Better late than never. I'm sure you've all been waiting for posts about my trip to Spain and some much anticipated book reviews. And, without meaning to disappoint, reading didn't hit my radar during my travels. In fact, I spent most of my time trying to read menus in Spanish. And while I had high hopes of writing blog posts in Spain, sitting in front of a laptop when there were tapas to eat seemed like a waste of precious time.
When I landed in Spain there was only one thing on my mind. Food. I was starving. Fourteen plane hours later and I was ready to eat anything. But eating in Spain is like a choreographed dance, one that you don't know any steps to. The spanish don't miss a beat, and most likely you will find yourself in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and without much to eat. So let's begin with food.
How the spanish eat in Spain
Coming from a country of BIG breakfasts we found the transition to a country of almost NO breakfast a big challenge. Typically, the spanish morning is toast and a café con leché (espresso with milk) or a croissant and glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. In some rural areas, it's a café con leché alongside a shot of clear anise-flavoured alcohol which is sipped slowly.
The afternoon is really when the spanish come alive. Around noon, they may snack on a slice of potato omelet with another coffee and then typically have their big meal around 3:00 p.m. This meal is usually 3 or 4 courses, and on Sundays can be up to 5 or 6. I would say we managed to witness an authentic spanish lunch once, and I was amazed at how much food they were eating. Most of the time, we would eat too early and would never catch the locals out.
For me, the most elusive time was churro time. Sometimes seen being eaten for breakfast, they appear for a moment and then they are gone. Only to reappear again around 6:00 p.m. when children would dip them into thick hot chocolate (plus a sugar packet), and adults preferring another coffee.
Churros drizzled with chocolate
After churros, or possibly instead of churros, it's tapas - a drink and snack before they have a late dinner around 9:00 or 10:00 p.m. The spanish know every speciality at every bar, and hop along tasting the best croquettes, olives, seafood and ham. They know exactly what to order, what to drink, and received items that never came to us.
Much much later, you'll see them out for dinner. They'll order salads or mixed plates of fried fish and most often sharing with their companions. It's a lighter meal and only rarely did we stay out long enough, and stay hungry enough, to make it out when the spanish did.
How tourists eat in Spain
So while our spanish counter-parts were effortlessly cruising through mealtimes, we were struggling and making the rules up as we went. In the morning, I'd always have orange juice which was plentiful in every bar, along with some toast and jam. At the B+Bs we stayed at, sometimes there was meat and cheese, fruit, yogurt and one time - bacon and eggs. A typical andaluscian breakfast is toast drizzled with olive oil, topped with grated tomato.
For us, lunch was just early rounds of tapas. We'd last until 2:00 and just grab drinks and snacks instead of the four course meal.
Occasionally we'd get a menu del dia (menu of the day) which was often a disappointment. Typically a first course would be soup, salad, or a strange item like rice with tomato sauce and an egg. One time I received a plate full of cold snap peas with a tangy vinagrette.
The second course is usually meat (probably pork) served with fries. No ketchup. I'll repeat. NO KETCHUP. For a Canadian, this will be traumatizing.
Third course is a dessert or coffee. I usually opted for tea, but a common dessert is custard with cinnamon and a plain cookie on top. It's quite good.
Dinner was also tapas or their larger friends, raciones. We'd eat enough tapas or raciones to basically make a meal. The trick was either paying for tapas you want, or just eating whatever comes free with your drink. This could mean alot of olives. If we had a "crappas" night, our nickname for lousy tapas - we'd find our nearest 100 Montaditos.
What I dubbed the McDonald's of Spain, this pub serves up cheap beer and mini baguettes stuffed with various fillings. In the larger cities, they are everywhere and its an oasis for the hungry traveller.
What time to eat in Spain
If you don't happen to remember all of the spanish meal times, not to worry. How we figured out when to eat in Spain is whenever parents pushing strollers would start to fill the streets.
I admire the Spanish in this regard because they take their kids everywhere, and the kids follow the rules. If you are walking along and suddenly more and more parents with kids in strollers are entering the streets, you know it's getting close to meal time. Same goes if you see them out walking their dogs. You know a meal time is approaching, so start looking for where you want to eat.
The best food we ate.
By far, the best food we ate was in a town called Guejar Sierra. It's a small village up a winding road near the Sierra Nevada mountains - you really need to google it. It's a mountain village and sightings of the ski resort staff is fairly common. But what makes this town awesome is the food. The tapas we had were amazing. In Madrid, it's common to get olives, fried fish or iberian ham on a baguette. In Guejar, we had baked potatoes covered in cheese, chicken bites with salad, a full bowl of soup, a potato omelet, baguettes covered in a rice mixture that tasted like lasagna.
It's here we experienced the real spanish sunday lunch. At a wooden restaurant teetering off the side of a winding road, the dining room was lit up with a roaring fire and the locals were chatting like mad. Course after course would arrive at the tables, first croquettes, then salad, then meat portions, desserts, aperitifs, and coffee.
We shared a meal that we noticed the table beside us had ordered. Never actually knowing the name, we called it "mountain paella" - served in a huge dish. A small plate of pate, crushed tomatoes, olives and bread arrived while we waited for our meal.
The deep orange rice was studded with bits of sausage, mushrooms, legumes, chicken, and rabbit. It was amazing, easily fed the two of us, and we garnered strange looks when we didn't order another course.
In Spain, coffee is everything. You can have it as a meal, before a meal, or after a meal - basically, anytime. As a tea drinker, I was certainly the outcast. In fact, in the town of Almunecar, I tried to order a tea several times and was always met with the reply "No." One waiter didn't even know what I was talking about when I asked for tea, he just assumed I wanted a coffee like everyone else.
It is worth noting for you coffee-drinkers that the milk in Spain, isn't "exactly" milk. I assume its from a cow, but it's heavily pasteurized and stored on shelves at room temperature. If you order your coffee con leché (with milk) or cortado (with slightly less milk) - be prepared. You might prefer a shot of espresso.
Depending on your love of bread, this could be good or bad news.
Bread comes with everything (scroll up and notice the bread in other pictures). Tapas like cured meat or egg salad come with little bread sticks or slices of a baguette. Meals come with a basket with rolls or baguettes, and often some side items like paté, olive oil, olives or tomatoes. Breakfast is always toast in various formats. You'll also realize you are paying for the bread, ranging from .50 to .85 cents per person. I didn't bother trying to fight it because it seemed like everyone else was eating it. So, we just joined in.
Everyone has different food tastes, which I can understand, so my "must haves" might be different from yours. But if you're in Spain, attempting to eat like the spanish, here's what I'd suggest.
- Churros - when you see other people eating them - order them! You want them hot and fresh and I had many missed opportunities.
- Sangria - you'll see pitchers lined up along the bars. That's your cue to say "Uno sangria, por favour!"
- Iberian ham/chorizo - you won't have a hard time finding this. Notice cured hams hanging from the ceiling? They're everywhere. I'm convinced the Spanish could survive for years in the event of a world catastrophe because of all the cured meat they have.
- Olive oil - okay, it's weird at first drizzling this on toast, but do it. The southern region of Spain is covered in olive trees and their oil is light and delicious. We brought home several bottles.
- Beer/Wine - Order as much as you can, it's cheap, and the arrival of a drink usually means the arrival of a tapa.
- Olives - I'm not an olive fan, so while I tested a few, I never fell in love. Ryan, on the other hand, developed an addiction and is depleting the stores of olives we brought home.
AND my best advice to ensure you have a good food experience is to use these two methods:
1. Spying technique: Spy on people eating next you and learn how to say "I want what they are eating" - "Quiero que lo que están comiendo".
2. Pointing technique: Point to an item in the tapa case, or on the menu and say "I want this one" - "Quiero éste"
Next post, we'll move on to drinking. Stay tuned.