Spain is a fascinating mix of people, languages, culture and food, but if there is one thing that all Spaniards share, it's a love of food and drink.
-José Andrés, Spanish chef credited with bringing tapas to the U.S.
When it comes to slow traveling, there are two worlds through which tourists experience a country's food: by dining out and by grocery shopping. And I discovered that, as a vegetarian in Spain, there are very good things and very disappointing things about both worlds. While I enjoyed the country's abundance of beautiful produce and organic grocery stores, I found eating out to be a challenge. And as for Spain's drinking culture, that's another delightful world in itself.
Eating out was one of my least favorite things about Spain. I found restaurant options to be incredibly limited for vegetarians/vegans and also expensive, particularly in tourist-y areas. But beyond options and prices, I mostly dreaded dealing with rude and indifferent wait staff in Spain: never in my life have I ever experienced such horrible service. I found myself waiting twenty minutes before waiters would acknowledge me, seeing them one last time when delivering my food; friendliness was hit or miss. On my first few day trips outside of Spain, I'd be so damn hangry by the time restaurants opened at 2:00 PM -- true for much of Spain -- that I was ready to explode, and spending another hour and $15-20 on a disappointing lunch didn't exactly endear me to Spanish dining culture. So, for day trips I began packing something like a sandwich from the local organic grocery store. Wins all around.
But I don't mean to only gripe about Spanish food and let a few bad experiences overshadow my great food experiences. One thing that I really liked in Spain was their toast, available almost at any cafe for breakfast until noon. Drizzle the toast with some olive oil, spread on some tomatoes, and add a pinch of course salt and mmmmmmm. Spain is also known for gastronomic delights and gourmet indoor food courts are all over the place. One food market in particular, Platea Madrid, was my favorite food experience during my summer in Spain, and I had a delicious lunch of pumpkin ravioli, caprese salad, and draft beer in this 1952 abandoned theater-turned upscale gastronomical experience.
Shopping for food
As much as I didn't like eating out in Spain, I really liked shopping for food there. Not only was fresh, local produce cheap and plentiful (a pound of cherries for a few dollars? yes, please!) , but grocery stores had plenty of organic and nutritious options. (Interestingly enough, all of Madrid's produce markets were not open-air but in large, enclosed halls.) Where I was in Malasaña, I was a few doors down from a small organic Carrefour grocery store, and there were plenty of boutique, organic grocery stores; finding vegan staples like hemp milk, quinoa, and kale was fortunately not a problem.
Beer & snacks
Olives, where have you been my whole life??
Apart from dining out and grocery shopping in Spain, the country's drinking culture is also worth experiencing (actually, it's impossible to ignore it). Drinking is where you get your money's worth in Spain, as a small beer (una caña) on a nice patio sets you back just a few euros or dollars. But the best part of ordering a beer in Spain is the snacks that are included with it, usually a surprisingly generous portion of olives, chips, or nuts. Mmmm, gracias.
As a tourist with a sweet tooth, it's fun to get to know a culture through local desserts and that's just what I did in Spain. While I really enjoyed trying all of my neighborhood's ice cream shops, taking my cone to the Plaza Dos de Mayo with Mango to sit on a bench and people watch, it was also fun to try desserts when on a day trip somewhere new.