I’m off to Spain again at the end of this month, the land of my ancestry, albeit for a very short 9-day stint in Madrid. Why so short? As Australian Ambassador for the Real Madrid Foundation, I have the privilege of traveling with an awesome group of 20 Aussie school kids from Wellington High School and their teachers to a city that is so very close to my heart. What better excuse is there to indulge in one of my favourite past times in Spain, eating!
Spanish cuisine is comprised of the expansive regional flavours of Galicia, Castilia, Valencia, the Basque Regions, and the rest of the Mediterranean. More substantial than fine dining, Spaniards nonetheless relish the times when they get together over a good meal. For the Madrileños, it is a virtual religion.
Eating times in Spain may vary greatly from other countries and have been known to cause confusion. Here are the ins and outs of eating like a local in Spain: 8:00 AM onwards/ Breakfast: Breakfast is usually eaten on the run at home or at a bar. It consist of nothing more elaborate than freshly squeezed orange juice, a milky coffee and a sweet roll or croissant.
11:00 AM onwards/ Snack Time: At this time, the locals might leave their offices to indulge in ‘churros con chocolate’, curls of crisp fried doughnut-like batter, eaten with luscious hot melted chocolate so thick you can spread it with a knife. For the best ‘churros con chocolate’ in Madrid, visit the world-famous Café San Gines (good luck in trying to find a seat), Chocolateria Valor, and Cacao Sampaka. If you haven’t got a sweet tooth, bars offer deals that include a coffee with a slice of Spanish tortilla or a savoury sandwich for less than 3 EUR. Are you salivating yet?
1:30 PM onwards/ Aperitivo: On the weekends, friends and families may meet for a pre-lunch drink over platters of squid, prawns, and Jamon. Washed down with wines and beers, the Aperitivo often runs into lunch.
2:00 PM onwards/ Lunch: Lunch is considered the main meal of the day in Spain and is always a 3-course affair. Beginning with soup, the second course is usually a protein-rich dish (Meat or fish) followed by coffee and a sweet. Most restaurants offer a lunchtime menu called Menu del Dia (Menu of the Day), a fixed 3 course combination which includes an inexpensive house wine (you can pay extra for a better wine). This fixed meal option is often better than the a la carte menu and makes it possible to try out the best restaurants at reasonable prices. Avoid tapas at lunchtime, it’s more of a dinner dish eaten out with friends while having a glass of wine or two.
5:30 PM onwards/ Snack: This may comprise of fresh fruit from the market, an ice-cream from an ice-cream vendor in the summer, or ‘churros con chocolate’ in the winter. If this sounds like too much food, remember that Spaniards dine later than most and dinner is at least another 3 hours away.
8:30 PM/ Drinks & Tapas: Tapas are a Spanish institution and nearly every bar offers these small but delicious morsels for just a few Euros a piece, washed down with red or white wine by the glass. Try to remain disciplined when doing your tapas ‘walk’, giving yourself a limit of two tapas per bar before moving on. Tapas are made to be eaten while standing and chatting, never sitting down in a restaurant . It often replaces the evening meal. In Madrid, the areas of Plaza de Sta. Ana and Chueca are great areas to explore for tapas bars, with Chueca being less touristy.
9:00 PM onwards/ Dinner: If you have already eaten beforehand and are not that hungry, ‘raciones’ or shared platters in a bar or tavern are a great idea. Explain how hungry (or not hungry) you are to the waiting staff and they will help to guide you.
11:00 PM onwards/ Copas: At this time, Spaniards will migrate from Tapas bars and eateries to the music and Jazz bars, switching from wines or beers to spirits.
WHAT NOT TO ORDER IN SPAIN: One of the worst sins that a traveler can commit is to stick out like a tourist and not blend in with the locals. Below is a list of foods and drinks that, if requested, are guaranteed to mark you as a tourist:
Paella - Paella is a regional dish originally from the coastal city of Valencia and is considered a picnic or festival food. Not only will you run the risk of offending people by ordering this dish outside of its traditional region, the paella served in tourist traps will more than likely have been frozen in a bag and microwaved before being served to you.
Sangria - Sangria is not the traditional drink in Spain. Considered a beverage for fiestas or a cheap drink for teenagers, tourists are the only ones who order sangria in Spanish eateries.
Gazpacho - Traditionally served only in southern Spain in the hot summer months, this cold tomato soup is not a staple dish in the Spanish diet. It can be bought cheaply in cartons at the local grocery store.
Expensive Tapas - You should be able to down at least 4 or 5 tapas for dinner for 10-15 euros with drinks. The whole concept of tapas (or the Basque equivalent of ‘pintxos’) evolved from cheap eats and large variety. Expensive tapas or ‘pintxos’ are marketed to tourists.
Hot breakfasts - In Spain, breakfasts are small and simple, lunches are large and filling, and dinners are short and light. End of story.
In closing, a major part of appreciating Spanish culture is all about savouring the rusticity and richness of their cuisine. As they say in Spain, Que Aproveche!