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Eating And Drinking

 

There are two ways to eat in Spain: you can go to a restaurante or comedor (dining room) and have a full meal, or you can have a succession of tapas (small snacks) or raciones (larger ones) at one or more bars.

At the bottom line a comedor - where you'll get a basic, filling, three-course meal with a drink, the menú del día - is the cheapest option, but they're often tricky to find, and drab places when you do. Bars tend to work out pricier but a lot more interesting, allowing you to do the rounds and sample local or house specialities.

Breakfast, snacks and sandwiches
For breakfast you're best off in a bar or café, though some hostales and fondas will serve the "Continental" basics. The traditional Spanish breakfast is chocolate con churros - long tubular doughnuts (not for the weak of stomach) with thick drinking chocolate. But most places also serve tostadas (toast) with oil ( con aceite ) or butter ( con mantequilla ) - and jam ( y mermelada ), or more substantial egg dishes such as huevos fritos (fried eggs), which are not a typical Spanish breakfast but do tend to be on offer in tourist areas. Tortilla (potato omelette) also makes an excellent breakfast.

Coffee and pastries ( pasteles or bollos ) or doughnuts are available at most cafés, too, though for a wider selection of cakes you should head for one of the many excellent pastelerías or confiterías . In larger towns, especially in Catalunya, there will often be a panadería or croissantería serving quite an array of appetizing baked goods besides the obvious bread, croissants and pizza.

Some bars specialize in bocadillos - hearty French bread-style sandwiches with a choice of fillings. If you want them wrapped to take away with you, ask for them para llevar . Incidentally, be careful not to use the word "sandwich" to order a bocadillo , as an Iberian sandwich is usually on sad, processed white bread - often with ham and cheese or something with a lot of mayonnaise.

Tapas and raciones
One of the advantages of eating in bars is that you are able to experiment. Many places have food laid out on the counter, so you can see what's available and order by pointing without necessarily knowing the names; others have blackboards or " lista de las tapas ". Tapas (often called pinchos or pintxos in northern Spain) are small portions, three or four small chunks of fish or meat, or a dollop of salad, which traditionally used to be served up free with a drink. These days you often have to pay for anything more than a few olives, but a single helping rarely costs more than ¬1.20-2.40 unless you're somewhere very flashy. Raciones (costing around ¬6.50-9) are simply bigger plates of the same intended for sharing among a couple of people, and can be enough in themselves for a light meal. The more people you're with, of course, the better; half a dozen tapas or pinchos and three raciones can make a varied and quite filling meal for three or four people.

Tascas, bodegas, cervecerías and tabernas are all types of bar where you'll find tapas and raciones . Most of them have different sets of prices depending on whether you stand at the bar to eat (the basic charge) or sit at tables (up to fifty percent more expensive - and even more if you sit out on a terrace).

Wherever you have tapas, it is important to find out what the local special is and order it. Spaniards will commonly move from bar to bar, having just the one dish that they consider each bar does well. A bar's "non-standard" dishes, these days, can all too often be microwaved - which is not a good way to cook squid.

Meals and restaurants
Once again, there's a multitude of distinctions. You can sit down and have a full meal in a comedor , a cafetería , a restaurante or a marisquería - all in addition to the more food-oriented bars.

Comedores are the places to seek out if your main criteria are price and quantity. Sometimes you will see them attached to a bar (often in a room behind), or as the dining room of a hostal or pensión , but as often as not they're virtually unmarked and discovered only if you pass an open door. Since they're essentially workers' cafés they tend to serve more substantial meals at lunchtime than in the evenings (when they may be closed altogether). When you can find them - the tradition, with its family-run business and marginal wages, is on the way out - you'll probably pay around ¬4.50-8 for a menú del día, cubierto or menú de la casa , all of which mean the same - a complete meal of three courses, usually with bread, wine and dessert included.

The highway equivalent of comedores are ventas which you'll be extremely glad of if you're doing much travelling by road. These roadside inns dotted along the highways between towns and cities have been serving Spanish wayfarers for hundreds of years - many of them quite literally - and the best ventas are wonderful places to get tasty country cooking at bargain prices. Again the menú del día is the one to go for and the best places usually have quite a gathering of lorries in their car park, shrewd long-distance truck drivers being among the best customers.

Replacing comedores to some extent are cafeterías , which the local authorities grade from one to three cups (the ratings, as with restaurants, seem to be based on facilities offered rather than the quality of the food). These can be good value, too, especially the self-service places, but their emphasis is more northern European and the light snack-meals served tend to be dull. Food here often comes in the form of a plato combinado - literally a combined plate - which will be something like egg and chips or calamares and salad (or occasionally a weird combination like steak and a piece of fish), often with bread and a drink included. This will generally cost in the region of ¬4.50-6. Cafeterías often serve some kind of menú del día as well. You may prefer to get your plato combinado at a bar, which in small towns with no comedores may be the only way to eat inexpensively.

Moving up the scale there are restaurantes (designated by one to five forks) and marisquerías , the latter serving exclusively fish and seafood. Restaurantes at the bottom of the scale are often not much different in price from comedores , and will also generally have platos combinados available. A fixed-price menú del día is often better value though: generally three courses plus wine and bread for around ¬4.50-9. Chinese restaurants - increasingly popular in Spain - generally have the cheapest menús del día : ¬4.50-6 is the norm. Move above two forks, however, or find yourself in one of the more fancy marisquerías (as opposed to a basic seafront fish-fry place), and prices can escalate rapidly. However, even here most of the top restaurants offer an upmarket menú called a menú de degustación (a sampler meal, usually including wine) which is often excellent value and allows you to try out some of the country's finest cooking for ¬20-30.

To avoid receiving confused stares from waiters in restaurants, you should always ask for la carta when you want a menu; menú in Spanish refers only to fixed-price meal. In addition, in all but the most rock-bottom establishments it is customary to leave a small tip ( propina ): Spaniards are judicious tippers, so only do so if the service merits it: the amount is up to you, though 5 to 10 percent of the bill in a restaurant is quite sufficient. Service is normally included in a menú del día . The other thing to take account of in medium- and top-price restaurants is the addition of IVA , a seven percent tax on your bill. It should say on the menu if you have to pay this.

You'll find numerous recommendations, in all price ranges, in the guide. Spaniards generally eat very late, so most of these places serve food from around 1 until 4pm and from 8pm to midnight. Many restaurants close on Sunday or Monday evening . Outside these times, generally the only places open are the fast-food joints; Pans & Co and Bocatta serve suprisingly good bocadillos and often have special offers.

Alcoholic drinks
Over fifty percent of the European Union's vineyards lie in Spain and vino (wine), either tinto (red), blanco (white) or rosado/clarete (rosé), is the invariable accompaniment to every meal. As a rule, wine is extremely inexpensive and while low prices used to be equated with low quality, in recent years enormous investment has been flowing into the Spanish wine trade and standards have risen dramatically. The wines to look out for are whites from Galicia and reds from Rioja, Navarra and Ribera del Duero. Cava (Spain's champagne) generally comes from Catalunya and is a real bargain, whilst Andalucía is noted for its sherries and brandies. One thing worth knowing about Spanish wine is the terms related to the ageing process which defines the best wines; crianza wines must have a minimum of two years ageing before sale; red reserva wines at least two years (of which one must be in oak barrels); red gran reserva at least two years in oak and three in the bottle). White gran reserva guarantees five years' ageing (of which six months must be in oak).

The most common bottled variety you'll encounter in the more economical restaurants and comedores is Valdepeñas, a good standard mass produced wine from the central plains of New Castile; most Valdepeñas is ordinary if quaffable stuff, but the Los Llanos bodega produces an outstanding and affordable gran reserva . Rioja, from the area round Logroño on the edge of the Basque country, is rightly Spain's best known wine and available everywhere (Cune, Berberana, Marques de Caceres and La Rioja Alta are brands to try). Another top-drawer and currently fashionable region is Ribera del Duero in Castilla-León which makes Spain's most expensive wine, Vega Sicilia, besides other outstanding reds (Pesquera, Viña Pedrosa and Senorio de Nava are names to look out for). There are also scores of local wines - some of the best are Navarra (Chivite, Palacio de la Vega) and Catalunya (Bach, Raimat, Caus Lubis and Alvaro Palacios), a region which also produces the champagne-like cava (Codorniu, Marques de Monistrol); Galicia too, in the temperate northwest is producing some notable white wines (Ribeiro, Fefiñanes and Albariño are prominent producers). However, in most low-budget eating places you'll rarely be offered a wide choice of Spain's better wines, which tend to appear only in the higher-class establishments.

Dining off the beaten track may mean drinking whatever comes out of the barrel, or the house-bottled special (ask for caserío or de la casa ). This can be great, it can be lousy, but at least it will be distinctively local. In a bar, a small glass of wine will generally cost around ¬0.30-0.60; in a restaurant, if wine is not included in the menu, prices start at around ¬2 a bottle although you'll be paying at least double this and more for quality wine. If it is included, you'll usually get a whole bottle for two people, a media botella (a third to a half of a litre) for one. Be on your guard for the odd skinflint establishment which may try to get away with serving you a single glass of wine to comply with the "including wine" offer, thus obliging you to buy a bottle on top. A polite but firm word with the waiter is usually enough to secure your rights.

The classic Andalucian wine is sherry - vino de Jerez which refers to the wines produced in a triangular-shaped area to the west of the town of Jerez de la Frontera. Served chilled or at bodega temperature - fino (the Spanish name for dry sherry) is a perfect drink to wash down tapas - and, like everything Spanish, it comes in a perplexing variety of forms. The main distinctions are between fino or jerez seco (dry sherry), amontillado (medium dry), and oloroso or jerez dulce (sweet), and these are the terms you should use to order. Manzanilla is another member of the sherry family produced in the seaside town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda; the vineyards' proximity to the sea gives it a delicate, briny tang and among Spaniards it is currently the most popular of all the dry finos . Similar - though not identical - is montilla , an excellent dry sherry-like wine from the province of Córdoba. The main distinction between this and the other finos is that no alcohol is added at the production stage, prompting the cordobeses to claim that theirs is the more natural product, but sales and popularity still lag way behind those of its rival.

Cerveza , lager-type beer, is generally pretty good, though more expensive than wine. It comes in 300-ml bottles ( botellines ) or, for about the same price, on tap - a caña of draught beer is a small glass, a caña doble larger, and asking for un tubo (a tubular glass) gets you about half a pint. Many bartenders will assume you want a doble or un tubo , so if you don't, say so. Mahou, Cruz Campo, San Miguel, and Victoria are all decent beers and good local brands too are worth trying, such as Estrella de Galicia or Alhambra.

Equally refreshing, though often deceptively strong, is sangría , a wine-and-fruit punch which you'll come across at fiestas and in tourist bars. Tinto de verano is a similar red wine and soda or lemonade combination which is a great refresher in high temperatures; variations on this include tinto de verano con naranja (red wine with orangeade) or con limón (mixed with a Fanta lemon juice).

In mid-afternoon - or even at breakfast - many Spaniards take a copa of liqueur with their coffee. The best are anís (like Pernod) or coñac , excellent local brandy with a distinct vanilla flavour; try Magno, Soberano, or Carlos III ("tercero") to get an idea of the variety, or Carlos I ("primero"), Lepanto, or Gran Duque de Alba for a measure of the quality. Most brandies are produced by the great sherry houses in Jerez, but one equally good one that isn't is Mascaró, produced in Catalunya and resembling an armagnac.

In bars spirits are ordered by brand name, since there are generally less expensive Spanish equivalents for standard imports. Larios gin from Málaga, for instance, is about half the price of Gordon's. Specify nacional to avoid getting an expensive foreign brand. Spirits can be very expensive at the trendier bars; however, wherever they are served, they tend to be staggeringly generous - the bar staff pouring from the bottle until you suggest they stop.

Mixed drinks are universally known as copa or Cubata , though strictly speaking the latter is rum and Coke. Juice is zumo ; orange, naranja ; lemon, limón ; and tonic tónica .

Soft drinks and hot drinks
Soft drinks are much the same as anywhere in the world, but try in particular granizado (slush) or horchata (a milky drink made from tiger nuts or almonds) from one of the street stalls that spring up everywhere in summer. You can also get these drinks from horchaterías and from heladerías (ice cream - helados - parlours), or in Catalunya from the wonderful milk bars known as granjas . Although you can drink the water almost everywhere it usually tastes better out of the bottle - inexpensive agua mineral comes either sparkling ( con gas ) or still ( sin gas ).

Café (coffee) - served in cafés, heladerías and bars - is invariably espresso, slightly bitter and, unless you specify otherwise, served black ( café solo ). If you want it white ask for café cortado (small cup with a drop of milk) or café con leche (made with lots of hot milk). For a large cup of weaker coffee ask for an americano . Coffee is also frequently mixed with brandy, cognac or whisky, all such concoctions being called carajillo . Iced coffee is café con hielo , another great high summer refresher: a café solo is served with a glass of ice cubes. Pour the coffee onto the cubes - it cools instantly.

(tea) is also available at most bars, although bear in mind that Spaniards usually drink it black. If you want milk it's safest to ask for it afterwards, since ordering té con leche might well get you a glass of milk with a tea bag floating on top. Perhaps a better bet would be herbal teas and most bars keep these: manzanilla (camomile, not to be confused with the sherry of the same name), poleomenta (mint tea) and hierba luisa (lemon verbena) are all popular herbal infusions.

Chocolate (hot chocolate) is incredibly thick and sweet, and is a popular early-morning drink after a long night on the town. If you'd prefer a thinner cocoa-style drink ask for a brand name, like Cola Cao.

 

Also See:
 
• When To Go
• Red Tape And Visas
• Health
• Costs, Money And Banks
• Getting Around
• Communications: Post, Phones, Internet And Media
• Eating And Drinking
• Gay And Lesbian Travellers
• Spanish Time
• Best Of
• Bullfights
• Books
• Fiestas
• Explore Spain
 


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