Your first steps to immersion in Spain will start at the very first bar that you stop it. These informal social spaces are seemingly on every street in Spanish cities, towns, and villages, and their humble appearance can often disguise a proud and serious approach to food and drink. From the quick bar snack enjoyed between meals to the elaborate four-hour Sunday afternoon meal, there is not a moment in the day that cannot be improved with the addition of a shared plate at the table.
If you want to immerse yourself properly, you need to pay attention to local customs. Mealtimes may vary considerably where you’re from, but if you don’t take national traditions into account, you may find yourself overcharged, with a much more limited choice or even worse: going home with an empty stomach!
Desayuno. 6am – 9am. The Spanish start work early and their first meal often reflects the type of job they have. Café con leche is omnipresent; croissants for the office workers, tortilla sandwiches and a small beer for manual laborers
Almuerzo. 10am – 12pm. This varies from region to region, but it tends to be a savory midday snack
Comida. 1.30pm – 4pm. Forget a half-hour break for a sandwich and a packet of crisps: the Spanish lunch is sacred. Almost all bars and restaurants offer a well-priced 3-course meal, often with wine and coffee included. Make sure you stay at the table to digest rather than rushing off, and the hot drink of choice from this time of day is the cortado, a reduced but potent white coffee
Merienda. 5pm – 7pm. We mentioned that the Spanish start early, they also finish late. Dinner is still a few hours away, and you still have a good portion of the studying day to get through. Drop into your favorite bar for a café solo (espresso) and a Magdalena (muffin)
Cena. 9 pm-midnight. Usually, home-cooked during the week. Pick up some delicious ingredients from your local market and combine at home for a cheap and healthy end to the day.
Although it seems like a complicated system, meals during the week are often chosen for practical nutritional value. At the weekend, holidays or special occasions is when the regional and national cuisine comes into its own. Be careful with your choices and you will be rewarded with fantastic and great value dining experiences. Here are five staples that you shouldn’t miss during your immersion trip to Barcelona.
The first thing visitors ask for when they land in Spain, mastering the right selection of these communal bar snacks is an art form in itself. Almost every bar and restaurant seem to offer tapas, most may serve a couple of decent dishes, but few boast an array of micro-masterpieces that would make a memorable meal out. They can comprise of plates of cold cuts or regional cheeses, grilled vegetables or salads, fried seafood or stewed offal. Some staples you must sample are:
- Patatas bravas, potato wedges served with garlicky aioli alongside mildly piquant tomato sauce
- Pimientos del padrón, small green peppers, fried and doused in sea salt, with the curious characteristic that around one in 5 is spicy
- Pulpo a Feira, one of the pricier tapas, it is a Galician recipe of boiled octopus served with potatoes and paprika
Originally from the Valencia region, it has become available all around Spain and famous throughout the world. The original recipe for this sticky rice classic features rabbit, chicken, white beans and snails, and a vegetarian version is also relatively easy to locate. The country’s favorite variety has to be the seafood paella, complete with prawns, fish, mussels and even lobster for more opulent occasions. As the shellfish is cooked whole, the meal becomes a delightfully messy affair.
The dish is traditionally ordered to share between a group, at the weekend, during the afternoon rather than the evening, with white wine to accompany and a necessary siesta to follow the ample portions. If you want to sample the dish away from such a context, you can find single-portions of paella as part of the daily set menu at restaurants on Thursdays.
Vermut, or vermouth in English, seems to describe a drink rather than food, but the concept of vermú, in fact, refers to another Spanish weekend ritual. The spiced and fortified wine is often locally produced, and best served over ice on a sunny terrace with a vintage soda siphon to add according to taste. Accompanying this social drink are Spanish conservas, mainly canned seafood, but white asparagus, olives, and salted almonds are also common. If the bitter vermouth isn’t for you, then go for a beer, wine, cava or sparkling water.
One of the best features of Spanish eating habits is the respect for the seasons. When crops are harvested, they can be found in the markets. When they are out of season, they are not. Some regions celebrate the appearance of certain ingredients on the shelves, none more than in Catalunya, the home of calçots.
These green onions look like the leek’s little brother and are form part of a delightful culinary experience each winter in the region. Charred until blackened, they are served in generous piles as a starter. Whilst wearing gloves and a bib, diners strip back the burnt exterior skin to reveal a sweetly roasted interior, which is then dipped in romesco sauce, made of red pepper, garlic, and almonds. The slimy vegetable is then carefully eaten in the manner of a sword swallower and washed down with red table wine from a communal pitcher.
The last item on our list is traditionally the only available food on the way home after a late night on the tiles, or on a Sunday when a sugary snack is in order. Churros resemble crispy elongated doughnuts and are often dipped in chocolate or coffee after being covered with sugar. The charming churrerias bars or mobile churro shops can be found in most Spanish towns and traditional fairs, and their style seems to have remained the same since the mid 20th century.