep and too long doesn’t invigorate. And alertness is necessary in the late afternoon, because it’s then time for the merienda.
Merienda and Tapas
Often the merienda happens at home, where it takes the form of a snack, be it to satiate an appetite formed during siesta or, for the kids, something to eat coming back from school. The most popular dish in the merienda for children is a slice of tortilla – Spanish potato omelette.
But for adults the late afternoon snack can also involve tapas and a drink at the bar with friends. While many bars now charge, tapas in some of them will come free with a drink order. And these are more than peanuts on a dish. The idea of tapas, or ‘cover’, started off life as a bread or meat placed over a drink to keep out the flies. Today some tapas can be positively gourmet. The most popular of these small portions includes patatas bravas (spicy potatoes), calamari, jamon (cured ham), salmorejo (cold tomato and olive oil soup with eggs and jamon), croquetas (croquettes) and paella. They also now come on a plate. In the north of Spain there are pinchos, or ‘spikes’; the same concept as tapas but with an enlarged toothpick stabbed into the food, held in place with a slice of bread underneath. Pulpo or octopus is a mainstay. These are often sumptuous, moreish and can be a meal in themselves. But most importantly, they are small enough to be eaten in a breath between conversations. Again, the emphasis is on people not plates.
The other benefit of tapas is that there’s room saved for dinner.
Cena and the Paseo
It’s a well-known fact that dinner is a late affair in Spain. Restaurants don’t open any time before 8.30pm. In the south it’s not unusual to sit down to eat at 11pm. The question often asked of the Spanish is, how can you eat so late? The answer is partly down to the existence of the merienda, keeping hunger in check. But also because of the climate – it’s too hot to eat big meals any earlier, at least in summer. It also doesn’t get dark until late. This allows for another activity, the paseo. Before dusk the Spanish will take a walk in the locality of their home, or of the restaurant, to talk, of course, and also to see others along the way. This is one of the best times of day to people watch. And to build up an appetite again.
The other part of the question asked of the Spanish and their late dinner is, how can you digest your food before bed? This is not a problem. Firstly, dinner may well be a smaller affair than lunch. Secondly, bedtime might not be until the early hours of the morning. There’s still time after dinner to head to the bar or continue on with another paseo.
The next day, after a few hours of sleep, comes the most unimportant meal of the day, breakfast. Desayuno usually consists of coffee and a croissant or another type of sweet roll. It’s insignificant not just because it’s small, but because it’s the least sociable.
While good food is integral to life in Spain, it plays second fiddle to the conviviality that comes with it. And that means more time devoted to meal time. The Spanish-born philosopher Seneca once said, ‘Life is long if you know how to use it.’ For the people of Spain, spending time in the company of others is making better use of it than watching a screen and eating a lonely sandwich.