Hola de España, where the sky is blue, the sun shining, and the food is fresh. The year is 2017 and the month June. I am 26 years old, British, and until three months ago had never set foot in this fair land, a rarity for a British passport holder. Memories of “what I did on my summer vacation” talks primarily consist of the majority of the class regaling us with tales of Iberia. Not I; I walked in mountains.
Food, architecture and fashion are the artifacts of everyday life that tell you about the people. The fashion tells you that it is a hot, body-comfortable country; the architecture that it is a hot country that has been blessed with some genius architects over the last century, less blessed by a dictator over the same period, and walking the line between European and North African throughout its history. Now, to the food.
For all that I enjoy eating out, Spanish food is a great gaping hole in my knowledge. Exhibit O: I only found what a tortilla was in 2015, have never eaten in a tapas restaurant, and the only paella that I have eaten was more of a failed risotto.
So welcome, and join me on my journey out of ignorance.
Note: this is born of my experiences living and eating with a Spanish family, and eating in restaurants with an English person who has lived in Spain for 13 years. It is therefore a subjective journey through Spanish cuisine and not intended as being an actual how-to in Spanish cooking. There are plenty of other websites and books for that. Anything that I haven’t personally tasted will be expressly stated, and other lame disclaimers.
Como Comer el Español
Or, how to eat like the Spanish.
Mañana, mañana. It’s the Spanish way of life. southern Europe is far more relaxed than we tense northern Europeans. In northern Europe we need to eat – science tells us so – but in southern Europe eating is an event to be cherished, to be loved, to be celebrated.
As such, it is usually late.
Breakfast (desayuno) is (as with the rest of the world) usually eaten when you wake, which for this family during the school holidays is 8am. It is not much of an event. Usually bread with butter and marmalade, or with olive or, or some kind of sugar treat. Based on my experience with Italians, the Portuguese, and now the Spanish, it would seem that the morning is the time to load up on sugar. Biscuits or whatever was bought from the pastelería the day before, and chocolate milk is a perfectly acceptable breakfast for a child. It’s the teachers I feel sorry for. The bread my host family has is usually a quite standard farmhouse or baguette. The marmalade is made from Seville oranges, I am told. And coffee, always coffee. I eat cereal.
Around midday you may have a piece of fruit or some yogurt, or if you start your day drinking early you may get a tapa or two.
Lunch (comida or almuerzo, depending on where you are. In Catalonia it is comida) is the most important meal, particularly on Domingo. It is served during siesta time, usually around 2pm or 3pm. The day is too hot to do anything else, and shops won’t open again for another couple of hours. This is a full meal, with a primer plato, such as a salad or a soup, as well as a plato principal – your protein of choice. Bread is on the side, and oil is abound. The family tends to have fruit or a sweet treat afterwards. Never have I met such a fruit-loving family.
After a swim, or whatever you do in your afternoon, you may have la merienda, or afternoon snack, some time around 6pm. Mostly this is for children. I am considering myself a child for the next few weeks. More fruit or pastry, or an ice cream (helado) if we’re out and about, and horchata or juice.
Then finally to dinner (cena). For an English person who was advised to not eat after 6pm, this is served impossibly late. Usually it is around 9.30-10.00pm. Last night for the Festa de San Joan, cena commenced at 11pm. Usually cena is smaller than comida, but still encompasses a full meal, though this may be more tapas-y in style. If you have to choose one meal with alcohol for the day, it tends to be cena. For a feast day – lest we forget that Spain is still quite influenced by its Catholic past – such as yesterday, cena is by far and away the biggest meal. I go to sleep at midnight and my body asks me why it must digest food in my sleep. With siestas, I suppose the Spanish must be able to take a two-part sleep enabling a later bedtime. I am yet to develop this skill.
Hands are used for tapas and plates are mopped with bread, but this isn’t Malaysia and cutlery is utilised for meals.
Restaurants of Choice
Now for some blog post padding.
Spain has some of the finest restaurants in the world. I have been to none of them as a) I haven’t spent much time in Spain, b) am not yet wealthy enough to, and c) don’t make plans far enough in advance to secure a table.
Here is a quick whip through three of the most famous, all of which my hosts have visited and generally gave the review “excellent food, but they told us how to eat. I suppose you have to get something extra for the high price you’re paying [even if it is just that you are yet to be sophisticated enough for this type of restaurant]”. Ah the sweet finishing schools of Michelin-starred restaurants.
Cinc Sentits – one star
Contemporary Catalan cuisine in Barcelona. Considered Barcelona’s best restaurant, with Barcelona itself being apparently (to some websites and magazines that have time to consider such things) one of the world’s top food cities (many cities that I have visited this year have made similar claims). It is run by the self-taught chef Jordi Ardal and was established in 2004.
El Celler de Can Roca – three stars
Back when I was in a sketch group, there was a single sketch performed a single time which referenced El Celler de Can Roca (mostly because it is expensive and sounds terrible when spoken by an English person. Our mouths do not work the same as Spanish people’s as I am learning in my attempts to improve my Spanish and teach children English), and now here I am, a mere 60km from it. It was established in Girona in 1986 by brother Joan, Josep and Jordi, serves ‘creative’ traditional Catalan cuisine, and was voted best restaurant in the world in 2013 and 2015.
elBulli – three stars
Possibly one of the most famous restaurants in the world when it was open, and even now anyone that seriously considers themselves a foodie (ick) should have encountered elBulli. It was opened in 1964 by Ferran Adrià and closed in 2011 for financial reasons (it’s hard to make a buck in the restaurant biz). Along the way it became renowned as being, and I quote Wikipedia which quotes the Guardian, the “most imaginative generator of haute cuisine on the planet”, specialising in molecular gastronomy. Have it, Heston. There’s a documentary on Netflix, elBulli: Cooking in Progress, about elBulli’s creative team and the launch of creativity centre, which opened in the restaurant’s existing location in 2014 (I gave it 3*, or a half-hearted thumbs up).
So here begins my delectable journey into the gastronomical delights of the lands of matadors, flamenco, fake Hollywood, and the modernista movement.