Table Manners in Spain: Tackling The Tough Questions Like Where to Put the Olive Pit | Catavino
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Table Manners in Spain: Tackling The Tough Questions Like Where to Put the Olive Pit

table mannersRecently, we were asked if we could lay out the expected table manners in Spain in our Q&A section. As this is a relatively subjective question, considering that Spain is famous for rarely following any rule, I’ve done my best to compile the top 12 table manners as I’ve experienced them in Spain. Mind you, all of these can be debated, and I encourage anyone to chime in with their experiences. Also check out my inspiration for this article from Notes from Spain.

“Stick em Up! Leave Your Hands Where I Can See Them”

In Spain, one never lets your hands drop under the table. Why? Well, rumor has it that your hands have a funny way of meandering to “unforeseen locations” when not exposed. Whether reaching for the seductive leg of your partner, or grabbing your trusty sidearm, one never knows what may occur in the nether regions. Therefore, the Spaniards have adopted the habit of leaving their hands on the table in perfect view of their fellow diners. (Flickr photo by hackdaddy)

Forks Go Left, Knives Go Right

For those of you who care, this is called continental style. Rather than doing a little two step with your fork and knife, common to the States, the continental style is the lazy man’s way of keeping your tools in the same hand throughout your meal. Generally, I find the fork in the left hand and the knife in the right a very comfortable position until legumes make way to my plate. Although some Spaniards will spear the little buggers, taking half their meal to fetch a few dozen, there are others who will switch positions with the fork so that the scoopage can come into play. However, under pain of death, or simply lack of adequate utensils, I can never find a spoon available for such feats. Unclear as to whether Spaniards fear that I’ll catapult the little green cannon balls across the restaurant, spoons are generally kept far away from me when small round food items are served. Additionally, stick to silverware. Using hands when eating, even if it’s fruit or a croissant is relatively uncommon.

Swoop Away, Not Towards

Despite common sense to bring delicious and mouthwatering soup towards your mouth, it is expected that you tease yourself by scooping away before bringing it in for the kill. Logically, I can assume that by scooping away from you, you’re less likely to get it all over your newly pressed shirt, but personally, I prefer to believe that the Spaniards are merely trying to taunt me with their handmade creations! They figure that the more time it takes for me to eventually get the soup into my mouth, the more I’ll savor it. How right they are!

So Yes on the 1st Plate and the 3rd Plate But No on the 2nd Plate? So Confused!

Rumor has it that you are only required to wait for your mates to eat during 1st and 3rd course (3rd being your dessert), and not for the 2nd course. I have yet to confirm these rumors, as most Spaniards are very gracious and typically wait until everyone is served, but I have kept my eye out for such suspicious behaviors. And to be clear, I’ve never seen it! If there is a custom to dive in, regardless if anyone else has been served their second plate, I’m none the wiser. But if you generally keep to the “don’t eat until everyone is served regardless of the course” mindset, I think you’re safe!

I’d Like Bottle of Wine for One

Although the rate of alcohol consumption is diving rapidly, I am proud to say that we still have a few neighbors who enjoy a few glasses of wine every morning for breakfast on the quaint little outdoor terrace in front of our building. Wine can be consumed at any meal, however, few people will order a glass outside of meal time (wine community excluded). On the off meal hours, a coke, beer, juice or water are more typical orders, not to say that you can’t break the norm and shake things up a bit.

To Dip, To Double Dip, or Not To Dip at All, That is the Question

Unlike your close buddies who love to take a chip and dip it in a delicious creamy sauce, not once, not twice, but till the tiny tip on the end of the chip is covered in gooey goodness, sharing every DNA strand in the process, this custom is not even remotely acceptable here. This, my dear friends, is a single dip culture. There is no double, triple or quadruple dipping. Not to say that I haven’t slipped in a double dip in my time in Spain, but make it discreet, and under the radar of those ever present dipping monitors! (Flickr photo by didbygraham)

The Olive Pit Dilemma

Walk into any normal, run of the mill, bar in Spain, and you’ll most likely slip on an olive pit or sticky, unhelpful bar napkin more useful as post-it note than an absorbent devise. However, this behavior is totally normal. Trash is expected to go on the floor, but in restaurants, one must refrain, placing a small heap of olive pits on your plate, rather than under your chair. Additionally, you may use the thumb and forefinger method of putting the olive into the mouth, but upon exit, most Spaniards will make a fist and spit the pit directly from the mouth into the little hole created between the curve of your thumb and forefinger. To date, I have yet to get into this habit, partially because I don’t care that much, and partially because, um…I still don’t care that much.

The Double Hand Toothpick Move

Ahh, so you’ve never heard of such a move. Well, let me tell you that this is tricky here in Spain, and you need to pay close attention when you attempt such a move. First, take the toothpick out of the container. Then, when you bring the toothpick up to your mouth, quickly use the opposite hand to cover said act. The goal, as you might imagine, is to look as if you’re not participating in such a garish act as picking your teeth, even though it’s completely obvious that you are.

Proper Bread Etiquette

When walking down the street, I have definitely seen a few people take a huge bite out of their baguette on their stroll to nowhere. But as a general rule, this is a bread cutting culture, not a bread tearing culture. Think I’m kidding? When polling random Spaniards on what to do with a loaf of bread with company, each one suggested cutlery. Additionally, a piece of bread is expected to hang out ON your plate, not on the table. What is under debate, however, is whether a piece of bread can be used as a piece of cutlery or as an dredging device. Some would suggest that you cannot use bread in this manner, but as with anything in life, there are always exceptions.

Coffee Comes After Dessert

Unlike me, who desperately wants my espresso with my crema catalana, coffee is traditionally served after your dessert. If others are having a dessert, and you are not, coffee will be served to you during their dessert. Please don’t be surprised if a cigarette is lit up during this time as well. Depending on the restaurant, this may be forbidden, but then again, you’re in Spain, where hard fast rules don’t exist.

Check Please!

To get your check, you have one of three options. Tackle your waiter. Take a whistle and blow it. Or simply wait patiently over the course of an hour before he or she finally gets a clue. The universal gesture is pretending as if your signing off on a check. As for tipping, some say a few coins are sufficient, others say 5% is the norm. After 4 years, I’ve never really understood what’s appropriate. Would love more guidance on this if someone has a clue. (Flickr photo by journeyscoffee)

There are No Rules in a Spanish Conversation!

Although this may seem rather appalling to you, technically, Spanish conversations at mealtime are filled with loud debates, confrontations, talking over one another and broaching topics that might seem off-limits or personal. My suggestion: dive in! Don’t be shy to express an opinion, and trust that regardless if your mate across from you vehemently disagrees with you on any given topic, no matter how controversial, normally, no level of friendship will be lost.

So there you have it! Those are my top 12 suggestions, but please know that they are subjective, and are open to interpretation. I doubt you’ll be shunned from someone’s home or kicked out of a restaurant if you break any of these table manners, but I always find it respectful to be savvy as of cultural norms. Your call, and I’d love to hear your experience with table manners either in Spain or elsewhere in the world.


Gabriella Opaz

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  • Brettthewinemaestro

    Thank you for these tips, especially as I will be visiting Castilla y Leon next week! I've never had a problem with olive pits dining al fresco, as many an olive grove has grown besides friends' patios and terraces after I have planted – rather lobbed – the pits into their gardens. And I've always enjoyed the paper napkins and other detritus (pits included) casually dropped on the floor in bars – you can always tell how busy a bar is by how difficult it is to shuffle your way to the bar.Interestingly, the old, old London wine bars (and pubs too) always had sawdust on the floor, as did butchers' shops.

  • Great post Gab!! Reading this brought back some fantastic memories of the first time I visited Spain and was blown away at the tapas bar in San Sebastian where I was allowed, hell, encouraged to throw all my thrash on the floor! Now, for most this is probably no big deal to most, but at the time I was 16, drank my first glass of Spanish wine and was allowed to throw everything on the floor?? Believe me, this was absolute heaven for a young traveler!!

  • I suspect that Spanish etiquette varies depending on the region of Spain you are in. For example, in Seville, putting your bread on the table beside your plate is considered quite acceptable (though I always put a napkin down first).“To date, I have yet to get into this habit, partially because I don’t care that much, and partially because, um…I still don’t care that much.”That made me laugh. I've never got into that habit either. Dropping olive pits on the floor used to be more acceptable 15 years ago than it is now, at least in Sevilla. In fact, I've noticed that most places prefer that you drop used napkins, olive pits, chicken bones, etc into recently placed bins provided by the establishment.Tipping! I always tip 10% when I am out having a proper meal (or even a whack of tapas). If I am just having coffee & brekky, or a drink & a snack, I usually just leave whatever change is leftover. The idea that “one doesn't have to tip in Spain” has always rankled, and I just tell friends who visit that they can well afford a decent tip (and 10% is way cheaper than the standard 20-25% tip in Toronto or New York these days) so why not do so? Why try to take advantage of people who work split shifts six days a week and make a pittance in wages? (sorry for the mini rant, I feel quite strongly about this).Is double-dipping considered okay anywhere??? Other than with an intimate friend? Ewww.I've never heard the “hands under the table” one before – funny. And as I never eat dessert, I've never noticed the “coffee after” thing. Good post!

  • Cornell

    Gab – I was taught the proper way to eat soup in 4th grade by our teacher – who emphasized that you must always “swoop away”. Ever since I have always done it the “proper way” – this may be the only thing I learned in 4th grade that I still remember but it has served me well!So as to dipping and double dipping, where do they stand on the all important cookie dunking….is this allowed as long as you don't dip/dunk in your neighbors coffee, milk or wine?Fun post – thank you.

  • Great list! How well you've observed the little peculiarities of eating in Spain – the coughing out the olive pit thing brought back fond memories of tapas bars.

  • Patti (Mom)

    Loved this post Gab – makes me yearn to visit more than ever. You always manage to put a fun spin on any topic and I had my share of giggles (much needed in the week from hell I've just experienced at work!). The only rule I follow and it always served me well is to use common sense and enjoy your self……

  • gabriellaopaz

    Agree completely! There is something almost homey about having debris everywhere, as if it's lived-in, rather than made sterile. This is part of the Spanish charm to me. Look forward to counting olive pits with you in a few days 😉 Cheers Brett!

  • gabriellaopaz

    I have an old roommate in Madrid that was a Megachoc addict – large round cookies brimming with chocolate. On most mornings, he would savor that syrupy sweet flavor sin lactose products, but I had caught him do a few dunks into a fresh glass of cold milk every now and again. But then again, he was Basque, so who knows if that counts 🙂

  • gabriellaopaz

    Wow 10%! You're most generous! As a 10 year veteran waitress, I feel your pain. However, I have to admit that as the table service in this country is generally appalling, I rarely feel like tipping more than a few coins. However, if someone actually smiles at me, and says something other than “what do you want”, I'll throw my year's salary in the jar! 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

  • gabriellaopaz

    Just saw a great documentary on the Bobal grape of Utiel-Requena. And in the film, they were reminiscing 30 years back when little children used to have a glass of wine diluted with water every day with their snack, or even drizzled on bread. I love this tradition, and am sad to hear that it is on the decline for international products like coca-cola. However, if we're very lucky in our “hard” work of educating the world about Iberian wine, just maybe we'll be able to influence people to go back to their “roots” and enjoy more wine with, or without, their meals. Thanks for the comment Michael.

  • janelle

    Fun post Gabriella! About the bread, to me it seems much more normal in Spain to put the bread on the tablecloth, not on your plate. And at nice restaurants you will be given a seperate little plate for your bread. And about the tipping, I think this depends on the region, of course at restaurants people usually tip 5 or maybe 10% but some of my friends from the Basque country are very adamant about NOT tipping. One friend claims that in his small town they will run out the door after you to give you the change if you leave a tip, and its taken as somewhat of an insult. I also know a bar in Madrid that doesn't really like tips, but another one that rings a cowbell everytime they are left one. I think I have never seen anyone tip at a nightclub or bar where food is not served. Especially if there is a cover to get in. Besos!J.

  • HAHAHAHA! Reading this took me right back to my years in Argentina and reminds me why I decided to live in London! ;-)Although the first time I EVER saw someone eat a hamburger with a knife and fork was here in London – those eccentric Brits!

  • Steven Capsuto

    You missed an important one: where to set down your utensils when you pause in the middle of eating. If you cross the knife and fork on the plate, it can be interpreted as meaning you didn't like the food.If you put the knife and fork together sloping diagonally down (like the hands of a clock at 4:20) it means “I'm done eating, so please remove this plate.”So if you're just pausing, set the knife and fork down on the table, next to the plate.–Steven

  • Steven Capsuto

    One of bread's main purposes in a Spanish meal is as a utensil, used for shoving loose foods onto your fork (rice, peas, etc.). I've been told that using a knife or, worse, a finger to shove said items onto the fork is considered tacky, or at least foreign.

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  • Great tips. I love the last one, so very true and one of the things I love about Spain.I agree on the bread thing, it seems to be bread on the table at home and on a plate at restaurants from my experience. Slurping the milk from your cereal bowl seems to be a no no as well (I still do it away)I always hear that Spanish people don't give good service and don't smile, I've not had that problem more in Spain than anywhere else than other places. I find London very bad on this front…Maybe its my Aussie accent (both in Spanish and English!)

  • These table manners also apply to Portugal!

  • gabriellaopaz

    It's funny, because the longer I live here, the less I actually “see” the no service with a smile. Coming from the American culture, where good business is depended on a false forced smile, I've always felt as if the Spanish tend to be express whatever emotional whim they feel for the day. This has slowly become less of an issue for me the more I live here, because by the end of the day, as long as people are genuine with me, I couldn't be more pleased – not to say that a smile wouldn't be warmly accepted. By the way, is the aussie brit issue really that overt?

  • gabriellaopaz

    Hey Milton! Are there any others you would add to the list that are unique to Portugal?

  • gabriellaopaz

    Good point on the utensils Steven! Definitely make sure the fork and knife are separated if you're still enjoying your meal!

  • Having spent quite a bit of time eating in different parts of Spain, this is as informative as it is amusing. Muy bien Gabriella, or molt bé as our Catalan friends would say (did I get that right?).LuegoRichard

  • It's funny, I'd rather have an honest grumpy person serve me than a false smile person, but that has changed as I get older I think. However, there is also the Aussie habbit of being a smart arse, which usually gets people smiling too. So perhaps I just like the honesty in Spain? Not sure.The aussie/brit thing is an issue at times(i.e. you colonials should be serving my beer, not drinking it!), but for the most part it's just that London is gloomy and a massive city and Melbourne is smaller and generally sunny so people adjust their attitudes accordingly. There

  • “few people will order a glass outside of meal time” ?????You really must leave the coastal regions and venture inland. Come out to Extremadura and observe the locals drinking wine at any time of day….with a bit of tapas of course. Unfortunately it seems the beauty of the sea has brought too many a northerner and their hang ups seem to be catchy.No need for nordic politically correct vaccinations out here….yet

  • Justin

    “No need for nordic politically correct vaccinations out here….yet”What a strange comment Troy. I'm still not sure exactly what you mean, and for all you know Gabriella might well be three quarters Navajo. Slightly insulting to Nordic people if anything. If you could be bothered to read Gabriella's brilliant piece again you'll see that, unlike yourself, she was making an observation – not any kind of judgement, least of all “politically correct”.Like Gabriella, I've also noticed that “locals”, as you like to call them, in my inland and very Spanish town, tend to drink alcohol with meals and tend not to drink it between meals. The only people in my town able to spend all and any hour of the day in bars having a drink are the “parados”, the unemployed. As I'm sure you already know Extremadura has one of the highest rates of unemployment in the European Union, so I imagine the people you have noticed are some of the many Extremeños in this unfortunate position.

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