A screaming man shakes his wild, curly hair slinging beads of sweat in every direction. He gives another man an enthusiastic hug with a look of shear joy on both of their faces. The European Cup competition was in full swing during my visit, and it seemed more common than not that the bar, bodega, restaurante, cerveceria, taberna, braseria, sideria, or cafe that I happened to wander in to was featuring a big game. Gathered below the screen where this kind of scene was playing out each night were football fans of all ages and genders.
I was there for the food, though I have to admit to getting a bit caught up in the drama of the tournament. My culinary adventures turned out to generally excellent — I think this was helped by the practice of looking for places where there were alot of customers who had food and plates in front of them — a form of crowdsourcing the selection of a lunch or dinner venue.
Food and eating may be running just a close second to football in popularity as a pastime. I have read that Spaniards traditionally have about five meals a day: early breakfast, second breakfast in the mid-morning, lunch between about 1 and 3, early dinner around 7, and dinner beginning at 9:30 or later. Lunch is traditionally the biggest meal. I experienced a broad variation in this pattern though and found that I could be fed pretty much whatever I wanted at whatever time I wanted. I did get accustomed to the big meal being at lunch and after a couple of weeks I was out there at 10 or 11 pm looking for dinner.
Following are impressions of mealtimes. Captions, when provided precede the related images.
Cafe con leche — steaming milk poured over strong espresso provided a welcome start to the days. Often it was accompanied by one of a variety of fresh baked breads or rolls.
Parts of Spain are major orange producing places so rarely did I start the day without some tasty juice. The smell of the blossoms was glorious when I was hiking in the vicinity of an orange or lemon grove. Many trees were producing ripe fruit at the same time they were blossoming. Oranges were everywhere and were a bargain.
An orange tart at a country inn …. Markets are a big part of everyday life. Although there is no shortage of small grocery stores with a broad selection of products under one roof, it was not difficult to find a nearby traditional market with fresh fruit, vegetables, cheeses, meats, and seafood ….
Markets also feature a variety of prepared food stands and bars. A really cool thing we learned about is that many markets have at least one of these places that, for a small fee, will prepare a meal on the spot from whatever you bring them from your shopping at the market. Their cook applies their creativity to the ingredients you hand them. “You buy it, we cook it” ….
The finished product ….
No discussion of Spanish food can be undertaken without talking about tapas. Tapas are offered in a large variety of eating places as well as in places that specialize in just tapas. I had tapas for lunch, early dinner, dinner, and just for a snack. Although I didn’t notice breakfast tapas, they are pretty much available any time of day. The word tapas translates as ‘cover’ or ‘lid’ and I heard a number of stories about the origin of the concept. The one that appealed to me was that 13th-century King Alfonso X was traveling in the country and stopped at a modest roadhouse for refreshment. The proprietor, concerned about blowing dust and swirling fruit flies improvised a cover for the King’s drink by placing a thin slice of jamon serrano on top of the cup. After finishing the drink and the impromptu snack, the king asked for another drink with the tapa. This King Alfonso was also known as Alfonso the Wise. He went on to establish a law that tapas must be served with every alcoholic drink — this was said to address ensuring that working people didn’t just drink their lunch — they would also get some food in them. Apparently, that was a problem in his time.
Now days tapas a huge variety of tapas are offered. Often there is a special refrigerated (or heated) display on the bar top, reminiscent of the display in a sushi place, where you can see and choose from the offerings. In other places I experienced plates and skillets of tapas of different varieties would show up at the bar from the kitchen so you would get a serving from whatever happened to be available when you ordered a drink. In some places, a serving of tapas came free with a drink (canas y tapas) while in other places you would order tapas by pointing or choosing from a list a pay for them separate from your drink. I never figured out a way to tell which kind of place I was going into other than to ask. The serving sizes varied widely — sometimes one tapas seemed enough for a meal and other times it would be just a bite.
A quote I saw about tapas (I can’t remember where) that seemed quite on point is “Tapas is more than a type of food in Spain – it’s a lifestyle”. One of my young hosts talked about how young people take up the challenge of finding the best canas y tapas places to hop between in order to “eat well, drink cheap, and serve as a fun social activity.”
There are several language things to know about the tapas experience. When I was in the north in Asturias (read my articles about Asturias here), they use the word pinchos instead of tapas to refer to pretty much the same concept. In places that have a tapas menu with prices, racións refer to the portions that tapas are served in. A media ración is usually a serving for one while a full ración is often shared by a couple or a group – kind of like ordering several dishes in a Chinese restaurant and sharing them with everyone.
The best tapas y canas place I experienced was La Tasquina in Segovia. Beautiful skillets of interesting dishes kept coming out …
Traditional sausages …
The ‘Menu del Dia’ is a great concept that I would love to see more often in the USA. Many, if not most restaurants offer a menu del dia and it is often featured on a chalkboard outside the business. It features at least two first course selections, two second course selections, bread, dessert selection, wine or beer, and coffee for one flat price. Prices I saw typically ranged from about $7-12 depending on the place or the offering. I was told that the menu del dia concept took hold in the era of the Franco dictatorship as a way to ensure a nutritious and balanced lunch on a budget, and to make the hard work of being a tourist a bit easier.
The following images are from a menu del dia lunch in central Madrid that cost about $12. My first course choice was a rigatoni dish that could have been a meal by itself. Bread, olives, and a glass of beer are included in the meal price ….
I topped it off with tiramisu and cafe con leche for dessert ….
Olive delivery guy — I gained a new appreciation of olives on this trip ….
Paella made with either a rice or pasta dish was a great main dish. Some places seem to specialize in paellas as a tourist attraction and it can be a pricey affair. I think it best to find at a back street joint or bar …
There is a growing craft beer scene in the cities (read my article about this here). These ribs were pared with an amber lager and featured a beer infused barbeque sauce ….
Each region I visited had there own specialty cuisine, but one of the most interesting meals I had with a local specialty was at La Granja de San Ildefonso — Cochinillo Asada or roast suckling pig. The starter was a tasty fava bean & sausage stew called estofado de judiones de la granja ….
Rather than ordering a whole suckling pig, I opted for the head. It took a bit of work, but was tasty. The waiter chided me into not letting the ears go to waste and he was right — crunchy and surprisingly tasty ….
Chocolate con Churros seemed one of the late breakfast or afternoon pick-me-up kind of treats. The hot chocolate has the viscosity of nacho cheese dip (pretty thick to drink) and is perfect for dipping the donut-like churros into …. A tasty, refreshing treat was to stop at a heladeria — something I only saw in the cities. I don’t know whether helados is basically the same thing as gelato, but I don’t really care — it is every bit as delightful in my memory. Also memorable are the artful and crafty displays …. Although I’m not a big wine drinker, I could get used to more of that in Spain. I found the wines I tried both tasty and inexpensive. I saw these wine casks (one blanco and one tinto) in the corner of a bakery in a small town. People can purchase refills of there wine jugs for a very reasonable price — wine growlers ….
The author hard at work learning about Spanish cuisine ….