On 23rd February 2013 this article did the rounds on the internet, generating a lot of debate. You can read my follow up post to the comments here.
If cultural observation is one of my favourite sports, then there is no better arena than the dining table. Travellers’ tales are full of eating-related anecdotes. How many times have you heard the story about the visitor who offended his or her host by burping, or not burping, by putting his or her elbows on the table, by arranging cutlery in a cross rather than parallel – the list goes on and the potential pitfalls for the culturally ignorant diner are numerous.
Eating in Spain, as you can imagine, is steeped in tradition, culture, habit and simple everyday repetition. Even so, the possibilities for causing offence are probably less prominent here in Spain than in other, more sensitive, cultures (unless you should dare start eating before everyone has their food – that’s a big faux pas). So, rather than an etiquette guide, this is more like a list of observations of the Spanish in their natural habitat – enjoying a good meal with friends and family. They are small, mostly completely insignificant details – points I’ve picked up on over the years as an Englishman living in Spain. If you’re sensitive to national stereotyping and stuff like that, perhaps don’t read on – this is lighthearted stuff, meant for a laugh and a bit of discussion. Nothing more.
A piece of bread is the third cutlery utensil after the knife and fork in Spain. If you want to stop a Spaniard from eating, just don’t put any bread down next to his plate. Spaniards will eat bread with anything and everything, including heavy carbohydrate dishes like pasta and rice, even with dessert on some occasions. Only in Spain did I discover the joys of bread and chocolate – not chocolate spread, but a piece of chocolate served in what is basically a sandwich. Chinese restaurants in Spain have baskets of bread available for customers. All ‘Menu del Dia’ include bread. Spaniards just don’t eat without bread.
If bread is the most essential item on the table at a Spanish meal, it is closely followed by the humble napkin. “A napkin,” you say, “what’s remarkable about that?”. And indeed, you’d be right. A napkin is obviously useful for wiping all that mess of your face as you tuck into your tasty meal. The thing is though, napkins are not part of the day-to-day eating habits of the English. OK, maybe you get a napkin at a nice restaurant. And maybe at Christmas your mum would buy some pretty red and gold napkins for the table. But for everyday meals, in my house and in every other English household I ever visited in 25 years of growing up and living in England, napkins are not provided. Why should a Spaniard need a napkin whereas English diners can do without? I ask my Spanish wife this same question all the time. It fascinates me. She and almost every other Spanish person I have ever met seem genetically incapable of eating without a napkin. They are constantly wiping their mouths in between every mouthful. If a napkin is so necessary in order to maintain hygiene whilst eating, we have to ask how the English are able to do without one on such a regular basis. Do they just resign themselves to having a dirty mouth throughout a meal. Some anecdotal evidence suggests that might be the case. One Spaniard I met, who had also noticed this little napkin-based cultural imbalance, maintains that the rims of glasses of English diners tend to get very dirty and smudged whereas Spanish glassware remains sparkling throughout a meal as every sip is taken with an immaculately clean mouth. This actually really bothered him.
3. Water / Agua del Tiempo / Mixing water
So whilst we’re on the subject of drinking whilst eating, let’s talk about water. The Spanish do not eat without water. In my experience, in England, there is some variation family to family on this. Some families do tend to drink water with lunch and dinner, but a large proportion, if not the majority, wash their food down with all manner of other rubbish – juice, orange squash, coke, beer etc. These drinks are aperitifs in Spain – they don’t appear at the dinner table (except, perhaps, on special occasions?). The most you will find beyond water is a bottle of wine, but almost certainly not beer. Water is always still, and mostly from the tap too, but it is always, always served – there is no variation across families here. The other little detail that has always fascinated me about how the Spanish take their water is the issue of temperature. When you order water at a bar in Spain, you’ll be asked “Fria” (cold) or “Del tiempo” (literally ‘of the weather’, actually meaning ‘ambient temperature’). Many Spaniards don’t like their water too cold, so don’t want it straight out of the fridge. At family meals, there is even a solution to this dilemma, a practice which I have only ever observed in Spain: mixing cold water from the fridge with ambient temperature water. So if you see two jugs of water at a table in Spain, one with dripping condensation down the side and the other without, you’ll now know why.
As a foreigner, the most common error I think I have tended to make at Spanish meals is getting up more or less immediately after having finished eating. Let me tell you, this is just not done in Spain. The sobremesa (the period after eating where you stay at the table for an extended chat) is sacred. This has been quite hard to assimilate for me. I’m quite fidgety, so when I finish eating, I like to get up and have a walk around and just generally carry on with my day. My wife, being Spanish, needs at least 15 minutes after finishing to come to terms with the fact that the meal is over. During this period, if we are alone and eating out, I tend to play with my iPhone. The sobremesa in Spain, at weekends or festive periods, can drag on for so long that it is not unusual for lunch to actually transition into dinner without any perceptible activity in between.
5. 3pm is Lunchtime
I have often thought how chronologically regimented life is in Spain – more so than any other country I have visited does the entire population tend to do everything at exactly the same time. I believe that in England, lunchtime is anywhere from about 12 noon to perhaps 2.30 pm. Go out onto any English high street at 12 and you will see plenty of people, the same at 1pm and the same at 2pm. Go onto a typical Spanish high street, even at the weekend, at 3pm and you’ll see noone, probably not a single person. Why? Because they are all, literally all, eating. 3pm, you see, is lunchtime in Spain.
And at 3pm, another national institution starts up – the telediario (news). Although the Spanish are famed as social eaters, which is largely very accurate, a typical Spanish lunch is incomplete without Lourdes or Mati blaring away in the background. Not that people tend to take much notice of what is being said – in general it’s just background noise. From time to time Dad will hush everyone if something of particular interest pops up, but really it’s not until everyone has finished eating and coffee is being served that everyone starts to pay attention – los deportes have started! Or rather, the Real Madrid/Barcelona half hour.
Followed by the weather: hot in the south, cold in Leon, Burgos and Soria, and raining in Galicia and Asturias.
Just another typical lunchtime in Spain.
Follow Ups to This Article
- What the Spanish Think of the English – My response to some of the comments generated by this post.
- Summary of the post translated into Spanish on ABC.es
- Response to the post by Juan Revenga on 20minutos.es
- Discussion of the post on Meneame.net
- Discussion of the post on Reddit Spain
- Discussion of the post on Reddit Europe
- Discussion of the post on Spaniards.es forum