The Spanish revere lunch. It really is the oasis in the dessert of their day.
And what days. Long days. Hot days.
The history of being a largely agricultural nation meant many people worked the land. The climate that later brought the double-edged sword of tourism, burned a division into the day of the worker. Way too hot to do anything between 1pm and 5pm. So this became pleasure and rest time. The main meal of the day, the gathering of the family and a lengthy rest became a way of life.....and still is. I read that when Spain started to change and become an industrialized nation people were sucked from the land to the growing cities and life changed. People travelled to work which made it impractical/expensive to go home for lunch....even if you are allowed 4 hours. So the government made a law. Every restaurant was obliged to provide an affordable lunch so that people could maintain their tradition without having to go all the way home. And so was born the incredible value Menu del Día.
It is without doubt the best value meal available in Spain. Always 3 courses, often including wine, bread and water....sometmes coffee too.At time of writing the average price is between 8-12 euros. And this is also where the nation;s cooking traditions shine. No-fuss home cooking at it;s best. Don;t expect culinary gymnastics, garnishes, a smile or even conversation. But there is integrity cooked into every dish. A stoic, solid pride baked into each unsmiling cazuela that is banged down in front of you. Blue cigarette smoke still permeates these places, the best of which are packed every day by 3pm. Don;t make the tourist mistake of seeing restaurants empty at 1:30pm and assuming the are bad. Check back at 3pm and revise your opinion!
I still can;t make lunch my main meal. It just doesn;t work for me. I have tried but I can;t eat that much in the day...and I hate sleeping in the day too. And I STILL get caught out trying to do my shopping in the lunch "hour" "al estilo inglés" when everything is closed!!!
Some recent Menu del Día dishes.....
Huevos a la Riojana. Eggs baked in a spicy tomato sauce made with red wine and garnished with two slices of chorizo and some foaming garlic and parsley butter. Delicious, but piping hot which was frustrating. The eggs werent soft which would have been nicer. (Ive had hard boiled egg curry in India to which I would say the same) This, by the way was a starter!
Main course. Classic Catalan cooking. Duck with pears. Slow cooked, (almost confit) Duck (legs obviously) with lightly sautéd pears was a delight. Sticky, rich and falling apart, with just the pan juices as a sauce. Delicious....but don;t expect me to go back to work for at least 12 hours!
Catalan cooking often features meat and cooked fruit, or meat and shellfish togehter (mar y muntanya)(sea and mountain)
Another dish I had illustrates an important lesson to be learned in the appreciation of Catalan cooking. DO NOT JUDGE BY APPEARANCE! Paul Richardson refers to this in his book "A Late Dinner" . Banish any notions of modern food aesthetics. Understand that these dishes are born from a tough survival ethic and cannot countenence any pandering to vanity. In short, don;t be put off by ugly food. This dish looked pretty grim, but tasted wonderful. Broadbeans slowly cooked with morcilla (blood sausage) butiffara (another type of cooked sausage), and pork belly. A fore runner of real baked beans I suppose. The slow cooking had long since rendered any colour out of the beans but created a gravy that was truely wonderful. I have avoided this dish many times due to it's appearance (often in cold tapas counters) but have been thoroughly converted. This was also a starter!