Pilgrims from World Youth Day’s past remember living up to get meal packages to feed four to six people. The organizers in Madrid are using a different system based on meal vouchers that are redeemable at participating restaurants. That means the menu at this WYD will be decidedly Spanish. This raises the question, what are typical meals in Spain?
The first thing one will notice in Spain is breakfast, or the seeming lack thereof. Spaniards tend to grab a cup of “Café con Leche” and then run out the door. This works fine for Spaniards because at 11:00am they’ll be at the neighbourhood coffee bar ordering a second coffee and a snack. The average North American, however, will find that their tummy will begin to rumble about 20 minutes after said “Café con Leche”. When a Spaniard does eat in the morning, what does that meal consist of?
A typical breakfast can consists of “toast” with “jamón” or even crushed tomato. A word to wise, “toast” in Spain usually means a half baguette toasted, or similar. It is rare to find whole wheat bread slices being served up as toast. Jamón Iberico is a cured ham, much like Italian prosciutto. Toast with jamón is such a typical breakfast dish that it often isn’t listed on restaurant menus. It is taken for granted that it is on the menu. Another common variation on the toast theme is the same toasted baguette, this time you drizzle it with olive oil, and spread crushed tomato on the bread, and follow that with a light sprinkling of salt. Often listen on menus as “tostada con tomate” it is a dish typical of Catalunya that is enjoyed throughout the country. Then, of course, there’s always croissants and similar “bolleria” or pastries that are often served alongside café con leche.
Lunch is another challenge for North Americans in Spain. It happens between 2pm and 4pm. The structure of a Spanish lunch can vary from the typical store-bought sandwich or salad to a full three-course meal. Self service restaurants will have a full range of choices while smaller restaurants will have a “pilgrim menu” that most likely consists of a first course vegetable dish of some sort, a second course meat or fish or sandwich, and a final course of either a dessert, fruit, or coffee. Gazpacho is a very common first course dish during the summer. It is a cold, tomato-based, raw veggie soup. Other typical first course dishes are “judeas verdes” which are green beans, and of course a range of different mixed salads.
Now for the second course. While North Americans are used to the idea of hamburger and fries, it can be a bit of shock when that hamburger turns up with a fried egg on top. Sometimes the egg comes next to sausages instead of a hamburger. Because Spain is a peninsula, fish also plays a key role in the Spanish culinary landscape. Aside from fillets of various fish on menus it is also common to find Calamari or Sepia “a la plancha” (grilled) or “a la Romana” (battered and fried). Dessert might be a sweet treat like Flan (cream custard topped with caramel sauce), Cuajada, a compact pudding made of fresh cheese and topped with honey or berries. Natillas, custard with a cookie in the middle, is a common dessert as is Arroz con Leche or rice with milk. The dessert course can also be replaced with coffee. A note about Lunch: if you want to try Paella, do it at Lunch. You won’t find it on dinner menus.
That brings us to dinner. With a three course lunch at 3pm Spaniards don’t feel the need to graze again until about 9:30 or 10pm. The key word here is graze. Dinner doesn’t have to be much more than a bowl of Gazpacho and a toast of some sort or a platter of jamón and cheese to share, followed by some fruit. At first the thought of dinner at 10pm can be daunting, but the upside is by then the suffocating heat has dissipated and it’s incredibly pleasant to sit on a patio sipping gazpacho or nibbling at a fresh bread, cheese and olives.
And now a word on coffee. Compared to other European countries, Spanish coffee is quite mild. The international volunteers who come from nearby coffee-fueled nations lament that it requires double the number of cups a day to keep all systems going as normal. If you know you need a certain amount of coffee to stay happy, I recommend bringing packets of instant coffee mix.