Food Culture in Spain

Wait…what time is dinner?

For someone like myself, there is nothing more surprisingly complicated than acclimating to the food culture of another country. I realize my small, Olive Oil-esque frame may not fit the part, but I LOVE food. Anthony Bourdain I am not, but thanks to years of working in restaurants and binge watching too many cooking shows, my enthusiasm for weird, spicy, hard to pronounce, off-the-beaten path cuisine is never ending. As you might imagine, my confidence level about eating in Spain, on a scale from 1 to Samuel L Jackson, was at a solid “Lebron James coming back to Cleveland” level when I first got here. Paella? Chorizo? Sangria? Yes, yes, and I’ll take the large carafe, please. My only worry was what was going to happen after 3 months when I go from Olive Oil to Popeye before he discovered steroid infused spinach.

But as is always the case when you move somewhere new, there is more to food culture than just the food.

In Spain, eating is the easy part. The flavors, the textures, and the aromas of food here are familiar and often far better than what one finds in the “quantity over quality” food tradition of the United States. Buying food in Spain is another story. People here care immensely about the quality of their food and there are butcher shops, wine shops, cheese shops, bakeries and produce stands all over Barcelona offering the best of everything. As an American living in Europe, it is absolutely terrifying. Your brain immediately panics. Oh god I can’t just walk into one building and buy everything? What if everything is really expensive? Where are the prepared foods? Why is there no peanut butter? Do you really expect me to cook EVERYTHING?

I soon discovered the answers to these questions are:…you could but I don’t recommend it, it’s not, they don’t exist, stop complaining and start buying Nutella and pate (You can spread meat!! What a concept!), and YES, but there are plenty of 40 year olds who still live at home and have their Mom do all the heavy lifting. Nevertheless, I had definitely slipped from my Lebron James confidence level to “Cleveland Browns fan at a pre-season fantasy draft”. Still full of hope, but anticipating more missteps along the way.

Once I got over the initial shock of buying food, it was time to get out of my AirBNB and sample some of the local cuisine. This part, I figured, was going to be a breeze. Barcelona is an extremely diverse, cosmopolitan city and most restaurants are fully accommodating to American newbies like myself. There are plenty of options to choose from, and plenty of Starbucks when you want to give up and sacrifice more of your retirement savings for another giant cup of coffee. I made it a point to seek out the most Spanish things I could find on a menu: paella, sangria, patatas bravas…I was going to be a local in no time. Except, well, not exactly, as I soon found out.

In true Barcelona fashion, food culture, like all the culture here, has a Catalan twist. Think of it as a mix between Spanish and French. There are just as many cheeses and croissants here as there are plates of Iberian Ham. Sangria is not a thing in Barcelona, unless you are new to the area and unaware that Cava, Spain’s sparkling wine that originated near the Barcelona region, is the single most delicious drink ever. I also had to learn food can be ordered in different portions, you are often expected to share, and when you do, never fill up your plate with all your food at once. Minor details. My confidence took a little hit, but I’m still hovering around “Taylor Swift Signing up for Tindr” status. I’m still enjoying myself and faux pas aside, I’m going to keep trying one way or another.

Paella is still a constant presence in Barcelona, but eating it at night is dead giveaway that you are a clueless tourist. This is just one of many examples of my biggest obstacles to understanding Spanish food culture — the timing of food. For the first month I couldn’t for the life of me figure out when I was supposed to eat. Any Spanish person will provide a standard answer: breakfast is at 9, lunch is at 2 (and it can last forever), tea time is at 6, and dinner doesn’t really get going until 10. I found this to be true, in theory. There are still plenty of expats and tourists on a completely different eating schedule which further complicates matters, and makes me wonder if being a Spanish restaurant server might qualify as slave labor.

From the time you wake up to the time you go to bed, you see people sitting outside eating, drinking, and all in all, enjoying the experience of life in Spain. I’ve passed road workers having bottles of wine at 9am and young club goers passing on dinner in favor of the 2am discoteque buffet (Spains version of late night pizza and ramen). While it would seem reasonable to simply trust my body to tell me when I’m hungry, it was impossible to figure out given the visual and aromatic cues around me. Should I go out for dinner now? How about now? What is my stomach doing? Why is everyone around me just drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes? When it came to deciding when to eat what, I went from “Taylor Swift on Tindr” to “Taylor Swift getting called out by Kanye at the Grammys (and knowing in her heart that yeah…Beyonce should have won)”. Am I ever going to figure this crap out?

The short answer to this question is: not yet, but does it really matter? If there is anything I have learned living here, eating the proper food at the appropriate time in Spain really misses the point. To be here is to learn how to slow down and enjoy life. Breakfast is at 9 — well, no problem because NOTHING is open before then so we get a couple more hours of sleep. Lunch is at 2 — perfect because everything closes again from 2–4pm to accommodate eating a giant pan of paella. Dinner is at 10 — still not my favorite, but I just spent 2 hours eating paella so not a huge deal. Plus, when you finally have the proper experience of “salir de tapas” (going out for tapas) you start to realize these small plates of fresh seafood and croquettes are more about spending time with good friends and well worth the wait. Time be damned, I just want another serving of fresh cured jamon and queso, por favor. I wouldn’t say I am moving far up the Sam Jackson confidence ladder, but I’m having a really good time learning what makes the food culture in Spain so special. When a glass of cava is cheaper than water, who needs Shaft?

Writer, Marketing Consultant, and Professional Bohemian. It’s like being a regular bohemian, but with business casual clothing and a nicer laptop.

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