Spain, I love you. But when it comes to any kind of vegetarian food, you drive me crazy. Even my one-time Spanish housemate – a vegetarian herself – declared that if she hadn’t been brought up in the heart of cosmopolitan Barcelona then she’d have died of malnutrition.
This holiday, we’d only got around a hundred miles past the border, before I received my first offer of unwanted ham, as a side element to my continental breakfast on the train. A metro ride later, we were at Barcelona Sants station, where we noticed a nice, new, chichi-looking delicatessen; only when K. got closer did she realise that the hotwater bottles or maybe wineskins were actually stinking cured ham joints, dangling among acres of cut ham and – somewhat more unexpectedly – chocolate nun’s breasts.
After yet another entire holiday of this sort of thing, we discussed it with my Mum – she and Dad being long-term Spanish residents, but not vegetarians themselves – and she admitted that the Spaniards she knows are obsessed with ham: much as tedious internet dwellers are obsessed with bacon.
Spain has some of the most gorgeous fruit and vegetables in Europe and yet, like someone at a barbecue acting as though their dietary reliance on meat is as important as a vitamin deficiency, the country treats them largely with disdain. Why that’s the case is difficult to say; but remember that Franco’s regime is closer in time to modern, 21st-century Spain than you’d think.
Fascism’s maintenance of an outmoded societal status quo, its emphasis on the purity of rural and feudal ways of life, and its impoverishment of what could have otherwise been an international melting-pot on all levels of Spanish culture: these could all have led to Spain’s backward-looking – or maybe under-provisioned or under-envisioned – ways of putting together a meal.
Let’s claim that it was fascism that put the cultural brakes on, amounting in total to a 15- or 20-year lag behind other parts of Europe. In which case, then when you think of parts of Spain – especially the more rural areas – as being more like a developing nation than anything else, then you can also start to look more kindly on such odd behaviours.
Admittedly, such thinking didn’t help me avoid temper tantrums caused by being told (in the middle of a blood-sugar slump) that the vegetal option is either fish, another fish, or salad containing trace elements of ham. But it does make me willing to prepare in advance: to make concessions while eating out to a preponderance of egg, cheese and chips; and meanwhile to keep a supply of Spain’s glorious bounty – peppers, oranges, apples, salad vegetables and more – safely stored in one’s apartment. Also, to hunt out Lebanese restaurants at every opportunity.
(None of this adequately explains the chocolate nun’s breasts, however.)