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Why General Franco is the reason Spanish people eat so late

Dinner starts at nine at the very earliest, although after 10 is much more the norm
Dinner starts at nine at the very earliest, although after 10 is much more the norm Credit: getty

You could happily spend all day eating and drinking wherever you are in Spain and I frequently do. One thing just sort of slides into the next – if you’re doing it right. 

Be warned though, this means resetting your eating routine and having your lunch and dinner an hour or two later than you might be used to. This means lunch sometime after two o’clock and dinner at nine at the very earliest, although after 10 is much more the norm. But why do the Spanish eat so late?

When the sun is highest in the sky in Spain, it is not noon but 1.30pm. If you measure mealtimes according to the position of the sun, rather than what it is says on the clock, Spaniards are having their lunch at more or less the same times as the rest of Europe. Dinner, about seven hours later, matches their European counterparts too. So why are the clocks out of synch?

Well, until 1942, Spain was on Greenwich Mean Time, the same as the UK. But then General Franco, in his dubious wisdom, decided to put the country’s clocks forward an hour in line with Germany, Central European Time (CET), or GMT+1. After the end of Second World War however, Spain stayed on CET.

If you look at its geographic location, Spain is in the GMT zone. The Greenwich meridian passes through Castellón, on the east coast, so the vast majority of the country is west of it – as is Portugal, the Canary Islands and the UK, which are of course all on GMT. Galicia, in the northwestern corner of Spain, is so far west that really it should be in the next timezone, GMT-1. 

A small beer is not even considered to be an alcoholic drink, just a light refreshment Credit: getty

Another factor influencing the late eating times is that in the years of poverty that followed the Spanish Civil War in the 1940s and 1950s, a lot of people had two jobs: one from early morning until two o’clock, and another from late afternoon until late evening, so they had to fit their meals in around their long working hours. 

There is an increasing demand to get Spain back on GMT, but the shift in routine would require other changes too. The main news bulletins, for example, are at nine in the evening and popular programmes such as soaps and reality shows, don’t even start until about 10.15pm and go on until at least 11.30pm. Shops are open until at least 8pm and so are a lot of museums. Although some businesses, particularly multinational companies, now only give an hour or less for lunch, many others allow two hours or more and many people in all sorts of occupations then have to go back to work until 7pm at least.

Nevertheless, whatever their working hours or daily routines, the Spanish people can always find time to eat. Of course, they are not all eating all day, every day, but sometimes it certainly looks that way. Strangely, however, they are in general less rotund than we are in the UK. This has a lot to do with eating proper meals; having lunch at lunchtime and dinner at dinnertime is still very much entrenched in Spanish society, which means less snacking on the kinds of high-fat, nutrition-poor foods that pile on the pounds. 

To get straight into the gastronomic swing in Spain, swerve breakfast at your hotel and head to a bar. The nearest will do, the first on the left is usually perfectly adequate – look for one with waiters dashing around and saucers lined up on the counter to speed up coffee delivery. Elbow your way to a stool and order a croissant or toast, either with butter and jam or olive oil and tomato. Or go for the full calorific combo of churros and chocolate. On a chilly morning, it is perfectly acceptable to order a carajillo – coffee with a slug of brandy. 

After a little light sightseeing, it’s time to join the local population back in the bar for elevenses, perhaps a wedge of tortilla or a toasted sandwich. Although this happens all over the country, they take it particularly seriously in the Valencia region, where it is called esmorzaret and often takes the form of a massive baguette stuffed with some sort of gooey mix – morcilla sausage, egg and peppers perhaps. You could have more coffee but a beer or a glass of wine tends to go down rather well at this point. 

This takes us nicely to the very civilised hora del aperitivo (aperitif hour), around oneish. You want a traditional tiled bar or a terrace table for this. A small beer is a safe bet and is not even considered to be an alcoholic drink, just a light refreshment. You could also have a glass of wine, but to do things properly, order a locally-made vermouth with a splash of soda water. If you’re in Andalucia, go for a sherry. Some olives, a bit of cheese, few slivers of jamón ibérico and some boquerones (anchovies) will be enough to get you thinking about lunch. 

You can embark on a tapas crawl but the sit-down lunch is an important part of the day in Spain. It is normal for people to leave the office (again) for a three-course menú del día (fixed-price lunch) plus wine or whatever they want to drink for around a tenner. Allow time for coffee and maybe a copita (the diminutive could not be more inappropriate) of orujo (similar to grappa) or pacharán, a punchy concoction made from sloes and anisette.

Following a leisurely afternoon stroll – or more likely a siesta in summer – it is time for merienda, when you restore your energy levels with more caffeine, sugar and stodge. Toast, sandwiches, cakes, churros or pancakes are all typical choices. 

Around eightish, everyone drifts back into the bars for more beer, sherry, vermouth or wine, perhaps accompanied by a few squidgy croquetas or a dish of sizzling gambas al ajillo. You can carry on all evening with tapas if you like, as long as you visit at least three and ideally half a dozen places. Or, around ten o’clock, you can go to a proper restaurant for dinner, preferably somewhere with lots of chatter and clatter. If you’ve been baffled by why people eat so late, you can probably see by now that it makes perfect sense when you just fall into the Spanish rhythm. 

We’re talking three courses again, but it is usual to share a few things to start with and the main dish is often meat or fish without much else on the plate, so it should be easily manageable, so long as you’re not wearing anything too restrictive.

When you leave the restaurant sometime after midnight, someone will suggest having the penúltima (it is very bad form to talk of the last drink) so off you go to another bar or terrace for an enormous gin and tonic, a cubata (rum or whisky with coke) or a cocktail. It almost certainly won’t be just the one either and before you know it, dawn is breaking and you’re starving again. This is the perfect moment for another round of churros and chocolate, which also happens to be an excellent way to stave of a hangover.