Vaya Con Dios! A Quest for Vegan Food in Spain
Like the Americans, the Spaniards love their meat and dairy. Con mucho gusto, they consume ducks, sheep, cattle, chicken, pork, and seafood. Spain is an integral part of the Mediterranean cuisine touted for its taste, variety, nutritional completeness, and health benefits. The Mediterranean diet centers around wheat, rice and legumes, greens and vegetables, cheese and yogurt, fish, meat, and eggs, garlic, olive oil, and fruit. It is laced with delicious wines from the grapevines of fertile hills and valleys. Although Spanish cuisine in particular is renowned for its quality and variety, these delights are targeted for the palate of carnivores.
While European Union countries are ahead of the United States in their treatment of farmed animals and regulation of genetic engineering and agricultural chemicals, Spain and its neighbors are far behind in the availability of vegan alternative products. Having traveled throughout the European continent, I find that eating vegan is the most difficult in Spain. With all its Indian and Thai restaurants, London is one of the easiest places for a vegan to eat. In France, good fruits and salads are abundant. In Italy, there is always excellent pizza and pasta. Germany is rough, but major cities like Berlin have world cuisine. In Spain, however, the vegan meets the true test of principles.
Importantly, there are a growing number of vegetarian restaurants in Spanish cities such as Barcelona, Madrid, and Toledo, but they are still few and inconveniently located. Throughout Spain, one finds the amalgam “bar-restaurant” that is not much of either, and the “cafeteria” that is more like a bad diner that serves liquor. Many places don’t even offer meals, but rather the popular menu of “tapas” – a selection of snacks that are all meat or seafood with the exception of bad patatas fritas (French fries) that a high school cafeteria would be ashamed to serve, or patatas bravas, fried potatoes drizzled with hot sauce. Not bad at first try, but a little goes a long way.
If you find ensalada verde, the green salad, you might think you will luck out with some bulky spinach or dark greens mixed with other fresh vegetables. Instead, you will likely get chopped iceberg lettuce with a couple of tomato slices and maybe an olive or two. One edible concoction you can sometimes get is “tostada,” French bread with aceite (olive oil), and some places might even throw on some tomate (tomato sauce) so that you can fantasize you are eating gourmet pizza. You do sometimes find pizza and pasta, but they suck and you may not be able to count the number of times the server’s eyes roll when you ask for pizza sin queso.
Very few restaurants serve fruit; for that, you have to find a produce market. One of the best bets is vegetarian paella, a tasty baked vegetable and rice dish served in a round skillet. Also relatively easy to get is gazpacho, a cold tomato-based soup. One delicious cold drink easily available is horchata, made of boiled almonds flavored with sugar, cinnamon, and lemon. Blessedly, olive oil is a staple in recipes and I quaffed gallons of it with stale rolls. But you can forget about chips and salsa, for that great tradition is hecho en Mexico.
To have any luck at all ordering vegan, you need some Spanish as very few people in the service industry or otherwise speak much English. You must commit to memory, “Yo soy un/una vegetariano/a extremo/a.” You unavoidably stigmatize yourself as an extremist, but “vegan” just doesn't translate. To elaborate, you must say, “No leche, no queso, y no mantequilla” (butter). Despite repeating this mantra at least four times at an Indian fast food joint in Madrid, I received a falafel platter with a sauce obviously contaminated with egg-laced mayonnaise. “Senor,” I cried, "Dije que nada de animal!” to which the clueless waiter replied, “Pero es mayonnaise.”
I fled the restaurant in disgust only to encounter yet another obstacle to gastronomic satisfaction sure to frustrate the vegan gringo. It was 4 pm, and I had already put in a long day of walking with nothing in me but a couple of apples. I felt like the emaciated figure in Kafka’s short story “The Hunger Artist.” I was roaring to eat, but it was siesta time! Restaurants close from around 3-8 pm, or even later. Where Americans like to dine around 6-7 pm, Spaniards don’t eat dinner until mid or late evening. For hours I walked the streets aimlessly in search of at least some more crappy pizza, but to no avail. Around 8 pm, I gave up and settled for a bland falafel sandwich with ketchup at a Turkish fast food dive.
Unlike Americans, who intently close their eyes to the graphic details and images of slaughtering animals for food, Spaniards do not blanch at the thought or sight of eating a rotting corpse. Typical of bar-restaurants is the spectacle of pig legs, from the top of the thigh to the bottom of the foot, hanging behind the front counter. One of the grisly legs is ensnared in a cutting block to slice pieces of flesh for the sandwiches or tapas. The Spaniards apparently love ham, as one regularly passes ham specialty shops called Museo de Jamon that, true to the name of “ham museum,” look like a slaughterhouse inside and feature every imaginable way to dismember, display, and consume a pig. If pig is not to the Spaniard’s taste, there are always the seafood shops that feature a glass window of lobsters, crabs, squid, and other ocean delights waiting for the human command to boil them alive. Author Carol Adams writes about the “absent referent” of animal bodies in food consumption in order to mask the reality of death and suffering. While this may be true for Americans, the animal referent is unflinchingly present for Spaniards enjoying menu delicacies such as “blood pudding” and “brains.”
Like other European peoples such as the Italians and French, Spaniards smoke and drink copiously. But to my observations, Spaniards suffer far more obesity than their continental counterparts. The many obese children and adults I thought were American tourists in fact were natives who have joined the unfortunate ranks of the Chinese, Japanese, Indians, and other cultures in embracing the American-style diet high in animal fat and centered around fast food. Needless to say, McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and other American fast food franchises litter the Spanish landscape, both in large cities such as Barcelona and Madrid and in smaller towns like Segovia.
Europe is hauntingly beautiful in its preservation of an antiquity unknown to citizens of the US. Europe has maintained its medieval towns and castles, and in cities like Granada one can behold the stunning interplay of Renaissance and Moorish architecture. In Rome, the visible traces of history date back not only five or eight centuries, but 25, whereas in the US little can endure the juggernaut of incessant development and the race for the next strip mall.
But Europe increasingly is ensnared between competing cultures of antiquity and modernity where the beautiful architecture is the backdrop of a traffic jam, where cell phones rudely ring in the cathedrals, and where American empires such as McDonalds and the Gap encroach ever deeper into ancient geography and cultures.
There are many signs of hope, however. As noted, there seems to be a steady increase of vegetarian cuisine and restaurants in Europe. More than in the US, there is sensitivity among the politicians and general public about the need to regulate factory farming. There is widespread opposition to globalization, genetic engineering, and the use of chemicals in food, as the US insists on peddling its poisons and Frankenfoods abroad. As evident on sites such as World Animal.Net, there are many organizations in Spain and other European countries attacking bullfighting and other hideous forms of animal abuse.
So if you haven’t been to Spain, go, it is gorgeous. But if you are a vegan, vaya con Dios!