Before coming to Spain for the first time, I actually had the idea in my head that they were just making up the fact that Spaniards would eat lunch at three, dinner at ten. Who in their right mind could wait until 3 p.m. for lunch?? Not to mention dinner at ten.
Once in Spain, I quickly learned this was no rumor. And so I’d wait for lunch, served at three by my host mom, stomach grumbling wildly.
I’ve asked various Spaniards why they eat this way, with no clear answers. The rest of Europe doesn’t eat so late, and even Italy and Portugal, Spain’s other southern neighbors, eat at a more reasonable hour: lunch at one and dinner at eight.
The thing is that in Spain, everything happens later. The nightlife here is like nowhere else: people don’t even start going out to the discotecas and bars until midnight – which makes sense if they’re having dinner at ten – and the streets are packed at all hours of the night. I remember being very surprised to see kids playing in the plazas at 11 p.m. during the summer. I suppose if a person is raised in this culture, later eating times and later bedtimes would feel like the most natural thing in the world.
But I was raised in America, my parents ushering me and my sisters to bed at 8 p.m. As a result, I still like to go to sleep relatively early by Spanish standards, around 11 p.m. This means no 10 p.m dinner for me; I eat at 8. Lunch is around 1 or 2 p.m. I’ve tried to approximate Spanish standards, but I haven’t conditioned myself to adapt them entirely.
The incredulity of eating schedules goes both ways. Milagros loves to tell the story of how, a couple summers ago, she and her daughter took a trip to Amsterdam. Around 4 p.m, they entered a restaurant for lunch. The restaurant was, much to their surprise, empty. A little while later, more people started trickling in. Ah, they thought. We must’ve just come early. It was only until later that they realized those people weren’t there for lunch, but dinner.
The Spanish eating schedule works by allotting several snack breaks: breakfast is when one wakes up, followed by a snack break around eleven. Lunch is at three, followed by another snack break around six. And then dinner is at ten. An observant American friend said the Spanish are like “hobbits”, eating all the time. Yet, despite this, the Spanish, statistically, maintain the lowest body fat percentage in all of Europe. I asked a Spanish friend how this was possible, and she replied, “because our food is healthy.” She then added, “we’re also very active.” The Spanish do walk a great deal more than Americans, as their cities are more compact and thus more walkable. You’ll also never see a Spaniard eating while walking down the street.
The eating schedule, and adapting it, helped me to come to perceive the day in a much different manner. In America, it seems, many people get off of work and head home around 5pm. They then make dinner and, suffice it to say, call it a night. As such, the day in America seems much shorter than the day in Spain. Even the language reflects this perception: in Spanish, there is no word for “evening”. “Tarde” means afternoon, and in Spain, “tarde” does not end until 8 p.m.
The Spanish day typically starts out with a tostada, a piece of toast, a café (the most typical variety being a café con leche), and sometimes a zumo de naranja (orange juice). Most cafés offer fresh-squeezed orange juice, as oranges are plentiful in Spain.
Though we do live in a globalized world, and especially in a major city like Madrid, cereal is available as an option, as well as pastries or croissants, the preferred breakfast in Spain remains the tostada.
The two main varieties? Una tostada con mantequilla y mermelada (toast with butter and jam), and una tostada con tomate y aceite (toast with tomato and olive oil).
How to make a tostada con mantequilla y mermelada:
Take half of a barra de pan (like a baguette; or any bread would do, really, but the better the bread, the better the results) and toast it. Then slather with butter, and top that with jam. The two most popular jams in Spain are fresa (strawberry) and melocotón (peach).
How to make a tostada con tomate y aceite:
Again, take a half a barra de pan and toast it. Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, and top with tomato spread.
How to make the tomato spread: make to your taste, finely chopping tomatoes. Sometimes a bit of chopped garlic is added in, but not always.