22 September 2010


The average Spaniard eats 15% more fruit and vegetables (excluding potatoes) than the average resident of the UK. But whereas 7% of Brits declare themselves to be vegetarian, only 0.5% of Spaniards do (4 million people compared to just 200,000).

So it is perhaps not surprising that vegetarian visitors to Spain (let's call them VVs) often have difficulty when eating out, especially away from the big cities.  There are a few specialist vegetarian cafes in places which have a lot of overseas visitors or residents, usually run by foreigners, but your average Spaniard definitely prefers a bit of meat or fish with his or her daily 400g of vegetable matter.

The following scenario is common: the VV goes into a restaurant and asks for something with no meat in it. A vegetable stew is recommended - traditional Andalusian berza. When it arrives, nestling amongst the chickpeas and cabbage is a small lump of fatty bacon. The VV complains.  The waiter is perplexed.  "¡Eso no es carne, es tocino!" he explains.  The VV sighs with exasperation, pushes it aside and orders (yet another) omelette.

It may help to look at the Spanish attitude to vegetarianism from a different perspective.

During and after the Civil War there were chronic food shortages and rationing, even famine conditions, especially in Andalucia where people were driven to eating berries, thistles and snails harvested from the countryside. Any Spanish person over 70 will have lived through that era, possibly even lost a relative to starvation; an estimated 200,000 people died of hunger in the 1940s. They will have brought up their children with a very different attitude to food than the casual wastefulness and fastidiousness often observed today.

Things improved somewhat in the 1960s, but eating fresh meat was still a luxury rather than a day-to-day occurrence.  It was common to keep chickens, rabbits and pigeons to eat on special occasions, and fishing, hunting or poaching provided some welcome extras.

Pigs, on the other hand, could be raised in the back yard and fed on leftovers. They would be slaughtered just before Christmas and every ounce of meat, blood, innards, feet, ears, even the skin would be used.  The lean meat would provide a Christmas feast, and the legs were hung up on hooks and cured to make jamón.  Everything else would be made into chorizo, morcilla, salchichas and tocino which, used sparingly, would last through the year, adding flavour and nourishment to dishes that were comprised mainly of vegetables, pulses, rice, pasta or bread.

This is why these preserved pork products are not regarded as "meat" and why the waiter gets upset.

I implore VVs to display a little sensitivity and tolerance when eating out.  Your lifestyle choice is confusing to people who associate the absence of meat with poverty and hardship.  So what if your paella is made with chicken stock, it´s not going to poison you.  If there´s a bit of ham in your soup, just leave it.

Alternatively, you could consider modifying your self-imposed dietary restrictions and enjoy some of Spain's gastronomic delights.  A VV friend of mine now treats herself to a plate of jamón ibérico while she´s here, reassured that the pampered black pigs grazing on acorns in the dehesas of Extremadura have had a pretty good life.


Data sources


Anonymous said...

I've been with a campesino andalus for a couple of years and from him and his family I've been told that during Francos regime it was not allowed for farmers to have cows or pigs. If they did, they would be confiscated for the military.

They then made 'caves' in the atunas (cactus) where they could hide a pig or two so they would still have food. The Guardia Civil in return made a habbit out of visiting farmers around supper time to see if they were eating meat!!moub

Claire Lloyd said...

Thanks for this information Skye, it is very interesting and I have not heard that before.