Wednesday, June 23, 2004


The Spanish “menú del día” would be a miserable failure in the United States. After all, you can’t eat it while driving a car or typing on a computer. In Spain, however, the menu del dia is the centerpiece of each workday – and depending on one’s job satisfaction index, it may be the highlight.

A menu del día (or “Menú” – with a capital M, to show my deepest respect) is a fixed-price, three-course lunch that nearly every bar and restaurant in Spain offers Monday through Friday from 1:30 to 4:00pm. Each course provides two to five choices, from which you select one. First course typically consists of soup, salad or a vegetable. Second course is meat or fish, usually cooked a la plancha (i.e., fried on a skillet with a little olive oil) and accompanied by French fries or other vegetables. Dessert offerings might be fruit, flan, rice pudding, yoghurt or ice cream. And the charge for such an extravagant feast? A paltry 7-12 Euros, depending on the establishment’s location and level of snootiness. I should further mention that this price includes a basket of bread and a drink. We’ll talk more about the drink later.

Price is a big factor in the popularity of Menús, but it’s not the only one. We must attribute some credit to the food. I can assure you from four gluttonous years of experience that the food quality at Menús can be impressive, although I would caution against harbouring any delusions of Dover sole or Piedmontese white truffles. Menús also reflect regional culinary specialties. You are likely to find cocido Madrileño at a Menú in Madrid; or lamb chops with garlic mayonaisse at a Menú in Barcelona; or hake with green sauce at a Menú in the Basque Country.

Another reason for the popularity of Menús is cultural. The bars and restaurants offering Menús have stepped into a role that was previously filled by the home. In past years, when Spaniards were less mobile and agriculture was Spain’s main industry, most workers ate lunch at home. Many still do; especially when compared to the US. But Spain is now a modern, industrialized country in which accountants and management consultants are far more common than shepherds. These 21st century workers simply don’t have the time or desire to trek to and from home for lunch. But this is where the lunchtime similarities between Spain and the US end. Spain – mercifully – has not embraced the US-style practice of inhaling a Frito-Lay product from its plastic packaging or worse yet, skipping lunch altogether in the interest of increasing shareholder value or picking up the dry-cleaning. Spaniards are, like the French and Italians, a Mediterranean people who take eating seriously. Even the busiest, most nerve-frazzled Madrid executive will accept nothing less than a full, sit-down lunch when the clock strikes 2pm. Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that most companies here allow their workers a generous 1 ½ to two hours for lunch, and many provide lunch vouchers as a perq.

Or maybe it’s that Spaniards just love being in bars.

Speaking of bars, let’s return to the topic of the drink that’s included in the Menú price. This is one aspect of a Menú (or indeed, any lunch in Spain) that may shock the puritanical conscience of the average US observer: Namely, the presence of alcohol. Most Menús include a small (approx. 7oz.) glass of beer or a ½ liter of wine. A half-liter of wine! The wine tends to be well-chilled (to take the edge off) and comes in two categories: Vinegary and not vinegary; the latter of which is highly prized. And with the exception of pregnant women, odd is the partron who does not have at least one glass of something alcoholic with lunch. This would be unthinkable in the US. The returning worker would likely, upon the first sniff by Human Resources, get reprimanded (at least) or fired (at most). He would also be branded an “alcoholic” by colleagues and encouraged to follow whichever twelve-step counselling program is currently in vogue. Suffice it to say, the attitude in Spain toward the responsible consumption of alcohol during midday meals is more relaxed.

Of course, Menú diners who are not in the mood for a midday snort may instead choose a bottle of water. All Menús offer this option. Curiously, few offer soda. I think this is a good thing.

Lunch is typically followed with a cup of coffee. This is a wise move, considering the lethargy that’s likely to result after downing a half-liter of wine. Some Menús include coffee within the price, but most don’t. It is the coffee course that amuses me most. Why? Because it is common for Spanish lunch diners to either infuse or follow-up their coffee with…MORE alcohol. After all, what’s a meal without a digestif? Typical candidates are anis, orujo or brandy; each tipping the scales at 80 proof. These may be added directly to the coffee to create a carajillo, or drank straight from a snifter with or without ice.

If this doesn’t explain the continued popularity of post-lunch siestas, then I don’t know what does.


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