It was 7 p.m. on a Sunday and a friend and I were just wrapping up an oops-we-ordered-a-bottle-of-champagne-instead-of-getting-work-done-at-the-café brunch. This being Madrid, 7 p.m. in June means prime terrace drinking time so we decided to keep the Sunday Funday alive in proper Spanish fashion: with glasses of on-tap vermouth. Having no clue where to get a good glass of said beverage in the Conde Duque neighborhood near the café, I texted a friend from Madrid for recommendations.
“But, NOW?” was his only response.
Add “drinking vermouth at 7 pm” to my epically long and ever-growing list of Times I Fail at Being Spanish.
Never have I encountered a culture with such strict and ubiquitous rules for what time of day things can be eaten or drank. You want lentil soup for dinner? Madness! Lentils are far too heavy for nighttime. Fried potatoes and eggs for breakfast? You’ve lost your mind! Eggs and potatoes aren’t breakfast foods! Or perhaps you fancy some lamb chops during your date night? Wrong again! Lamb is way too strong for dinner, you Spanish eating amateur.
Yet these black-and-white (and, in my opinion, often arbitrary) rules come from a country where having a beer at 8 a.m. is fairly normal, where no meal counts as complete unless you’ve eaten half a loaf of white bread, where chocolate milk and cookies is the universal breakfast food of people under the age of 20 and where it is commonly accepted that Nutella is healthier than peanut butter. The Twilight Zone? Nope, this is Spain.
After about the thousandth time of hearing a horrified Spaniard ask me if I was really going to eat THAT right NOW I decided it was time to root out just what exactly these complex (and often maddening) Spanish food schedules are. The following is absolutely not a complete or fully comprehensive guide, but hopefully it can prevent another of my exasperating eating-time snafus.
6:30 – 9:00 AM: BREAKFAST
Things you CAN have: coffee with milk; fresh squeezed orange juice (or really any time of fruit juice); croissants of any kind (just as long as you put butter on them. Olive oil on a croissant? Suit yourself you pastry weirdo); toast with olive oil and tomatoes (sliced or puréed) or cured ham or with jam (getting a little crazy there) or butter; churros or porras (larger and greasier churros); chocolate milk (almost always Cola Cao or Nestle brand – can be hot or cold); warm milk with sugar (but only if you’re a cane-wielding abuelo); cookies (anything from chocolate-covered Chips Ahoy to biscuit-like crackers); a small beer (is everybody doing it? No. Do you see it every now and then? Yup.); pre-packaged muffins or small sponge cakes (and be sure to dip those good and long in your coffee until they turn to mush and float around in your cup like all of my worst coffee nightmares); nothing.
Things you would be ABSOLUTELY OUT OF YOUR DAMN MIND to even consider having at such an early hour: eggs, potatoes, cooked meat, beans, hard alcohol (Bloody Marys for breakfast? You alcoholic.), pancakes or waffles or french toast (wayyyy too sweet! Duh!), breakfast tacos (although this isn’t just breakfast discrimination. There are no tacos here. At any meal. Oh the tragedy…).
11:00 – 12:00 AM: MID-MORNING COFFEE
Things you MUST have if you are at work: coffee (and if you want to be normal you better drink that coffee with milk. Everyone knows espresso shots are for after lunch…). You might be able to sneak in a tea or juice, but don’t push it. In order to drink said coffee you must plan to do so with all of your co-workers at the exact same time, effectively rendering whatever business or service you are providing out-of-order until you are all sufficiently and collectively caffeinated to continue with the day. This point is especially important if you work for the government in any capacity (particularly if you happen to be involved in any way in issuing residency cards). You can also eat one of the above mentioned breakfast foods at this time. After all, lunch isn’t for another three hours.
Things that are totally normal to eat during this morning break if you are in elementary school: a whole stick of sausage, a butter sandwich (yep, that consists of crustless white bread and a thick — I mean peanut butter style thick — layer of butter), a banana or orange or apple (but all must be perfectly peeled with a knife first), any number of individually packaged pastries, a few squares of dark chocolate, a Nocilla (Spain’s version of Nutella) sandwich (always on white crustless bread). All sandwiches must be wrapped in foil. Plastic bags are for environment-haters.
1:00 – 2:30 PM: VERMOUTH
You want to taste this Spanish speciality after lunch? GO HOME YOU’RE INSANE. Vermouth is apparently a pre- big lunch on the weekends drink. Families will pop down to their local bar (almost always located within a block of their apartment) and have a glass of vermouth (or small beer, wine or soft drink) before heading back upstairs for their main meal. Think of it like a preventative digestif. And don’t make my mistakes: don’t even consider of having vermouth after the sun begins to set.
2:30 – 3:30 PM: BEGIN EATING LUNCH
We have arrived! Lunch, being the most important meal of the day, is a food free-for-all. Here is where all these pesky rules disappear and you are free to devour any of the spectacular dishes this culinary heaven of a country has to offer. BUT (of course there is a but. You can get away with a whole meal free of food rules…) you must first know whether they are a ´first plate´dish or a ´second plate´dish. Luckily, this one is a bit easier to distinguish. Is it made primarily of vegetables? First plate. Is almost all meat? Second plate.
4:00-6:00 PM (or 7:00… or 8:00…) SOBREMESA
If you know only one thing about eating in Spain know this: here eating is about relationships, not about food. Yes, the food is fantastic, but the awesomeness of the dishes plays second-string to the conversation and the relationships that are built and strenghtened around the table. That is where the sobremesa comes in. This is the time when friends and/or family linger around the table after a big weekend meal, sometimes for hours, talking, gossiping, discussing, arguing and generally enjoying eachother´s company while the huge meal they´ve just eaten settles. The sobremesa is my favorite time of the day. It is those couple of hours where whatever you have to do doesn´t matter, where the stresses and challenges of the world fade to the background and the people around you just disfrutar their time together.
Here is typically how the sobremesa goes: After the plates are cleared a shockingly extensive parade of drinks and desserts follows. First, is the dessert. This could be anything from chocolate cake to flan to a massive slice of watermelon eaten quite daintily with a fork and knife. Second, and most imporantly, comes the coffee. This is always espresso, served with varying amounts of milk and/or ice. Then the liquores come out. This is where my former province of Galicia really shines, as many of the most popular sobremesa liquores are Galician orujos. Orujo, is a strong liquor distilled from grape seeds and peels that are left over after the wine press. Many families in Galicia grow grapes not for the wine, but for the orujo they can distill after the wine is made. While pure orujo is quite popular, I find it to be on par with drinking rubbing alcohol. I opt for crema de orujo, a Bailey´s-style liquor, whenever possible.
5:00 – 7:00 PM: AFTERNOON SNACK/COFFEE
If your sobremesa didn´t happen to last until dinner time (aka it was a work day) then you might meet some friends for an afternoon coffee. If you have white hair, wear a fur coat or carry a cane then this 5 ´clock coffee is your social hour. Decades-old cafés that haven´t changed their decor since before the Second World War fill with abuelos around this time. Try walking down my street at 5:3o in the afternoon and be prepared for an extensive game of bob-and-weave around the slow shuffle of the over 65-ers. At this afternoon coffee you may dip into something sweet as well. The bakery next to my house sells upteen amounts of a long, thin powdered suger covered pastry called, I kid you not, ¨fartones¨ during this time.
8:00 – 10:00 PM: PRE-DINNER DRINKS
Around 8 p.m. the slow march of nighttime activities begins. If you want to get an early start, pre-dinner drinks of beer or wine start around this time, always accompanied by tapas. It usually goes something like this: ¨I don´t know if I want to go out tonight. I have a lot to do tomorrow,¨ one friend says to his or her WhatsApp group of friends. ¨Yeah, I agree. Let´s make it an early thing today,¨ said group of friends responds. They agree to meet at 8 for a beer so they can be home more-or-less by midnight. No one shows up until 8:30. One or two cañas turnes into 4 or 5 cañas turnes into gin tonics turnes into pre-sunrise street pizza. Welcome to Friday night in Madrid.
9:00 PM – 12:00 AM: DINNER
At home: Dinner is an extremely light meal if eaten at home. Considering it is usually eaten around 9 p.m. anything heaver than a yogurt with fruit or a few slices of cheese with some slices of ham leaves you feeling grossly full when you climb into bed two hours later. Therefore, typical at-home dinner foods would be a thin slice of chicken pan-seared with olive oil and garlic, tomato slices with olive oil and salt (and maybe a can of tuna on top), croquettas, hot dogs/sausages (but without the bun); a lunch meat ham and cheese sandwich, canned (yet still ridiculously delicious) sardines or tuna or other small fish with bread, Spanish omelette, fried eggs broken over fried potatoes..
At bars/restaurants: Hello tapas time! This is prime ¨battle bar¨ time when people jam into itsy-bitsy bars and expertly eat their dinners standing up using only toothpicks without spilling their red wine all over thier white shirts. It. Is. Impressive. But being as this is a late meal, dinner has perhaps some of the strictest ¨Seriously? You can´t really want to eat that big, heavy, weighty meat item at this hour!¨ rules.
Things you would be downright mad to eat for dinner: Steak (unless your on a winter ski retreat in the mountains), stew or any type of heavy meaty item; lamb; paella; lentils or any type of bean soup or pasta of any kind (unless you´re signed up to run a marathon the next morning). Basically if it is a typical American dinner, it´s off limits.
Acceptable dinner foods: Fried potatoes and eggs, aka huevos rotos, because, you know, fried things are much lighter than lamb chops; Spanish omelet (I tried one the other day with goat cheese and carmelized onions… yes please!); tuna taretare, or really any type of tuna besides a tuna steak; most seafood, as long as it isn´t preapared in an intense and heavy lunch-style manner; croquettas, aka the food of the Gods; any of the many many many small tapas found at just about every bar in the country. Dinner is beer and wine time. You can go with a soda if you´re one of those crazy people that doesn´t like beer or wine, but water is a rare occurance and anything stronger than wine will merit squinted-eye stares and hushed chatter.
12:00 AM – 2:00 (occasionally 3:00) AM: COPAS
Once the eating ends and the accompanying glasses (bottles) of wine are finished, the gin comes out. Over the past three years or so gin and tonics have taken over Madrid. It is the drink de moda in the capital right now, meaning there are entire bars devoted to the specialty preparation of the perfect gin and tonic. Personally, I find it offensively discriminatory to the much more delicious vodka and tonics, but it is what it is. The mixed drink hours last from around midnight or 1 a.m. until you either decide to go home or go to a discoteca (which don´t really get poppin until at least 2, usually 3 a.m.).
3:00 AM- 6:00 AM: DISCOTECA GARRAFÓN
In the pre-disco bars cocktails are works of art. In the discotecas they are often compared to what comes out of the red plastic canisters we use to transport gasoline, known in Spanish as ¨garrafón¨. While dance club bar tenders tend to pour much stronger drinks in Spain than they do in the states, what looks like a bottle of tasty Absolut may have actually been sneakily re-filled with the shittiest of shitty vodka, making that post-disco hangover quite a dousey. Or at least that´s what the word on the street is…
6:00 AM – 8:00 AM: CHURROS OR PIZZA OR REALLY SHITTY ´TEX-MEX´
After the marathon that is a full night out in Madrid, it is virtually unthinkable in this day and age not to be ravishingly hungry around sunrise. Thankfully, the late-night (or really I should say early morning) food options have greatly expanded as of late. Tradition dictates that the only proper post-disco food is churros with chocolate, which are heavenly and highly recommended. But for something quick and easy on that exhausting stroll back home Madrid has recently (as in over the last 2 months or so) been inundated with pizza shops selling slices to-go at all hours of the night. You could also risk your life and digestive tract on a want-to-be Chipotle burrito, but the awfulness of it might just make you want to start drinking again.
And speaking of, this currently being the hour of vermouth, I´m going to crack open a Mahou and munch on some olives and chips while I await the spread of joyous food to come during my Spanish-style lunch. Here´s hoping I don´t won´t blunder my fisrt and second plates and reach for the wrong thing first…