Lesson One: Café Andaluz in Glasgow is not an Accurate Representation of a Typical Spanish Café
I came to Spain imagining every café to have a menu full of wonderful offerings of patatas bravas, padrones, berenjenas and all sorts of unique vegetable-based dishes. This was not the case. The main ingredient in most dishes is pork, beef or chicken. If you are lucky enough to live near the coast, you’ll find seafood sneaking into almost everything. If you’ve ever been duped by a seemingly innocent vegetal bocadillo, you’ll know what I’m on about. However, having spent three months in Palma de Mallorca, where it is considered a mark of quality to have a spliced leg of local jamón hanging above the bar, I can safely say that as a vegetarian in Spain you will not starve on social occasions. In fact, I challenge you to become an expert on your local veggie fare and report back to me so I can come and try it all for myself!
I hope I can challenge any ideas you might have come across that Spain is inhospitable to vegetarians, and that these tips will come in handy for making your Spanish adventure a well-fed and happy one!
Lesson Two: Quality Over Quantity
You might not have much choice when you go out to eat at a traditional restaurant. But the lack of choice will make you more adventurous. You order the one veggie dish on the menu that you’ve never heard of and would otherwise forsake for a more familiar option. My boldness has led me to discover some interesting and wonderful flavours, which I would never have encountered had I not been a hungry and choice-strapped vegetarian. Be brave, experiment and soon you’ll become a connoisseur of the veggie delicacies in your area.
Being a Vegetarian in Spain is Easy Thanks to Cocas and Tumbet
Coca de trampó (NOT pizza- calling it this results in a withering look from the locals) is a flatbread with the texture of shortcrust pastry topped with tomato, onions, and peppers. The topping originates from the simple and abundant ingredients available in Mallorca’s long gone days where pastoral and horticultural agriculture were the staple livelihoods of its people. Quality ranges quite unexpectedly, from thicker dough to exotic barbeque flavoured toppings to soggy bottoms (I’m looking at you, El Corte Inglés). The best I had was from a market in beautiful Valdemossa, where the bread was thin and crispy and the toppings plentiful.
Tumbet, meanwhile, is made up of fried vegetables and potatoes covered with a lovely rich garlicky tomato sauce. It is really tasty and can be made with different vegetables but usually involves aubergine, red pepper, and onion. It is served in traditional restaurants and is a great way to fill up after a long day of exploring. I would also recommend sampling different bars to find some veggie pintxos, slices of baguette topped with all sorts of vegetables, cheeses, and even guacamole. And of course, there’s always tortilla!
Lesson Three: Spanish People Take Pride in Fresh, Local Ingredients Prepared with Love
And quite rightly. In Mallorca and much of mainland Spain, the traditional breakfast consists of toasted white bread topped with olive oil, salt, pepper, and tomatoes. This isn’t a traditional breakfast in the British sense, where fat laden fry ups are touted to tourists as a must have while we go for the more health friendly toast or porridge. Every café you zoom past on your daily route to work will offer some version of tostadas, usually served with coffee or juice for a very reasonable 2 euros or so. And quite rightly.
In the last couple of months, I regularly buy a fresh baguette from the little bakery on my street and top it with Mallorca’s famously delicious olive oil and ripe tomatoes before toasting it in the oven and munching it with giddy satisfaction. I am fortunate enough to live in the middle of the Mediterranean and have access to this sunshine-flavoured deliciousness every day. But enough boasting. Now, I must tell you about the wonderful welcoming kindness (and tasty, tasty paella) I encountered at the birthday party.
Lesson Four: Ask!
Spaniards may not share your herbivorous lifestyle, but if you share their enthusiasm for the best quality home-grown ingredients most of them will happily provide you a marvelously meatless meal.
A few weeks ago, I was invited to an afternoon paella cookout in a local allotment garden that was celebrating its 11th birthday. At midday, I cycled over with a bottle of Don Simon sangria, watching sunbeams flickering through the buildings and branches overhead and wishing I hadn’t brought my heavy leather jacket. I walked through the tall gates and left my bike beside a twisted old tree. About 10 people were there already, busy gathering vegetables and wood and chatting beneath the bright blue sky.
First, a tour of the garden, where vegetables and fruits and herbs grew harmoniously alongside one another and the smell of earth and wood smoke drifted through the air. Then, a glass of wine and an introduction to the allotments’ current gardeners. They were more than happy to have some new faces around for their garden’s birthday bash. My friend mentioned that some of us were vegetarian and no sooner said than done was a separate pan brought out and a veggie paella underway.
Lost in the beauty of the garden, I suddenly noticed that there were now thirty or forty people there. A row or trestle tables had been set up and as people arrived they placed glorious offerings of coca, tortilla, bread, pastries and creamy and chocolaty cakes for pudding, which we sangria touting chancers delved into with glee. There were so many tortillas we had a tortilla judging in which it was concluded that one’s tortilla preferences came down to the firmness or gooieness of the tortilla. Team gooey anyone?
Then the paella. The biggest pan I have ever seen was placed on top of a small fire and coated in a good slick of olive oil, which Mallorca is famous for. All sorts of freshly picked vegetables including peppers, green beans, onions, mushrooms, garlic, and tomatoes were added one by one, with green leafy herbs and saffron and rice.
We took turns stirring the paella -harder than it looks-, stoking the fire and gazing hypnotically as the ingredients sizzled and were stirred slowly and steadily round the huge pot. It was a team effort. At any one time, there were at least three people attending the great beast. When it was time to eat, everyone gathered round the two huge dishes of paella- one fishy and one veggie- and took a big spoonful and sat at the trestle tables and ate all together under the warm November sun. It was perfect, every bite full of the flavour of something that was still part of the earth just this morning.
I went home that day with a big smile and a newfound appreciation for the sense of community centered around the garden, built on a shared attitude of kindness, patience, co-operation and a strong appreciation for the land and its produce. Moreover, I felt content knowing that lots of people shared my love for vegetables. They were kind enough to include me in their garden’s birthday celebrations.
I hope this post has made you feel more hopeful about finding great veggie food in Spain. Most of all, I hope that by sharing my adventures I might just inspire you to come and try it for yourself!
By Anna C., 2018/19