Spain is a country in love with food, renowned for everything from tapas to trailblazing chefs to simple, elegant recipes that have endured for generations. So it may seem counterintuitive, perhaps even heretical, to say that the most important thing about a Spanish lunch is not the food. But it’s true.
Before you spill your gazpacho, let me say that Spanish people don’t take the food part of lunch lightly; far from it. As a Spaniard in love with food in general, and lunch in particular, I for one approach the subject of where to eat with the same level of thought and research that some people put into buying a new car. Of course, I want to know whether the food is good – but I also want to know whether it’s going to be a comfortable place to spend a few hours. Steady yourselves foodies; but in Spain the purpose of going out for lunch isn’t just eating, it’s catching up with friends or family, telling stories and laughing away the stress caused by things that, with a little perspective, you come to realise don’t matter anyway. If all you want is food, you might as well stay at home and order in.
Food matters a lot in Spain, but the social aspect of it matters even more. Lunch, for example, doesn’t end when people can’t eat another bite. That’s when the sobremesa starts. There is no equivalent word in English, though the concept is simple: sobremesa is the time you spend at the table after you’ve finished eating. Usually, there’s laughter involved, and almost always the kind of easy, convivial conversation that only the pleasures of a big meal can inspire.
When I moved to Madrid from Zaragoza, I got in touch with Ben Curtis, a British blogger who has lived in Spain for 20 years and has probably taught more people about Spanish customs than anyone else. We’d been emailing about things related to Spanish culture for some time, but we’d never met, so I suggested we go out for a beer. He wisely suggested we go out for lunch instead. It went so well that we’ve been having lunch more or less once a week for the past six years. And by lunch I don’t mean a sandwich at a food court or a fast-food burger, but a proper sit-down, three-course Spanish lunch. With wine, naturally. If there’s a better way to form a friendship than having long lunches on a regular basis, I’d like to know about it.