What to Eat and How to Order It
“They eat an awful lot of meat and no vegetables,” my dad said when he came back from Madrid. He went with an organized group and they were taken out to dinner every day. You would never do this back home. Who goes out to eat five days in a row? If you did, you can imagine the sensation you would have at the end of the week. In Spain you can multiply that sensation by ten because people eat big when they go out.
In this post I am going to offer some suggestions to help you avoid eating far more than you wanted to. I´ll give some pointers on how to order food when you are out and about on your own. Shakespeare in the Mountains has the great advantage of being residential. We do not have to rely on hotels and restaurants for food. This means that we can have lunch earlier than the Spanish standard of 2:30 pm and we can have dinner earlier than the Spanish standard of 9:30 pm.
When you go out and about on your own, however, it can be difficult to eat the way you want. “We were the only people in the restaurant,” said Sally, “There were lots of people hanging around drinking but we were the only ones sitting at the tables. Then, when we wanted to pay the bill, loads of people came in and we had to hang around. It was 10:30 before we got out of there!”
This is a classic example of culture clash. You see, Spanish people do not go out to eat before 9 pm. They normally meet up for a drink before going to dinner and it would not be unusual for them to start dining at 10:30. If you ask for the bill just when the waiter is busy taking orders you can expect a wait. It is not just that they are slow in their work- they really do not want to pressure you to finish quick. The concept of turning the tables does not exist. Unless you specifically request the bill faster, they will have difficulty understanding that anyone would want to finish that early. “Aren’t you out to enjoy yourself?” the Spanish waiter is thinking.
It seems you are condemned to have strange meals in empty restaurants or stay up late, eat a whole lot of heavy food and go to bed on a full stomach. Spaniards seem to get by pretty well on this rhythm of life but northern Europe insists that it is bad for you to eat right before sleeping.
“I don’t usually eat that much in the evening,” says John. “It just doesn’t seem healthy to me and anyway it gives me indigestion and disturbs my sleep. Goodness me, I wonder that Spanish people get by with this rhythm of life!”
My suggestion to John is to do the restaurant at lunchtime and leave the evening for the street. You can take advantage of the atmosphere on the streets by ordering tapas and raciones at bars with terraces. Tapas are the little bite-sized portions of food that normally come free when you order a drink in a bar or cafeteria. It is a typical part of Spanish life for people to go out in the evening, meet up with friends and have a tapa before going home to dinner. Tapas restaurants do not exist, unless you count the chain restaurant 100 Montaditos. No, the fun of the tapa is to have something and move on.
Of course there is not enough in a tapa to make a meal of: if you tried you would go to bed drunk every day because they are small. but the good news is that you can order more. Raciones are like tapas but on a slightly larger plate. No self-respecting Spaniard would make a meal out of raciones but you can put together a pretty good approximation of a light meal back home sitting at a terrace café and ordering these small plates.
Some of our favourite Mediterranean foods come best served as raciones: squid (calamares), Russian salad (ensaladilla), hams and cheeses (jamón y queso), sardines (sardinas, bocartes), octopus (pulpo), breaded fish (pescadito frito), chickpea stew (garbanzos). If you go to a street restaurant and take a table outside, the waiter will first come along and ask you what you want to drink. Say you order a glass of wine, he will bring you a tapa to go with it. This may be as simple as anchovies on bread or it may be more elaborate. If you like it you can ask for more either by seeing what is on offer on the counter or asking for the carta, or menu. Don’t ask for the menu. In Spain menu refers to the set meal of the day, which normally includes a starter, a main course and a dessert for about 10€. So menu is not menu; carta is menu.
You can order a lot of separate dishes and share them. I like gambas al ajillo, prawns that come out in a sizzling hot dish of oil loaded with garlic. A plate of salad by the side helps. I usually order ensalada verde because I do not like the tuna and sweetcorn they invariably put on ensalada mixta. Croquetas are a hit with my kids: breaded balls of béchamel with various fillings that are deep-fried in oil. If you order three or four raciones and say “para compartir” they will bring you out a separate little plate each.
Having tapas at 8pm puts you much more in line with Spanish culture. You will be on the street with the rest of society. Everyone goes out onto the streets in the early evening. It can be a little more complicated to find somewhere to sit down, but that is a good thing in Spanish life. Once you have found yourself a place, you can sit back and watch people circling around waiting for a table to become available, or just standing around in multi-generational groups, chatting and making a lot of noise. If you want to eat early, eat on the street. It is more fun.
Let’s Do Lunch!
Lunch is the biggest meal of the day in most Spanish homes. The midday meal is not the rushed affair it is in Anglo Saxon cultures. You don’t grab a quick sandwich and go. You take your time. This means that you will not feel a pressure to eat up and go at a restaurant. In another post I am going to take you through a typical menu and suggest some of the things that you might like to try in the restaurants of Asturias. In the meantime, however, you might like to consider some of these delicacies:
Pote asturianu: a mix of beans, potato, cabbage and sausage. This is a heavy meal and you would hardly need another plate or a dessert to follow!
Fabada: the fabes of Asturias are famously good. They are big white beans.
Cachopo: two thin strips of steak filled with Iberian ham and cheese, the cachopo is an Asturian standard. If you get a cheap version it will be cheap cheese and cheap ham. Pay a little extra and get a good one.
Ternera con salsa de cabrales: cabrales is a famous Asturian blue. It has a strong flavour that is softened when it is made into a creamy sauce to go with steak.
Fish, fish, fish: some of the best fish in Spain comes into the northern ports, like Avilés. I’ll write another post about eating fish, so keep following!