Travel Guide to Portugal

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

By Gabriella Opaz

Recently, we were asked to expand upon customary table manners in Spain. As this is a relatively subjective question, considering that Spain is infamous for casting rules to the wayside, I’ve done my best to compile the top 12 table manners as I’ve experienced them in Spain. Mind you, these are not only debatable, but written with a loving tongue-in-cheek tone, so please read with a heavy grain of salt.



“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 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 a 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.

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.

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