Before the drooling ensues let me just say that since studying abroad in Spain back in 2002, I’d often dreamed of returning to jamon serrano, pastelerias, freshly baked bread at every turn, and cheap but tasty wine. My expectations of Spain’s culinary world were deeply embedded in my psyche. That said, I think it takes a particular love of simplicity and appreciation of basic ingredients to be a fan of Spanish food. Some find it plain. I find it deep, satisfying and unapologetic.
Let’s start with how the Spanish eat. A typical breakfast is cafe con leche, espresso with steamed milk in a tiny cup, a simple pastry, and maybe some fresh orange juice. Very few cafes are open before 9:00am. I was amazed at how it is possible to exist on so little before lunch no earlier than 1:00pm, but also on offer throughout the morning are tapas like tortilla de patata (omelet with potatoes) and little jamon bocadillos (ham sandwiches). Lunch is a late afternoon affair, sometime between 1 and 3:00pm and is the largest meal of the day. In the home and out in restaurants it usually consists of three courses, including bread, wine, and coffee to round you out. Siesta knocks out the entire country until 5 or 6pm, when stores re-open. Dinner is served around 9 or 10pm and is sometimes a smaller meal that I found to vary quite a lot depending on the region of Spain you’re in.
Eating on the camino is a different story. Pilgrims usually start their day well before 9:00am so if you’re a breakfast person like me, it was important to stock up the day before as it was unlikely anything would be open in the early morning, even (especially) grocery stores. I usually had a piece of fruit and some hazelnuts on hand, or if I was really lucky a hard-boiled egg or two. Almost always I’d stop mid-morning somewhere for a coffee, an Americano for me, not a milk drinker. I’d say a small prayer for a cup larger than a thimble and usually be disappointed. The coffee in Spain is cheap, but well, just not my favorite. It was very difficult to find anything except an espresso and almost impossible to find a deep mug. So it began that I started drinking up to four espressos each day, which has led to a pretty severe caffeine addiction that I’m currently trying (unsuccessfully) to reign in. These days I actually wake up with a headache from lack of caffeine, that’s scary.
Lunch was usually found in a grocery store or small tienda and involved some sort of bread, cheese, ham (in the form of Serrano, chorizo, or stick sauage), and fruit. The best peaches were these flat, flying saucer smallish ones with white flesh. Not super juicy, but really delicate, almost rosy flavor.
If time permitted and I was in the mood, a full-on Spanish lunch was in order. The first course was usually a choice of a mixed salad, soup, or a plate of different hams and cheeses. I always chose the soup and was rewarded either with a bean and sausage stew, or something called caldo, which is potatoes and greens, very simple but to this pilgrim who was slowly dying from a lack of vegetables, pure heaven. Lunch comes with label-less wine, which was at times brilliant and other times barely drinkable. The second course was usually a choice of steak, fish, rabbit, pork or chicken served with fried potatoes. Again, this was either brilliantly simple or just plain bad. Dessert was almost always a choice of flan, cheesecake, cake, or fruit. Had a brilliant apple cider cake in Asturias, a rich cheese flan in Galicia, and a surprisingly satisfying scoop of thick yogurt with honey on a remote part of the Primitivo route. You could do it all again for dinner after 9:00pm if your stomach so desired. This was a rarity for pilgrims because if you stay in an albergue, there is usually a 10pm curfew.
So I know you want to ask me about tapas. This is a difficult topic to write about because tapas are very different all over Spain. Sometimes they are included with your drinks, sometimes they are a mini-meal, and sometimes they are very good value for money. I never saw a tapas menu except in the Basque Country (where they are quite fancy and expensive) and in very touristy restaurants. If you don’t speak Spanish, your best bet is to find a bar where they have the tapas lined up on the counter. This way you can just point to what you want. Some tapas highlights: tortilla de patata, broiled padron peppers, and of course the ever-present jamon Serrano. Every bar in Spain has legs of jamon hanging from the ceiling for patrons to enjoy which is a little jarring at first for those not used to coming face to face with their meat products (ahem, Americans). But it’s what makes Spain special and not to mention, delicious.
The best sandwich of my life came from a casa rural (like a bed and breakfast) in a very rural section of the Primitivo (as in there was not even a store). Served on dense and chewy country bread, all it contained was a simple two egg omelet and a thick slab of Galician tetilla cheese, which is soft and gooey and sweet. This baby was heavy in the hand and fresh from the farm. We sat under an apple tree in the evening sun drinking cerveza sin alcohol and watching the cats roll around in the grass. Church bells called the evening mass and a little creek gurgled nearby. The air was sweet with ripe blackberries and life even sweeter.
Stay tuned for part III: Walking Through Basque Country