Why Do the Spanish Eat So Late?
In Spain, it is common to have lunch sometime after 2pm and dinner at 9pm or even later. This might seem unusual to those accustomed to eating their main meals at earlier times, but the explanation lies in the country’s unique relationship with time and its historical context.
To understand why the Spanish eat so late, it is important to consider the position of the sun rather than relying solely on the clock. When the sun is at its highest point in Spain, it is approximately 1.30pm. If mealtimes are measured according to the position of the sun, Spaniards are actually eating at similar times to the rest of Europe. Dinner, which is typically served about seven hours later, also aligns with European norms.
The real question, then, is why the clocks in Spain are out of sync with the sun. This can be traced back to a decision made by General Franco in 1942. At that time, Spain was on Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), the same as the UK. However, Franco decided to move the country’s clocks forward an hour to align with Central European Time (CET), or GMT+1, which was being used by Germany. After the Second World War, Spain continued to observe CET.
Geographically, Spain falls within the GMT zone. The Greenwich meridian passes through Castellón, located on the east coast of Spain. This means that the majority of the country is west of the meridian, including Portugal, the Canary Islands, and the UK, all of which are on GMT. Galicia, in the northwestern corner of Spain, is so far west that it should technically be in the next time zone, GMT-1.
Another factor contributing to the late eating times in Spain is the historical context of the country. In the years following the Spanish Civil War in the 1940s and 1950s, many people had two jobs. They would work from early morning until 2pm and then have another job from late afternoon until late evening. This meant that mealtimes had to be fitted in around their long working hours.
There is a growing demand to shift Spain back to GMT, but such a change would require adjustments in other areas as well. For example, the main news bulletins are currently aired at 9pm, and popular television programs, including soaps and reality shows, typically start around 10.15pm and continue until at least 11.30pm. Additionally, shops and museums often remain open until 8pm or later. While some businesses now offer shorter lunch breaks, many still allow for two hours or more, and individuals in various professions often return to work until at least 7pm.
Despite varying working hours and daily routines, the Spanish people always find time to eat. While it may appear that they are eating all day, every day, this is not the case. However, the Spanish have a culture that values food and takes time to enjoy meals. From indulging in a morning coffee and croissant or toast at a local bar to partaking in the traditional three-course menú del día (fixed-price lunch) in the afternoon, the Spanish prioritize their meals as a time for relaxation and socializing.
To fully immerse oneself in the gastronomic experience of Spain, it is recommended to skip breakfast at the hotel and instead head to a local bar. These bars can be identified by the bustling waiters and saucers lined up on the counter for quick coffee service. Order a croissant or toast with butter and jam or olive oil and tomato. Alternatively, indulge in the calorific combination of churros and chocolate. On a chilly morning, it is even acceptable to enjoy a carajillo, which is coffee with a splash of brandy.
After some light sightseeing, join the locals back at the bar for elevenses, a mid-morning snack. In the Valencia region, this is known as esmorzaret and often consists of a large baguette filled with a gooey mixture of ingredients such as morcilla sausage, egg, and peppers. While coffee is an option, a beer or glass of wine is also commonly enjoyed during this time.
Around 1pm, it is customary to partake in the hora del aperitivo, or aperitif hour. Find a traditional tiled bar or a terrace table and order a small beer or a glass of wine. For a truly authentic experience, try a locally-made vermouth with a splash of soda water. In Andalucia, sherry is a popular choice. Accompany your drink with some olives, cheese, slivers of jamón ibérico, or boquerones (anchovies) to whet your appetite for lunch.
While tapas crawls are a popular option, sitting down for a proper lunch is an important part of the Spanish day. It is common for people to leave the office (again) to enjoy a three-course menú del día, which typically includes wine or another preferred beverage, all for around ten euros. After the meal, take time for coffee and perhaps a copita of orujo or pacharán, both of which are potent digestifs.
Following a leisurely afternoon stroll or a siesta in the summer, it is time for merienda, a snack to restore energy levels. Typical choices include toast, sandwiches, cakes, churros, or pancakes.
Around 8pm, everyone returns to the bars for more beer, sherry, vermouth, or wine. This is the perfect time to indulge in some squidgy croquetas or a dish of sizzling gambas al ajillo. Tapas can be enjoyed throughout the evening, with many people visiting at least three or ideally half a dozen different places.
Alternatively, around 10pm, one can opt to dine at a proper restaurant, preferably one with a lively atmosphere. By now, the reasoning behind the late eating times becomes clear. The Spanish have structured their day around food, allowing ample time to savor and enjoy their meals in the company of friends and family.