“Chicas! ¡venido a la cena!!!”
Quima’s voice travelled through the corridor and my eyes sprung open! Thank goodness – dinner was served. I looked at my watch: 9:23 pm. We’re making progress, at least from the usual 10 o’clock. Sometimes I wondered how my gastric juices could hold out for so long, but maybe I was starting to get accustomed to Spanish standard time. Breakfast at eight AM, a snack at eleven, heavy lunch at two, Tapas or merienda at seven and a late “supper” just before sleeping. This “supper” had grown to become something I looked forward to though. Like other meals in Spain, it was far more than just about eating; but also about relaxing, enjoying life and having a good time with family and friends. I put on some footwear as Quima insisted we wear outside our rooms, and followed the sweet smell of vinegar to the dining table. Food was an abiding delight in Spain, and the country’s cuisine had so much variety to offer that every day I prepared for a new discovery. Lets find out what was cooking…
As usual a basket of bread, an assortment of cheeses, and a bowl of fresh fruit lay waiting. Out came the salad… lettuce, cherry tomatoes, goat cheese, avocado, corn, and nuts, all tossed in vinaigrette. Those vegetables were probably on the stalls of the Santa Caterina market just a few hours ago! One would assume that salads can’t possible be made to taste different almost every day, but when you’re in Spain hold that thought. Salad represented two important parts of Spanish culture. Firstly it stood as evidence in their belief of “healthy eating”, and second, it was simple to prepare and characterized by “fresh” ingredients, a Spanish all time favorite!
In our household, there might have been different courses, but all the food was served at the same time, and Quima made sure each our plates had a generous serving. Next to the salad was the undoubtedly quintessential part of Spain’s gastronomy. If tortilla de patatas didn’t come to mind when I said that, you just haven’t been in Spain long enough! There was so much egg that it was a task to hunt down the potatoes buried inside. According to me the Spanish sometimes overdosed on the huevos, but they never seemed to think so.
One thing I could never overdose on though is Paella. Paella is to the Spanish as hamburgers are to Americans. And a description of the cuisine of Spain cannot be complete without them! Although I was apprehensive about whether this dish could taste as good at home as it did in a restaurant, Quima always did a great job. It kind of reminded me of Indian food – unique and full of flavor. The combination of rice, saffron, tomato, garlic, and either chicken or sea food into a treat for the tongue represented the innate creativity of the Spanish people. They loved to play with spices and turned cooking into a grand experiment by mixing unexpected ingredients.
It was only once everyone’s plates were full that we actually began eating. I found myself tapping my feet impatiently and it was almost torturous to wait the time it took Quima and my roommate to help themselves. Of course none of this food went unaccompanied by a drink. We often clinked glasses and cheered Salud! even in the absence of a special occasion. It was like toasting to life and appreciating the fact that we were all together and happy. I loved the idea.
Sometimes during dinner even the television came on, stressing further the fact that eating was a ritual rather than the mere consumption of food. In truth, the meal was a celebration of culture and tradition in every respect. I admired the social aspect of eating that seemed to be a common feat across Europe. Food was just an excuse to meet and interact with other people. Rather than the home being their castle, the community was the focus of their lives.
As we nibbled at Spanish delicacies, we laughed over funny events in our day and spoke about most everything from our classes at IES to Indian weddings and our lives back where we came from. The family oriented lifestyle and this occasional sobremesa made me miss home so much less. The word that literally means “over the table” referred to the art of conversation over a meal. Instead of taking the last bite and leaving, Spaniards often stayed in front of their empty plates conversing, savoring each other’s company, and perhaps sharing a drink. If good conversation ensues, be prepared to stay for hours! I for that matter budgeted at least an hour and a half for dinner. It became a part of my day I really looked forward to. It started with a “¿cómo estaba su día?” and when I remember how it ended I will let you know! But basically it went on forever… and just when you thought dinner was done, out came the yogurt, the kaki, and the tarta manzana. And there was another forty five minutes right there!
I have come to adore how the Spanish celebrate food every single day – from the time they wake up and eat churros con chocolate until the time they wrap their day up with a glass of cava – the Spanish are true to their famous proverb – “the belly rules the mind”. They are always up and about fulfilling their cravings and why not when you have a world of gastronomical wonders waiting to be exploited? It is amazing how even in the tiny household I live in, we never take for granted this ingenious novelty called “food” which pervades traditional Spanish life and “reflects a country’s regional variety, its history, and its addiction to pleasure” (Tóibín, Colm).