“Come y bebe, que la vida es breve”. This phrase is often heard on the streets of Spain. It stands for eat and drink because life is short. An approach to life that the Spaniards have embodied for centuries.
Spain is a country of culture, laughter, dance, music, and food. Wonderful and delicious food which is unique to each region of the country. The diversity is tied to its rich history, having been ruled by Christians, Arabs and even Celtics. But some traditions are shared everywhere, such as the 2-hour lunch.
When walking along the streets of Spain between 2-4 pm you might wonder why no shops are open. It is the hour of la comida (lunch), the biggest meal in a Spaniard’s day. Three courses—first plate, second plate, and dessert, accompanied by delicious Spanish wine and an espresso at the end. It is ingrained in Spanish culture. School usually ends at 2 pm so the kids can go home and eat lunch with their family. Not at home? No problem. There is menu del día in the local bars and restaurants. It’s the same two plate meal with wine & dessert for only 8 to 15 Euros.
La comida is a good depiction of Spanish life. They take things a bit slower, a bit more relaxed and more time to enjoy what life has to offer. Traveling through the country, not only do you get a taste of their delicious food but a way of life worth experiencing and learning from that’s in contrast to today’s modern, fast-paced world.
So, where do you start? Spain is made up of 17 autonomous communities and each has unique traditions, culture, and food.
The capital Madrid is a modern cosmopolitan city but still maintains its old Spanish charm. Averaging almost 1 bar per 132 inhabitants, but most are not the typical sceney kind of bars you might find in London or New York. They are the local pub, restaurant, and coffee shop. Step into a bar any morning and you will see the locals standing at the counter drinking espresso and grabbing a quick bite. That’s the other uniqueness about Spaniards – they never walk with their coffee. There is always 5 minutes to drink and savor it at the counter while catching up with neighbors and friends.
Now, Madrid might be the capital and its food scene an assortment from different regions – a result of the large inland migration in the 1960s/70s. But for certain dishes, one should travel to the region itself. For example, Spain’s signature food paella (a rice-based dish with fish, meat, or both) is said to come from Valencia, one of the hubs for growing rice. And if you stop by this region, make sure you also try the wonderful oranges grown there!
Down in Andalucía, you can experience a mix of gypsy, Christian and Arabic cultures. This region is also the birthplace of the world famous tapas, a little plate of food served whenever you order a drink. Grenada is especially known for its tapas. Actually some tapas can be so big, you can make a meal by ordering a couple of glasses of wine and eating the accompanying plates.
Most Spaniards drink the wonderful red wine from La Rioja. North of Madrid, yet not quite on the coast there is no better place for wine. Full-bodied and dry but not heavy – it will make your taste buds dance. As Spanish writer, Pío Baroja said, ‘Long live good wine, the great comrade for the journey’. So, make sure you stop by on your trip.
North of La Rioja the culture begins to change. At times, one might even ask if they are still in Spain. The landscape of Galicia is as green as Scotland and there is a Celtic influence. Locals even wear kilts and play the bagpipe. A typical dish of this region is pulpo a la gallega, a carefully boiled octopus with sweet and spicy paprika sprinkled on top,and served with sliced cooked potatoes, smoked paprika and olive oil.
However, the real food treasure up north is the Basque Country. With nearly 40 Micheline Star restaurants in a land mass smaller than Delaware, they take their food and their cultural identity seriously. Ask any native and they will clearly state that they are Basque NOT Spanish.
This cultural grudge can also be found in Catalunya where the Catalans are Catalans and you hear a mix of languages. Locals speak Catalan, Spaniards speak Spanish and visitors might be speaking French. France borders Catalunya to the north and one might argue there is a French-influence in their cuisine. Crema Catalana, a typical dessert, does not appear to be so different from Crème Brûlée (but don’t say this to a Catalan).
As you can see, Spain is a country rich with unique culture, food, and traditions which make a person slow down and enjoy life. How can you not when your mouth is so busy with all the different flavors and life stops for two-hours every afternoon. You may not be Spanish, but a trip there will surely do you good and you might just bring one or two traditions back home with you!