Food in Spain
The Spanish are very passionate about their food and wine and Spanish cuisine. Spanish cuisine can be described as quite light, with lots of vegetables and a wide variety of meat and fish. Spanish cuisine does not use many spices; it relies solely on the use of high quality ingredients to achieve good taste. Spanish cuisine is therefore sometimes bland, but most cities have a variety of restaurants (Italian, Chinese, American fast food) if you want to discover a variety of flavours.
Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner times
The Spanish have a different meal plan than many people are used to.
The most important thing to remember as a traveller is:
- For most Spaniards, breakfast (el desayuno) is light and consists only of coffee and maybe a galleta (like a graham cracker) or a magdalena (sweet bread similar to a muffin). Later, some people will go to a café for a mid-morning cake, but not too close to lunchtime.
- “el aperitivo” is a light snack eaten around 12 o’clock. But it can also be a few glasses of beer and a large filled baguette or a “pincho de tortilla”.
- Lunch (la comida) starts at 13:30-2:30 (but often not before 15:00) and used to be followed by a short nap, especially in summer when temperatures can be quite hot in the afternoon. It is the main meal of the day with two courses (el primer plato and el segundo plato) followed by dessert. The comida and siesta usually end by 4pm at the latest. However, as life has become more active, there is no opportunity to take a nap.
- Dinner (la cena) starts at 20:30 or 21:00, with most guests arriving after 21:00. It is a lighter meal than lunch. Restaurants in Madrid rarely open before 9pm and most customers do not arrive before 11pm.
- There is also a snack that some people have between the comida and the cena, the merienda. This is a snack similar to tea time in England, taken around 6pm.
- Between lunch and dinner time, most restaurants and cafés are closed and you have to make an extra effort to find a place to eat if you miss your lunch break. Still, you can always find a bar and ask for a bocadillo, a baguette sandwich. There are bocadillos fríos, cold sandwiches that can be filled with ham, cheese or another embutido, and bocadillos calientes, warm sandwiches filled with pork loin, tortilla, bacon, sausage and other similar options with cheese. This option can be really cheap and tasty if you find a good place.
Normally, restaurants in big cities do not close before midnight on weekdays and between 2am and 3am on weekends.
Most Spaniards eat breakfast. The traditional Spanish breakfast includes coffee or orange juice and pastries or a small sandwich. In Madrid it is also common to have hot chocolate with “churros” or “porras”. In the cafés you can expect different versions of tortilla de patatas, sometimes tapas (either the breakfast version or the same type served with alcohol in the evening).
The introduction to Spanish cuisine can be found in bars in the form of tapas, which are a bit like “starters” or “appetisers” but are more of an accompaniment to your drink. Some bars offer a wide range of different tapas, others specialise in a particular type (e.g. seafood tapas). A Spanish custom is to have a tapa and a small drink in one bar and then go to the next bar and do the same. A group of two or more people can order two or more tapas or order raciones instead, which are slightly larger to share.
Fast food has not yet caught on with the Spanish and you will only find McDonalds and Burger King in the usual places in the big cities. The menu can be a surprise as it is tailored to the needs of the locals and beer, salads, yoghurt (mainly Danone) and wine play an important role. Pizza is becoming more popular and you will find some outlets in the big cities, but these may be franchises of their own, such as TelePizza. Despite the presence of beer and wine on the menu, fast food is often seen as ‘kids’ food’. American franchises tend to charge higher prices than in the United States, and fast food is not necessarily the cheapest way to eat out.
Seafood: On the coast, fresh seafood is widely available and quite affordable. Inland, frozen (and lower quality) seafood is often found outside a few very reputable (and expensive) restaurants. In coastal areas, seafood deserves some attention, especially on the North Atlantic coast.
In Spain, high-quality seafood comes from the region of Galicia in the northwest of the country. Thus, restaurants with the name “Gallego” (Galician) usually specialise in seafood. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can try the Galician speciality Pulpo a la Gallega, which consists of boiled octopus served with paprika, rock salt and olive oil. Another adventurous option is cuttlefish, a relative of squid, or the various forms of calamari (octopus) that you can find in most seafood restaurants. If that’s not your style, you can always order Gambas Ajillo (garlic prawns), Pescado Frito (fried fish), Buñuelos de Bacalao (breaded and fried cod) or the unmissable Paella.
Meat products are generally of very good quality, as Spain has maintained a fairly high proportion of animals in the wild.
It is highly recommended to order beef steaks, as most come from free-range cows in the mountains north of the city.
The equally sought-after cuts of pork are the so-called Presa Iberica and Secreto Iberico, an absolute must when you find them on a restaurant menu.
Soups: The choice of soups other than gazpacho is very limited in Spanish restaurants.
Water is often served without explicit request and is usually chargeable unless it is included in your del dia menu. If you want free tap water instead of bottled water, ask for “agua del grifo” (tap water). However, not all restaurants offer this and you may have to order bottled water.
Starters such as bread, cheese and other items can be brought to your table even if you have not ordered them. You will be charged for them. If you do not want these starters, politely tell the waiter that you do not want them.
World-class restaurants: There are several restaurants in Spain that are a destination in themselves and become a unique reason to visit a particular city. One of them is El Bulli in Roses.
Service charges and VAT
No extra charges are included in the bill. A small additional tip is customary and you are free to increase it if you are very satisfied. Of course, you don’t have to tip a bad waiter. Normally you leave the change after paying with a bill.
Menú del día
Many restaurants offer a complete meal for a fixed price – “menú del día” – and this is often a good deal. Water or wine is usually included in the price.
Typical Spanish dishes can be found all over the country, but top tourist destinations like the Costa Brava and Costa del Sol have shaken up all the existing traditions. This means that drinks are generally more expensive – about twice as expensive as elsewhere – and vary in quality. Restaurants in tourist spots certainly serve Spanish dishes (after all, that’s what many visitors are looking for), but these may have been adapted to suit tourists’ tastes. However, if you are prepared to look a little further, you will find some excellent traditional Spanish restaurants even in the most touristy towns. If you’re on the coast, think fish and seafood and you won’t be disappointed.
Tourist places often offer schnitzel, full English breakfast, pizzas, lunch and frozen fish. Most cities also offer international cuisines, such as Italian, Chinese, French, Thai, Japanese, Middle Eastern, Vietnamese, Argentinian, etc. The bigger the city, the more variety you will find.
Over the last decade, the number of Irish pubs and Japanese restaurants has increased in most cities.
Specialties to buy
- Cheese: Spain offers a wide variety of regional cheeses.
- Queso Manchego is the best known.
- Cabrales, Tetilla, Mahon are also popular.
- Chorizo: The most popular sausage in Spain is a spicy cured product made from pork, ham, salt, garlic and pepper. It is made in a variety of varieties, in different sizes and shapes, short and long, spicy, in all shades of red, soft, air-dried and hard or smoked. It often contains emulsifiers and preservatives, so check the ingredients if you are sensitive.
- Jamón (air-dried ham): Jamón Serrano (Serrano ham): It is obtained from the salted meat of the hind legs of the pig and air-dried. The same product is called trotter or paletilla when it is obtained from the forelegs. It is also known as Iberian ham and Bellota ham (acorn-fed ham). The hams produced in Huelva (Spain), Guijuelo (Salamanca province), Pedroches (Córdoba province) and Trevélez (Granada province) are particularly famous. Iberian ham is made from free-range pigs.
Judging by Barcelona’s boqueria, Jamon Iberico starts at €80/kg and Jamon Serrano at around €25/kg. A well-known chain in Spain is Mesón Cinco Jotas [www], known by locals for its expensive but good quality ham.
Visiting Spain without trying Jamon Iberico would be considered a crime by most Spaniards. The Spanish take their ham very seriously and the types and qualities of ham vary like wine. Quality ham is usually expensive, but has little to do with the many cheaper versions. The pig’s diet is the most important factor determining the quality of the ham. The cheapest ham comes from pigs fed normal grain, while medium quality pigs are raised on a combination of acorns and grain. High quality pigs are fed only acorns and their hams are not considered the best quality without the “acorn-fed” stamp. These high quality hams have a rich flavour and an oily texture, but for the uninitiated, the sheen and presence of criss-crossing white lines of fat on a slice of ham are usually a good indicator of its quality.
- Morcilla: Black sausage made from pork blood, usually with rice or onions. Sometimes flavoured with aniseed, it comes in a fresh, smoked or air-dried variety.
Typical dishes of Spain include:
- Aceitunas, Olivas: Olives that are often served as a snack.
- Bocadillo de Calamares: Breaded and fried calamari served in a ciabatta sandwich with lemon juice.
- Boquerones in vinegar: Anchovies marinated in vinegar with garlic and parsley.
- Les caracoles : Snails in spicy sauce.
- Calamares en su tinta: Squid in its ink.
- Chipirones a la plancha: Small grilled octopus.
- Churros: A horn-shaped, deep-fried snack sometimes called a Spanish donut. Typical for a Spanish breakfast or tea time. Served with a hot chocolate drink.
- Empanadas Gallegas: Meat or tuna pies are also very popular in Madrid. Originally from the region of Galicia.
- Ensaladilla Rusa (Russian salad): This potato salad dish of Russian origin, widespread in parts of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, is curiously popular in Spain too.
- Fabada asturiana: bean stew from Asturias.
- Gambas al ajillo: Prawns with garlic and chilli. A fantastic warm dish.
- Gazpacho Andalou: Cold vegetable soup. Best in the hot season. It’s like drinking a salad.
- Lentejas: Lentil dish with chorizo and/or serrano ham.
- Mariscos: Molluscs and crustaceans from the province of Pontevedra.
- Merluza a la Vizcaina: Spaniards are no friends of sauces. Merluza a la Vasca is one of the few exceptions. This dish contains hake (fish from the cod family) prepared with white asparagus and green peas.
- Potajes or pucheros: The best of chickpea stew
- Paella or Paella Valenciana: This is a rice dish from Valencia. The rice is grown locally in what looks like wheat fields, and is the variety used for paella. The original paella used chicken and rabbit, and saffron (el azafran). Today, you can find paella variations all over Spain, many of which include seafood. Locals claim that real paella can be found at large celebrations, such as a wedding in a village, but few restaurants can compete with it.
- Patatas Bravas: Pre-cooked fried potatoes served with a patented spicy sauce. These are potatoes cut into cubes or prisms about one to two centimetres in size and fried in oil, accompanied by a spicy sauce spread over the potatoes with hot spices. The name of this dish comes from its spicy taste, which suggests that it has fire or temper, reminiscent of the first spiked operation, where a spike is nailed into it to make it brave in a bullfight.
- Pescaíto frito: Delicious fried fish found mainly in southern Spain.
- Pimientos rellenos: Peppers stuffed with minced meat or seafood. Peppers from Spain have a different taste than all other peppers from Europe.
- Potaje de espinacas y garbanzos: Chickpea and spinach stew. Typical of Seville.
- Revuelto de ajetes con setas: Scrambled eggs with fresh garlic sprouts and wild mushrooms. Also often contains prawns.
- Setas al ajillo/Gambas al ajillo: Shrimps or wild mushrooms fried in garlic.
- Sepia con alioli: Fried squid with garlic mayonnaise. Very popular with tourists.
- Tortilla de patatas: Spanish egg omelette with fried potatoes. Probably the most popular dish in Spain. You can easily judge the quality of a restaurant by trying a small piece of its potato tortillas. It is common for them to be prepared with onions as well, depending on the area or the relish. The potatoes should be fried in oil (preferably olive oil) and allowed to swell with the scrambled eggs for more than 10 minutes, but preferably for an hour to get the right consistency.
Drinks in Spain
Tea and coffee
Spaniards are very passionate about the quality, intensity and taste of their coffee, and good, freshly brewed coffee is available almost everywhere.
The usual choices are the Solo, the espresso version without milk; the Cortado, Solo with a dash of milk; the Con Leche, Solo with extra milk; and the Manchado, coffee with lots of milk (a bit like the French café au lait). If you ask for a latte, you will probably get less milk than you are used to – you can always ask for milk to be added.
There are regional variations, such as the Bombón in eastern Spain, solo with condensed milk.
Starbucks is the only national chain operating in Spain. Locals say it cannot compete with small local cafés in terms of coffee quality and is only frequented by tourists. It is not present in small towns.
If you eat for 20 euros a meal, you will never be served a good tea; expect Pompadour or Lipton. If you spend most of the day in tourist places, you have to make an effort to find a good tea.
In Spain, the age for drinking alcohol is 18 years. It is illegal for people under this age to drink and buy alcoholic beverages, although controls are lax in tourist areas and clubs. The consumption of alcohol in the street has recently been banned (although it is still common in most nightlife venues).
Try an absinthe cocktail (this legendary drink has never been banned here, but is not very popular in Spain).
Bars are probably one of the best places to meet people in Spain. Everyone goes there and they are always full and sometimes crowded with people. There are no age restrictions to enter these places. But often alcoholic drinks are not served to children and teenagers. Age restrictions for alcohol consumption are clearly posted in the bars, but are only sporadically enforced. It is common to see a whole family in a bar.
It is important to know the difference between a pub (which closes at 3-3:30) and a club (which is open until 6-8am but is usually deserted in the early evening).
On weekends, the going out time for copas (drinks) usually starts around 11pm-1am, which is a bit later than in Northern and Central Europe. Before that, people usually do a number of things, have some tapas (raciones, algo para picar), eat a “proper” dinner in a restaurant, stay at home with their family or go to cultural events. If you want to go dancing, you’ll find that most clubs in Madrid are relatively empty before midnight (some don’t even open until 1am) and most won’t be crowded until 3am. People usually go to the pubs and then to the clubs until 6-8am.
For a true Spanish experience, it’s customary to have chocolate con churros for breakfast after a night of dancing and drinking with friends before heading home (CcC is a small cup of thick, melted chocolate served with freshly fried sweet doughnuts used for dipping in the chocolate, which you should definitely try, if only for the good taste).
Bars are mainly for socialising over a drink and a tapa and relaxing after work or school. In general, Spaniards can control their alcohol consumption better than their northern European neighbours and you rarely see drunk people in bars or on the street. A drink, if ordered without a tapa, is often served with a “small” or cheap tapa out of politeness.
The size and price of tapas vary greatly throughout Spain. For example, it is almost impossible to get free tapas in big cities like Valencia or Barcelona, except in Madrid, where there are several tapas bars, although some of them are a bit expensive. In cities like Granada, Badajoz or Salamanca you can eat for free (you only pay for the drinks), with huge tapas and cheap prices.
Tapa and the associated pincho originated in Spain, both as a lid (“tapa”) on a wine cup to keep flies away and as a legal requirement when serving wine in a pub in the Middle Ages.
Spanish beer is well worth trying. The most popular local brands are San Miguel, Cruzcampo, Mahou, Ámbar, Estrella Galicia, Keller and many others, including local brands in most cities; imported beers are also available. A good beer is the “Mezquita” (Cervezas Alhambra), try to find it! The “Legado de Yuste” is also one of the best beers produced in Spain. It is quite long, but more expensive than a normal “caña”. In Spain, beer is often served in 25-cl (“caña”) or 33-cl glasses (“tubo”) from the tap. Larger portions are rare, but you can also ask for a “corto”, a “zurito” (in the Basque Country) or simply “una cerveza” or “tanque” (in southern Spain) to get a medium-sized beer, perfect to drink in one go and quickly get to the next bar while enjoying the tapas.
If you are in Zaragoza (or Aragon in general), you can get the Pilsner type Ambar (5.2% alc.) and the stronger Export (double malt, 7.0% alc.). Ambar 1900: Its production started in 1996, using the room temperature fermentation system. Marlen is a traditionally brewed beer made from malted barley and hops.
Spaniards often add lemon juice (Fanta limón, or Fanta with lemon) to their beer. Especially on summer days, people drink a refreshing “Clara”, a light beer mixed with lemon and lemonade.
Cava is a Spanish sparkling wine and the name was changed from Spanish Champagne to Cava after a long dispute with the French. The Spanish have long called it Champan, but the French argue that Champagne can only be made from grapes grown in Champagne in France. Nevertheless, Cava is quite a successful sparkling wine and 99% of its production comes from the Barcelona region.
They are found in Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria and Pais Vasco.
A non-alcoholic milk drink made from tiger nuts and sugar. Alboraia, a small town near Valencia, is considered the best place to make horchata.
Sangria is a wine and fruit drink and is usually made from simple wines. You will find sangria in areas frequented by tourists. Spaniards make sangria for parties and hot summers, not every day as we see in tourist areas like Mallorca.
It’s best to avoid sangria in restaurants for foreigners, but it’s a very good drink to try when a Spaniard makes it for a party!
The light sherry wine from the Jerez area, called “Fino”, is fortified with 15% alcohol. If you want to drink one in a bar, you have to order a Fino. Manzanilla is a little salty, good as a starter. Amontillado and Oloroso are different types of sherry where the oxidative ageing process has been adopted.
Spain is a country with a great wine-growing and drinking tradition: Spain accounts for 22% of Europe’s wine-growing area, but its production is half that of France.
Regions: Most of the famous wines come from the Rioja region, the lesser known but also most important are those from Ribera del Duero, Priorato, Toro and Jumilla . The latter are becoming more popular and are somewhat cheaper than Rioja wines. White wines, rosé wines and red wines are produced, but the red wines are certainly the most important.
Grapes: The main red grapes are Tempranillo, Garnacha, Monastrell and Mencia. The main white grape used is Albarino, and the grapes used in Jerez are: Pedro Ximenez and Palomino.
Specific names: Valdepenas is good value for money. White wines: Belondrade Y Lurton is considered the greatest white wine in Spain. Vina Sol is a good bulk product, with a fruity taste.
The notes: Spanish quality wines are made according to an ageing process and have spent at least one year in oak barrels before being labelled “Crianza”, and then another two years in the bottle before being sold. Reservas are aged for five years and Gran Reservas for ten years.
Prices: In Spain, wine prices have risen considerably over the last decade and Spanish wines are no longer as cheap as they used to be. However, you can still find 5, 10 and 20 year old wines at affordable prices, especially compared to wines of similar quality from Australia, Chile, France and the USA.
Wine bars: They are becoming more and more popular. In short, a wine bar is a sophisticated tapas bar where you can order wine by the glass. You will immediately see a blackboard with the wines available and the price per glass.
In a bar: for red wine in a bar ask for “un tinto por favour”, for white wine “un blanco por favour”, for rosé wine “un rosado por favour”.
Wine-based drinks: In Spain, young people have developed their own way of drinking wine. At botellones (big open-air parties with drinks and lots of people), most mix red wine with cola and drink it straight from the cola bottle. The name of this drink is calimocho or kalimotxo (in the Basque Country and Navarre) and is really popular . But don’t ask for it in an upmarket bar or among adults, because they will certainly not approve of the idea! As a rule, any wine that arrives in a glass bottle is considered “too good” for kalimotxo.