Last week’s blog was all about differences forms of courtesy between English and Spanish cultures with only a passing reference to meal times. Table manners definitely deserve their own article as the differences are huge between our traditional rules and taboos.
To sum it up in a single sentence: in Spanish society, dunking, dipping, sharing, elbow leaning, finger picking and licking, reaching, chatting, questioning, plate cleaning, interrupting and voice raising are all perfectly acceptable, as long as they are done in a friendly inclusive manner. However, just rereading that list of crimes makes me shake with the fear of punishment and illustrates just how different two apparently similar European cultures can be.
In these matters I definitely think it’s our upbringing that is too stiff and starchy, and no doubt we have all loosened up a bit since living here. Oddly enough though I think in some cases we have gone too far to another extreme. As far as I can gather from British grandparents, one of the things that most annoys them about their families is how the children are allowed to be picky about their food, leave the table and run around, and generally break all those cast iron rules that former generations had to obey.
In contrast, I have a feeling that Spanish table manners haven’t really altered that much, and amid all the apparently chaos and noise, certain norms are dutifully maintained. One of these is that children are expected to eat what they’re given. There are very few, if any, concessions to childish whims and appetites. There’s salad followed by lentils and you don’t get any ice cream until it’s eaten. In fact, there is a Spanish expression: “son lentejas” (they’re lentils) which is used when someone gives you absolutely no choice in any matter. If you don’t like it, tough “son lentejas”.
Another strict norm here is the observance of meal times. You always have your main meal at midday and supper is always a lighter affair much later in the evening. I’ve often found the Spanish almost scandalized by the idea of a main meal at seven o’clock in the evening: quite beyond the pale.
Another very pleasant aspect of Spanish mealtimes is what is called the “sobremesa” where everyone sits round talking after they’ve finished eating. Admittedly there isn’t always time for this every day, but it’s always observed when time allows. And then there’s that very nice greeting “Que aproveche” loosely translated as “enjoy your meal” which Spanish people say when they walk past a table of people eating or accidently come across you having a snack at any particular time of day.