30 years have been enough to turn Spanish society into one of the most advanced societies on the globe, on a par with the most developed countries in Europe as regards social issues. Prior to the advent of democracy in 1975, Spain was a strongly Catholic traditional society under firm government control. The fall of the Francoist dictatorship marked a break with the false stereotypes of old and sclerotic social rules and norms, and the gradual transformation of Spain into an open and tolerant society. Of course, it was not a simple process, nor was it devoid of bitter disputes. The successive national governments have shown firm commitment to social progress on all fronts, entailing, among other measures, the enactment of a specific body of legislation primarily aimed at building a fairer society and promoting greater integration, in accordance with modern times. Worth noting for their special significance are the Law on Religious Freedom, the Law on Equal rights and the Law on Gay Marriage (Spain was one of the first countries in the world to recognise the right of marriage between persons of the same sex).
The Spanish character tends to be lively and extroverted. It is said that Spaniards “live” in the streets, because they love going out and enjoying themselves. In cities like Madrid it is very common for young people to go out until the early hours of the morning, even on working days. So the streets, especially in some “partying” areas, are alive with activity most of the time. This will vary, of course, according to the local customs in different parts of Spain. There is quite a wide choice of cultural and leisure activities (much more so in the big cities). Several Internet portals such Lanetro or Guía del Ocio offer comprehensive information on what’s on and where to go.
Food and Drink
Spanish gastronomy currently enjoys great international prestige. Chefs like Ferrán Adriá, Sergi Arrola, Santi Santamaría or Juan María Arzak are among the most renowned in the world. There is no denying that, for several decades now, Spain has had a firmly established gastronomic culture. In both public and private spheres, there has been a drive to achieve a consistent level of quality in Spanish cuisine.
One of the distinguishing features of Spanish cuisine is its rich diversity of styles and dishes, favoured by the marked differences among regions. Thus, we find little in common between a dish from the Basque Country or the Cantabrian fringe and one that would be typically cooked in Andalucía, or between the latter and a typical Castilian dish. The reason behind this is that every region has its own products, climate, customs and traditions. The use of olive oil — and perhaps garlic and onions as well — is the only common element shared by the different local cuisines around Spain.
Typical Spanish dishes are, in any case, extremely varied, showing marked differences between regions. In the Cantabrian region we find a potent stew like ‘fabada’; in Galicia “pulpo a feira” (boiled octopus with paprika); the Basque Country excels in fish dishes like Vizcaína Cod or Koxkera Hake; roast suckling pig or lamb are a specialty on the Castilian plateau; Paella, now an international dish, originates from the Levante (east coast) region; and Andalucía is famous for its simple cold vegetable soups: ‘gazpacho’ and its variations, ‘salmorejo’ and ‘ajoblanco’.
But Spain’s unique gastronomic culture goes beyond the preparation of highly distinctive dishes. In Spain, gastronomy also plays a major role in social interaction. As in many other Mediterranean countries, meals are a time for meeting and reinforcing family bonds. Especially on Sundays, Saturdays and public holidays, family meals can drag on for hours, sometimes well into the afternoon. Conversation is an ever-present element, filling the long wait between the first and second courses. Even after the dessert, the conversation may extend for another hour over a cup of coffee or a typical liqueur, such as orujo or pacharán, or a sweet Moscatel or Pedro Ximenez wine. Of course, the many time constraints of working life force Spaniards to have somewhat more ‘European-style’ lunches on weekdays. In any case, foreigners are often very surprised by the atmosphere in Spanish restaurants, always bustling with noise and activity and often with the television on.
Friends and family alike enjoy getting together around a table. A very widespread custom in Spanish restaurants, bars and cafeterias is to share a variety of dishes among a group. This is what is known as ‘tapeo’, or ‘going for tapas’. This involves an informal gathering, in which a group of friends will sit around a table and decide on a number of dishes, which the waiter will then set on the middle of the table for all of them to pick at as they please. An important rule to remember on such occasions is not to get carried away with a conversation, or by the time you realise all the plates will have been picked clean!
For most Spaniards breakfast is not an important meal from a nutritional standpoint. They will just grab a cup of coffee with churros or a croissant, maybe even a piece of toasted bread roll with fresh tomato and olive oil. The main meal of the day by far is lunch. Moreover, Spaniards do not follow the European custom of eating lunch at 12, or 1 pm at the latest. Especially in the centre and south of Spain, lunch never begins before 2 pm, well into what most Europeans would call the afternoon. It is as if midday in Spain did not arrive until 2 pm.
This brief overview of Spanish gastronomy would be incomplete without mentioning an essential element on every ‘typical Spanish’ table. Wine is, and always has been in Spain, more than just a drink. It is an inherent part of the collective national identity. In fact, Spain currently ranks among the world’s leading wine producers. Its most famous denominations of origin are Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Penedés and Jerez. Other well-known wine-growing regions include La Mancha, Somontano, Alvariño, Ribeiro and Málaga