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El Almuerzo: The Spanish Version of Paddington Bear’s Elevenses

almuerzoWhen I was a child, I was enthralled with the persona of Paddington Bear.  My sister had the books on tape (remember cassettes?) and I would borrow them over and over, keeping them on as quietly as I could long past my bedtime to hear about the adventures of this little Peruvian bear. Looking back now, I can see why he was so appealing to me: he was free. I mean, that bear did just about whatever he wanted – he didn’t go to school, for example, which to my young self was a shining beacon of liberty that kept my eyes alight in the dark.

Why bring this up?  Well, it’s just that life in Spain keeps bringing Paddington and his duffle coat shuffling back to mind. The other day, I enjoyed a fabulous almuerzo, and suddenly, understood the enormous appeal of a meal that can really only be translated into English as ‘elevenses‘.

Up until researching this article, (yes, believe it or not I do actually research some of this stuff) I thought that elevenses was an invention unique to the Paddington Bear books; not so. The dubious teachings of the internet tell me that this is, in fact, a well-established tradition in Britain.  And, in a way, so it is in Spain.

When I was first learning Spanish in Madrid, I recall learning the word almuerzo and being told that it wasn’t used much. I put it out of my mind and there it stayed until recently. Katie, my wife, and I are not big on breakfast, and often end up just having coffee. That makes our late lunches seem really far away some mornings, especially now that we have to get Oscar up relatively early for school. The numerous chalk boards offering an almuerzo popular started to get our attention.

There was one place in particular offering a deal that seemed just too good to be true: a drink, sandwich and coffee for 3 Euros.  At those prices our expectations weren’t high, but we tried to keep an open mind. In the end, we enjoyed a decent glass of local white wine, a far-above-average sandwich (chosen from numerous options) and a coffee all served by two of the friendliest waitstaff we’ve encountered. We left completely content and convinced that we would soon be exploring the almuerzo further.

Where and When

Here in Valencia, it seems that a lot of people are having elevenses. Unlike Paddington Bear, and the other children’s characters that indulge in the British version (Winnie the Pooh, for example), this snack usually comes with a beer or glass of wine and strong coffee. The one that I had the other day was quite substantial, more a light lunch than a mid-morning snack as it’s often described.  Conclusion: almuerzo ? elevenses.

Six months in Barcelona didn’t expose me to the word almuerzo at all and I can’t even find the equivalent in Catalan, though they do use a word – berenar (merendar in Spanish) – for the afternoon version.  When I searched through a gastronomic dictionary provided by a site about Madrid, almuerzo wasn’t even listed.  I’m not sure if anyone in Spain , besides the Valencians, is in the almuerzo habit at all.

However, in some countries in Latin America almuerzo is the name for lunch, the largest meal of the day.  And I even found one Chilean who asserted that in place of a formal dinner, the custom in his region is to eat a light meal that they call once.  It’s very curious that they are calling a meal eaten between seven and nine in the evening, ‘eleven’. Paddington Bear at work again?

As a child, I was always fascinated by Paddington’s origins in ‘darkest Peru‘, a description more colourful than informative.  And now I find myself drawn to a meal that seems virtually relegated to equal obscurity in Spain. The thought is a nice accompaniment to my ‘elevenses’ taken sometime between 10 am and noon on days when I just can’t make it through to lunch.

Cheers!

Ivan Larcombe

Ivan loves wine and food almost as much as he loves writing
about them. Next on the list is hearing from interested readers: he
welcomes comments and visitors to his blog, Ivan In Valencia.

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