With all restaurants, bars and cafes out of action, it feels strange to walk the streets of this usually vibrant city, where you’re never more than 30 seconds from a snack or a one euro coffee, to see shutters down and closed doors. Takeaways are still on offer, but for someone who spends such a lot of time eating out, buying a vacuum-packed rice dish to consume at home is nowhere near as appetizing.
When I first moved here I needed new electrics in my flat. Javi the electrician turned up with his box of tools early one morning. He put the toolkit down and then disappeared for about 15 minutes. I didn’t speak much Spanish and he had no English at all so I didn’t ask him where he was going. On his return he did an hour and a half’s concentrated work and then went off again, this time for about 40 minutes.
I assumed he had been for lunch, although at 11am it was a little early. But this was not the case. He worked a few hours longer until 1.30pm. Then, making the sign for food with an imaginary knife and fork, he set off again down the stairs. This time he returned about 5pm and did several hours hard graft, by which time I was hoping he would leave so I could eat my dinner.
Nearly 8 years later I now have a clearer idea of where Javi was off to during his time rewiring my flat. He was eating three different meals.
His first break was for Desayuno – breakfast. This is quite light, consisting of coffee, a tostada (toasted bread) eaten with a tomato puree doused with olive oil and sprinkled with salt – and maybe a freshly squeezed orange juice. It’s a delicious and healthy start to the day and costs between 2 and 3 euros.
Mid-morning at around 11am, the mysterious ‘second breakfast’ is served and eaten by all kinds of workers, not just those doing manual work.
Nothing sums up the delights of life in Valencia for me more than El Muerzo – as this perhaps slightly unecessary meal is called. I love the fact that workers down tools after just a few hours at their post and head out to their local cafe to eat a huge bocadilla filled with a wedge of tortilla, or fried pork, or large slices or ham and cheese, or a mountain of tuna – always accompanied by by a dish of olives or nuts or both, a coffee and a cold drink, or perhaps a glass of red wine. The cost of El Muerzo is from 4 to 5 euros and you can find it all over the city.
This is the kind of feast that would send most people off to sleep, but here in Valencia life goes on, at least for another couple of hours. Then it’s time for La Comida – the main meal of day. The Menu del Dia is a gift for the hungry holiday maker. It consists of three courses – perhaps an Ensalada Valenciana to start, which is a generous plate of crisp lettuce, hard boiled eggs, tuna, tomatoes, onions and olives. Or a helping of the legendary paella: the classic version with chicken, green beans, a bit of bony rabbit and if you’re lucky, a few crunchy snails.
The second course often involves a piece of grilled hake, chicken or pork, served with a few chips and a bit of salad. Pudding is usually a slice of chocolate tart, the famous ‘flan’ – basically creme caramel, sickly cheesecake or some fresh fruit. The meal may include coffee, always a basket of Barra – the local white bread that tastes like paper, and a drink of either beer, wine or water. The cost of this hearty lunch is between 8 and ten euros. You can order it any time between 1.30 and 3.30 and it’s quite normal to carry on eating until 5pm.
After that, comes siesta. A friend once told me that she and her family actually put their pyjamas on for this daily nap and got into bed. It certainly makes sense in the summer time to go inside after lunch and pull the shutters down. Rather than risk, as I did, sitting on the beach all day under a parasol but still getting sunstroke as it was just so hot in early July.
Dinner is of course eaten late, which is something I never quite get to grips with.
But again in summer time it feels logical to sit outside on a shady terrazza and have a plate of Calamares a la Plancha at 9.30 pm. Then to head to the sea front and gaze at the waves. It’s impossible to sleep in the heat anyway and I have seen people sitting outside and fanning themselves into the small hours.
A wave of new restaurants means that lighter snacks are available. One of the best dishes I have eaten lately was at Work in Progress, a lively bar in the market square, run by a charming Sicilian woman called Nausica. As well as delicious spaghetti, served with a sauce of capers and artichokes I ate Panelle, crispy chickpea fritters – a street food snack I last had in Palermo a few years ago. Sitting in the sun and relishing a flavoursome plateful filled me with a huge rush of happiness. I felt like I was on holiday again and there is nothing I like better than that.
I love the way that the day revolves around meals here and that the timetable is so unbending. Javi the electrician nearly drove me mad and the job actually took six months to finish. If my Spanish had been better, perhaps I should have asked him to ‘crack on’ and offered him a cheese sandwich, rather than succumbing to his comings and goings.
This, however, is Spain, where they stick to their guns, and seem lost without their rigid traditions. I am certainly bereft without my cafe routines and must stay at home chopping up vegetables and scouring the recipe pages for yet more new ways with cauliflower. I don’t mind a bit of cooking but I always think ‘why bother?” if you have can eat a Menu del Dia on a sunny terrace for less than a tenner. Let’s hope full service resumes soon.