Meals are an extremely important social activity in Spain, whether that means eating out late at night or having large family gatherings for lunch. Although Spain is faster paced than it once was, few Spaniards race through a meal on the way to an appointment.
The food in Spain is varied; portions are immense, but the prices, by North American standards, are high. Whenever possible, try the regional specialties, particularly when you visit the Basque Country or Galicia.
Many restaurants in Spain close on Sunday, so be sure to check ahead. Hotel dining rooms are generally open 7 days a week, and there's always something open in big cities, such as Madrid and Barcelona, or in well-touristed areas, such as the Costa del Sol. Generally, reservations are not necessary, except at popular, top-notch restaurants.
Breakfast -- In Spain, the day starts with a continental breakfast of coffee, hot chocolate, or tea, with assorted rolls, butter, and jam. Spanish breakfast might also consist of churros (fried fingerlike doughnuts) and hot chocolate that is very sweet and thick. However, most Spaniards simply have coffee, usually strong, served with hot milk: either a café con leche (half coffee, half milk) or cortado (a shot of espresso "cut" with a dash of milk). If you find it too strong and bitter for your taste, you might ask for a more diluted café americano.
Lunch -- The most important meal of the day in Spain, lunch is comparable to the farm-style midday "dinner" in the United States. It usually includes three or four courses, beginning with a choice of soup or several dishes of hors d'oeuvres called entremeses. Often a fish or egg dish is served after this, and then a meat course with vegetables. Wine is always part of the meal. Dessert is usually pastry, custard, or assorted fruit -- followed by coffee. Lunch is served from 1 to 4pm, with "rush hour" at 2pm.
Tapas -- After the early-evening stroll, many Spaniards head for their favorite tascas, bars where they drink wine and sample assorted tapas, or snacks, such as bits of fish, eggs in mayonnaise, or olives.
Because many Spaniards eat dinner very late, they often have an extremely light breakfast, certainly coffee and perhaps a pastry. However, by 11am they are often hungry and lunch might not be until 2pm or later, so many Spaniards have a late-morning snack, often at a cafeteria. Favorite items to order are a tortilla (Spanish omelet with potatoes) and even a beer. Many request a large tapa served with bread.
Dinner -- Another extravaganza: A typical meal starts with a bowl of soup, followed by a second course, often a fish dish, and by another main course, usually veal, beef, or pork, accompanied by vegetables. Again, desserts tend to be fruit, custard, or pastries.
Naturally, if you had a heavy, late lunch and stopped off at a tapas bar or two before dinner, supper might be much lighter, perhaps some cold cuts, sausage, a bowl of soup, or even a Spanish omelet made with potatoes. Wine is always part of the meal. Afterward, you might have a demitasse and a fragrant Spanish brandy. The chic dining hour, even in one-donkey towns, is 10 or 10:30pm. (In well-touristed regions and hardworking Catalonia, you can usually dine at 8pm, but you still may find yourself alone in the restaurant.) In most middle-class establishments, people dine around 9:30pm.
Soups & Appetizers -- Soups are usually served in big bowls. Cream soups, such as asparagus and potato, can be fine; sadly, however, they are too often made from powdered envelope soups such as Knorr and Liebig. Served year-round, chilled gazpacho, on the other hand, is tasty and particularly refreshing during the hot months. The combination is pleasant: olive oil, garlic, ground cucumbers, and raw tomatoes with a sprinkling of croutons. Spain also offers several varieties of fish soup -- sopa de pescado -- in all its provinces, and many of these are superb.
In the paradores (government-run hostelries) and top restaurants, as many as 15 tempting hors d'oeuvres are served. In lesser known places, avoid these entremeses, which often consist of last year's sardines and shards of sausage left over from the Moorish conquest.
Eggs -- These are served in countless ways. A Spanish omelet, a tortilla española, is made with potatoes and usually onions. A simple omelet is called a tortilla francesa. A tortilla portuguesa is similar to the American Spanish omelet.
Fish -- Spain's fish dishes tend to be outstanding and vary from province to province. One of the most common varieties is merluza (sweet white hake). Langosta, a variety of lobster, is seen everywhere -- it's a treat but terribly expensive. The Portuguese in particular, but some Spaniards, too, go into raptures at the mention of mejillones (barnacles). Gourmets relish their seawater taste; others find them tasteless. Rape (pronounced rah-peh) is the Spanish name for monkfish, a sweet, wide-boned ocean fish with a scalloplike texture. Also try a few dozen half-inch baby eels. They rely heavily on olive oil and garlic for their flavor, but they taste great. Squid cooked in its own ink is suggested only to those who want to go native. Charcoal-broiled sardines, however, are a culinary delight -- a particular treat in the Basque provinces. Trout Navarre is one of the most popular fish dishes, usually stuffed with bacon or ham.
Paella -- You can't go to Spain without trying its celebrated paella. Flavored with saffron, paella is an aromatic rice dish usually topped with shellfish, chicken, sausage, peppers, and local spices. Served authentically, it comes steaming hot from the kitchen in a metal pan called a paellera. (Incidentally, what is known in the U.S. as Spanish rice isn't Spanish at all. If you ask an English-speaking waiter for Spanish rice, you'll be served paella.)
Meats -- Don't expect Kansas City steak, but do try the spit-roasted suckling pig, so sweet and tender it can often be cut with a fork. The veal is also good, and the Spanish lomo de cerdo, loin of pork, is unmatched anywhere. Tender chicken is most often served in the major cities and towns today, and the Spanish are adept at spit-roasting it until it turns a delectable golden brown. In more remote spots of Spain, however, "free-range" chicken is often stringy and tough.
Vegetables & Salads -- Through more sophisticated agricultural methods, Spain now grows more of its own vegetables, which are available year-round, unlike in days of yore, when canned vegetables were used all too frequently. Both potatoes and rice are staples of the Spanish diet, the latter a prime ingredient, of course, in the famous paella originating in Valencia. Salads don't usually get much attention and are often made simply with lettuce and tomatoes.
Desserts -- The Spanish do not emphasize dessert, often opting for fresh fruit. Flan, a home-cooked egg custard, appears on all menus -- sometimes with a burned-caramel sauce. Ice cream appears on nearly all menus as well. But the best bet is to ask for a basket of fruit, which you can wash at your table. Homemade pastries are usually moist and not too sweet. As a dining oddity -- although it's not odd at all to Spaniards -- many restaurants serve fresh orange juice for dessert.
Olive Oil & Garlic -- Olive oil is used lavishly in Spain, the largest olive grower on the planet. You may not want it in all dishes. If you prefer your fish grilled in butter, the word is mantequilla. In some places, you'll be charged extra for the butter. Garlic is also an integral part of the Spanish diet, and even if you love it, you may find Spaniards love it more than you do and use it in the oddest dishes.
What to Drink
Water -- It is generally safe to drink water in all major cities and tourist resorts in Spain. If you're traveling in remote areas, play it safe and drink bottled water. One of the most popular noncarbonated bottled drinks in Spain is Solares. Nearly all restaurants and hotels have it. Bubbly water is agua mineral con gas; noncarbonated, agua mineral sin gas. Note that bottled water in some areas may cost as much as the regional wine.
Soft Drinks -- In general, avoid the carbonated citrus drinks on sale everywhere. Most of them never saw an orange, much less a lemon. If you want a citrus drink, order old, reliable Schweppes. An excellent noncarbonated drink for the summer is called Tri-Naranjus, which comes in lemon and orange flavors. Your cheapest bet is a liter bottle of gaseosa, which comes in various flavors. In summer you should also try an horchata. Not to be confused with the Mexican beverage of the same name, the Spanish horchata is a sweet, milklike beverage made of tubers called chufas.
Coffee -- Even if you are a dedicated coffee drinker, you may find the café con leche (coffee with milk) a little too strong. We suggest leche manchada, a little bit of strong, freshly brewed coffee in a glass that's filled with lots of frothy hot milk.
Milk -- In the largest cities you get bottled milk, but it loses a great deal of its flavor in the process of pasteurization. In all cases, avoid untreated milk and milk products. About the best brand of fresh milk is Lauki.
Beer -- Although not native to Spain, beer (cerveza) is now drunk everywhere. Domestic brands include San Miguel, Mahou, Aguila, and Cruz Blanca.
Wine -- Sherry (vino de Jerez) has been called "the wine with 100 souls." Drink it before dinner (try the topaz-colored finos, a dry and very pale sherry) or whenever you drop into some old inn or bodega for refreshment; many of them have rows of kegs with spigots. Manzanilla, a golden-colored, medium-dry sherry, is extremely popular. The sweet cream sherries (Harvey's Bristol Cream, for example) are favorite after-dinner wines (called olorosos). While the French may be disdainful of Spanish table wines, they can be truly noble, especially two leading varieties, Valdepeñas and Rioja, both from Castile. If you're not too exacting in your tastes, you can always ask for the vino de la casa (house wine) wherever you dine. The Ampurdán of Catalonia is heavy. From Andalusia comes the fruity Montilla. There are some good local sparkling wines (cavas) in Spain, such as Freixenet. One brand, Benjamín, comes in individual-size bottles.
Beginning in the 1990s, based partly on subsidies and incentives from the European Union, Spanish vintners have scrapped most of the country's obsolete winemaking equipment, hired new talent, and poured time and money into the improvement and promotion of wines from even high-altitude or arid regions not previously suitable for wine production. Thanks to irrigation, improved grape varieties, technological developments, and the expenditure of billions of euros, bodegas and vineyards are sprouting up throughout the country, opening their doors to visitors interested in how the stuff is grown, fermented, and bottled. These wines are now earning awards at wine competitions around the world for their quality and bouquet.
Interested in impressing a newfound Spanish friend over a wine list? Consider bypassing the usual array of Riojas, sherries, and sparkling Catalonian cavas in favor of, say, a Galician white from Rias Baixas, which some connoisseurs consider the perfect accompaniment for seafood. Among reds, make a beeline for vintages from the fastest-developing wine region of Europe, the arid, high-altitude district of Ribera del Duero, near Burgos, whose alkaline soil, cold nights, and sunny days have earned unexpected praise from winemakers (and encouraged massive investments) in the past few years.
For more information about these or any other of the 10 wine-producing regions of Spain (and the 39 officially recognized wine-producing Denominaciones de Origen scattered across those regions), contact Wines from Spain, c/o the Commercial Office of Spain, 405 Lexington Ave., 44th Floor, New York, NY 10174-0331 (tel. 212/661-4959).
Sangria -- The all-time favorite refreshing drink in Spain, sangria is a red-wine punch that combines wine with oranges, lemons, seltzer, and sugar. Be careful, however; many joints that do a big tourist trade produce a sickly sweet Kool-Aid version of sangria for unsuspecting visitors.
Whiskey & Brandy -- Imported whiskeys are available at most Spanish bars but at a high price. If you're a drinker, switch to brandies and cognacs, where the Spanish reign supreme. Try Fundador, made by the Pedro Domecq family in Jerez de la Frontera. If you want a smooth cognac, ask for the "103" white label.