Food is more than a form of sustenance in Spain, it is literally a way of life. Friendships are formed, families unite, and the working week can be set around every day's very important meals. The country's distinctive cuisine brings together unique regional dishes, special ingredients and long standing influences from Moorish and Arab settlers.
Tourists travelling to Spain are often given a useful piece of advice - the Spanish eat late. Don't expect many restaurants to be open before 9pm, and if you're eating around this time you won't be likely to see many Spaniards sharing tables. Book a restaurant table for between 11pm and midnight and you'll see the place hopping. Dinner is often light after a large lunch and the early evening tradition of tapas.
Breakfast in Spain is a pretty simple and traditionally European affair. The continental meal can include fresh rolls, bread and jam with coffee, hot chocolate or tea. Spanish coffee is served fresh and quite strong, and some tourists find the ubiquitous café con leche (or coffee with milk) is still quite strong for their tastes.
Tapas are probably the concept of Spanish cuisine most admired and imitated around the world, inspiring thousands of bars and restaurants. The idea is simple, straightforward, and a visit to a tapas bar is possibly the best way to sample a wide variety of Spanish food. The word tapa means cover or lid, and the use of the term refers to the days when bar workers would place complimentary appetisers like a cover of their patron's wine glasses to keep away flies.
Tapas can constitute something as simple as a piece of toasted bread, rubbed with garlic and dipped in olive oil, or a dish of olives. Slices of ham or salami, cheese, pieces of Spanish tortilla and marinated anchovies are popular. Dishes like meatballs in tomato sauce, garlic mushrooms, shrimp or cooked chorizo in wine are all offered to tickle the tastebuds at tapas bars around the country. So is paella, the saffron infused rice dish with meat, seafood and vegetables which is a Spanish institution. Tapas are usually displayed on or in the bar and it's as easy as pointing to what you want and a tab being run until you've had your fill.
Salads are not eaten in Spain as much as they are in other European countries - a salad here is likely to be a rudimentary mix of lettuce and tomato. A lot of vegetables are eaten in cooked dishes and soups - Spanish cuisine makes heavy use of potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, beans and mushrooms.
Garlic is a Spanish favourite and used in almost everything. Olives are also an integral part of Spanish cuisine, whether used in olive oil (of which Spain produces more than any other country) or marinated and eaten as an aperitif or in cooking.
Spanish cooking uses quite a lot of meat, depending on farming and tradition in the region. Chicken, pork and rabbit feature in many dishes and meat products like sausages and salamis are in a class of their own - particularly chorizo, Spain's spicy best-loved sausage. Prawns and shrimps are extremely popular, and anchovies and sardines are both widely consumed. Squid cooked in its own ink has to be tasted to be believed, and rape (or monkfish) is one of the nation's favourites. All these can make an appearance in the ubiquitous fish soup which varies from region to region. Gazpacho is another famous Spanish soup, made with tomato, olive oil, garlic, cucumbers and croutons, served chilled.
While coffee is the fuel behind millions of Spanish mornings, sangria is perfect for long, hot summer afternoons. The red wine and fruit punch can be found everywhere in Spain. Rioja and Valdepenas are among the leading varieties of Spanish wine, and you'll also find quality cavas, or sparkling wines, throughout the country. Spanish sherry (or jerez) is a mainstay in Spanish bars, restaurants and family homes.