One wants to experience the local’s lifestyle when travelling to a colorful country like Spain so what a better way to blend into the Spanish culture than embracing the Spanish’ way of eating?
Spanish relationship with food
It’s not a secret to anyone that Latin people take food very seriously. In fact, I would even say that Spanish culture gravitates around food. Basically, every important event has something to do with food: a business meeting is often followed by a meal (well, sometimes that can be a trick to close the deal fast as the business partners get hungry), friends normally meet up for dinner on weekends and then they go for drinks (not the other way around), parents await their children with a delicious home-made traditional meal to celebrate the occasion.
Well, on a daily basis, no Spanish person will skip lunch unless they are forced by external or time circumstances. Skipping lunch is not normal (we would, at least seat down and eat a nice baguette, a salad, a drink, a coffe or a dessert) otherwise people’s mood can quickly get affected!
For instance, if you look at traditional festivities in Spain you would notice that they all involve a great cooking and/or eating event (giant paellas, group meals, cooking competitions, food stalls) regardless if the festivity honors a Saint, celebrates a Historical event or a football team victory… Spanish people express their happiness and love through food.
I remember first time I traveled outside my comfort zone (I am both from Spain & France) back in my teenage years, I felt sincerely uncomfortable and kind of insulted when I arrived to my guest family in the Netherlands and the mom only offered me a cheese platter for lunch. I automatically assumed the family was not happy to have me there as they did not go the extra-mile to cook me lunch. Obviously, I soon found out that this was not the case at all and that Dutch people focus more on diner than on lunch, needless to say that they were indeed delighted to have me with them.
Unfortunately, it took me a few years and numerous trips to non-Latin countries to understand that there are many ways to express happiness and celebrate times together without involving a big meal, long hours behind the stove or expensive traditional delicatessen platters.
I guess that is the beauty of travelling and experiencing new cultures and ways of living!
So, the good news is that if you are travelling to Spain and you love great food you will be in heaven! On another hand, the bad news is that if you move to Spain and you expect to make friends with locals, I am afraid you might have to invite them around for a cooked meal! Don’t be scared, Spanish people are, in general, very happy and open minded and I am sure they won’t judge you on the food you serve but more on the effort you put in. Hey, Spain is all about passion!
Spanish meal times
Now that you are aware of how important meals are to Spanish people, you should also know that even though Spain looks like a relaxed country, timing is non-negotiable.
So, start preparing yourself mentally and learn beforehand about Spanish eating habits to make the most of your stay in Spain.
These rules are applicable if you are staying in a traditional village, city or anywhere that is not an international beach resort or an expats orientated community (for instance, due to the high number of German and English expats, amongst others, Spain hosts communities where you can eat and live exactly like home as the business owners are also expats).
In Spain we love breakfast and we love having it everyday. It is very popular to have what we call desayuno at a local bar rather than at home, it is our way to socializing and commenting on the news and.. latest gossips! Spanish people take breakfast either very early before work, at around 7am to 8am, either at their work break at around 11am, so expect bars to get suddenly crowded at these particular times. Spanish people like to have a sweet or a sour snack in the morning, it really depends on the person and on the mood.
Most bars offer breakfast deals like: a latte + croissant + orange juice or a coffee + bocadillo (Spanish baguette). Deals are ridiculously cheap, last time I was in Valencia I had some bread with tomato, olive oil and serrano ham, with a cafe con leche and an orange juice for 2.5€ the sunshine on the terrace came for free! So embrace Spanish breakfast and start your day full of energy! One tip, remember these 3 words: cafe con leche (sort of latte), bocadillo (baguette filled with almost everything you wish for) and zumo (juice).
Lunch: don’t miss the Menu del Dia
If you are visiting Spain for your holidays you might want to change your eating habits in order to enjoy the best of Spanish food at the best possible price. In Spain, almost every single restaurant and bar offer the Menu of the Day (Menu del Dia) which is a set menu at a fixed price. I would highly recommend to make sure you get hungry around 1pm to 3pm, that is when menus are served. Most people, especially on a working day, eat around 1.30pm. The Menu del Dia is a fabulous invention where you can sample local food at a great price along with a vibrant and loud atmosphere caused by happy eaters savoring their hard-earned meal!
For your information, most menus include a starter, a main course, a dessert, a drink, bread and VAT and range from 8 to 15€. So walk around (avoid the main touristy squares) and look for the boards outside the restaurants that feature their Menu del Dia’s specials. This is not only a great way to save money but it also allows you to taste traditional, home-made seasonal dishes and mix up with locals!
Time for dinner
Well, if you follow the Spanish rhythm, by now you would have had breakfast, a 3 course menu, probably a coffee and some cake at 5pm in a pasteleria.. now it’s time for dinner! On work days, Spanish tend to focus more on lunch rather than in diner and, unless it is a special occasion, people tend to eat dinner home.
In Spain we eat healthy homemade dinners such salads, grilled meat, fish, fruit and bread. Spanish normally have diner at 8.30pm -9.30pm on weekdays and later on weekends.
If you are travelling and you cannot cook at home, I would recommend you don’t miss your Menu del Dia: this way you won’t be too hungry at dinner time and you could head to a bar for some local tapas, or for one simple main course at a local restaurant. It is very rare for restaurants to offer Menus in the evenings so expect to pay much higher prices than for lunchtime. If you want to eat out, make sure you don’t arrive to the restaurant before 8pm or later than 10.30-11pm but if you go to a tapas bar, they will serve you food all-day long. However, weekends are another story and Spanish tend to dine out very often: in summer time Spanish can book a table as late as 11pm! But the norm is too book a table at a restaurant at around 9pm (On a Saturday it is also a custom to go for vino and tapas as an aperitivo before heading to the restaurant)
Now the big question: Should you tip?
Last but not least: tipping in Spain. This is a very controversial subject so I am just going to tell you what we normally do in Spain, not what you should do or what I normally do.
It is very simple, Spanish people don’t usually tip. Without going into VAT and minimum wage details, in Spain it is not expected that you leave 10 or 20% tip.
When you eat a Menu del Dia, as it is a quick daily option, Spanish normally don’t leave any tip or if they do, they will only leave the change (1€, 20cts or 50cts), it is not an insult to leave little coins, trust me, in Spain any help is welcome. It is different when you go to a restaurant or to an elegant place where people then leave from 1 to 5€ in tips (not a percentage of the total amount). Also, Spanish people take the tipping act as a personal way of saying thank you. If the service or the food have exceeded their expectations then they would leave something, if not, they will pay the exact amount and leave. So if you eat out in Spain and wonder how much tip to leave, it is totally up to you: tips are always welcome but keep in mind it is OK if you don’t tip.
Enjoy your Spanish holiday and its beautiful traditional food!
Don’t forget to share my tips written from a real Spanish Perspective! You are also welcome to share your experiences and photos below or on the Facebook page!