Blogs in this series

Life in Culebrón is a disconnected series of pieces about the banal and ordinary of everyday life in an inland Alicante village seen from my very British perspective.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Beginners guide to table manners

Very occasionally I write a piece for the blog which forms a part of the Country Fincas website. Country Fincas is the estate agent that Maggie works for in Pinoso.

Having written it specifically for them I thought why not use it myself? So here it is.

The English are ironic. The French don't like to wash. Germans are humourless and efficient. Well so they say. But the chances are that it's not actually true. There are some generalisations of course that are generally true. For instance punctuality is important, culturally important, in some countries and completely irrelevant in others. Punctuality doesn't really matter much if someone lives in a place without timepieces or where there are no trains to catch. My guess is that a Nigerian farmer in the middle of the countryside doesn't really care what time they start work so long as the work gets done.

Anyway, Spain is very similar, in most ways, to the rest of Europe. There is law and order, traffic is organised, water comes from taps, children go to school, supermarkets have lots and lots of food, cows are not sacred, head covering is optional, men can cut their hair as they wish, people only use chopsticks to eat under certain circumstances. In nearly all of the big things Spain is very much like the UK. There are hundreds or thousands of detail differences though and some don't seem so small when you are faced with what seems to be interminable bureaucracy or animal cruelty to give a couple of examples.

We've lived here for a while now and lots of those detail differences now seem so normal to us that we don't really notice them. When friends come to see us from the UK though it's different. They do notice. So here is my guide to eating and drinking. I'm sure that I will miss things out or overgeneralise but it's a good starting point for the tyro.

In a bar or café the server will come to you. It can be a little difficult deciding sometimes whether a place is a restaurant or whether it's a place where you can get a drinks and a snack. Table cloths usually indicate that you are expected to eat. Obviously you can choose to sit at the bar but you do not, usually, need to approach the bar to get served. Sit at your table, either inside or outside (on the terraza), and someone will come to you. If the terraza is deserted or if the bar staff do not have a clear view of the terrace it can be quicker to go to the bar, ask for your drinks, or whatever, and then sit down and wait for them to be brought. You do not need to pay until you are about to go though, if you are only going to make one order, it can be quicker to pay when the things are brought to you. If you pay the bar staff will presume that you do not need more service. In some seaside places or when a bar is crowded because of an event you may be asked to pay at once to avoid people slipping away without paying or to make life easier for the servers.

At events, music festivals, town fiestas etc. where there is a bar a bit like the beer tent at some British event, you may have to queue to get tickets which you then exchange at the bar to get the food or drink. The idea is to avoid the temporary bar staff stealing money by centralising the money taking.

Food is usually served from around 2pm through till 3.30pm for lunch and dinner from around 9pm till maybe 11pm. In tourist areas or where there are a lot of non Spaniards opening times are often earlier. Cold snacks, the famous tapas, are available at any time but anything that requires cooking may only be available when the kitchen is staffed for lunch or dinner. In the big cities food is available around the clock in many establishments. In lots of places there will be a display counter on the bar where you can browse some of the tapas on offer and order by pointing. Spaniards often order a lot of tapas to share rather than ordering a more formal meal.

Whether there will be a list of the things available or not is a bit hit and miss. Again lists and menus are more likely where there are more non Spanish customers. It's very usual for the server to list the things available and, when you ask for the bill, to simply tell you how much you owe without anything being written down.

The main meal of the day for many Spaniards is lunch rather than dinner. One way to eat cheaply and well is to have the menú diario or menú del día - the set meal - where you will usually be offered a range of first courses, second courses and desserts with a drink and bread. We Brits tend to think of the first course as being a starter but that's not usually the case and the first course is often as substantial as the second. The word menú suggests a set meal, the Spanish word for what we think of as a menu is actually carta. If you don't want to take one of the fixed options you can usually choose from the carta. The set meals are usually much, much cheaper. If you are wandering from restaurant to restaurant checking the set meal prices look to see whether the price includes bread (pan), bebida (drink), postre (pudding) and coffee (café). One of the little tricks in tourist areas is to miss those items off the list so that one 10€ menú includes everything whilst the 9€ menú next door charges extra for one or more of the items. It is very common for the menú to list postre o café, pudding or coffee so, if you have both, expect to pay a tad more.

Another little trick for tourists is that you see a blackboard outside a restaurant offering the set meal. Once you sit down you are given the carta and in it there is no mention of the fixed meal. Confused by the situation you then order from the carta and end up paying more than you intended. If there is a board offering a set meal then there is a set meal. Ask for it and you will get it.

Some places do a fixed evening meal too but it is much rarer than the daytime equivalent. Normally you will choose from the carta in the evening. One of those little differences is that if you choose something from the entrantes, starters, the serving staff will presume that it is to share with your fellow diners so the starters will be put in the middle of the table for everyone to have a go at.

I could go on but that's probably enough to digest for now.

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