Why Spain is Great #2 – The Desire To Share

Prawns, gambas, food in Spain

Let’s stick with eating and drinking, and look at another reason why Spain is great/the Spanish are great.

There is something wonderful about going out to a bar or restaurant with friends, and ordering a few different plates of ‘raciones‘. Like a larger version of tapas, raciones, as you probably know, are just a big plate of only one thing – jamon, calamares, cheese, gambas (pictured above)…. and the idea is to order a few of these and share them.

Everyone picks a bit from one plate, a bit from another, and keeps eating until there’s no need to order any more as everyone is full and contented.

I’ve known non-Spaniards, including myself at the beginning of my time in Spain, to be perplexed by this, even to feel exceedingly anxious in fact at this whole concept – some people just want to have their own plate of food without anyone else attacking it… that way you know just how much you are getting, and no-one is going to start stealing it from you!

How nice it is when you get over that attitude, and really really start to share, without a single worry about whether the person sitting opposite you is going to have one more croqueta than you, one more bit of finest jamon… I have to confess that even now, the selfish Brit in me still has his eye on that last croqueta, occasionally feeling pained to see it open to the table… It’s something I’m working hard on!

But the sharing doesn’t stop with the actual food, it carries on into that nightmare of nightmares in many cultures… the division of the bill.

Amongst the Spaniards I have met, one of two things will happen.

1) There is an almighty argument about who should have the pleasure of paying the entire amount, to invitar everyone else – this can go on for up to 5 or 10 minutes, getting fairly aggressive, until one party gives way, and either the bill is paid by just one of the party who is delighted to treat the rest, or…:

2) The bill is shared equally amongst those present, no matter what anyone had to eat or drink! There is none of the famous ‘who had the prawns’ careful analysis of every single thing that every single person ate, it’s just “it’s 40 Euros, there’s four of us, so 10 each” – end of story.

Occasionally someone will arrive very late and eat much less, in which case they’ll be either be paid for by everyone else, or will put in a token amount, but the rest will always be split, evenly, without a hint of fuss. It is a quite enormous relief and saves an untold amount of stress.

So here’s to complete, relaxed, contented sharing! Food, bills, wine, good times… just another reason why Spain is so extraordinarily great!

23 thoughts on “Why Spain is Great #2 – The Desire To Share

  1. Graham

    Again another great thing about Spain. In Asturias (But I haven’t found it in Valencia) the saying for the last croqueta, prawn or whatever is “Yo el Gallego”. The Gallego always takes the last one.

  2. Nicky

    I love the sharing and always take great delight in introducing visitors to this, along with “tinto de verano”.
    It is true, over the years you forget that sharing plates of food is not the “British” way and I do get met with the odd look every now and then.

  3. Parubin

    Great post.

    Actually the last piece of food (i.e. the last croqueta, the last gamba, the last bit of jamón, the last achovie…) is usually left out because everyone is too embarrassed to be the last one to finish up the shared plate. Because of this the last piece in a shared plate is called ‘la de la vergüenza’.

    As for paying, I’d say, most times among a group of friends the bill is shared equally no matter what everyone has actually ordered, but there are a few generally accepted exceptions :

    1) If the group of friends is a small one (I’d say up to three or even four at the most) someone will speak up and take care of the entire bill. The others will be expected (but not explicitely required to) to to the same thing in the next occasion, that could be in the next bar in a few minutes (in case of pincho-crawling which is quite common) or maybe it even isn´t scheduled.

    2) At a business meal (within the company or with an outside party) someone (usually the top ranking member of one of the parties) will take care of the bill.

    3) At a family meal, head of the family will take care of the entire meal, no matter if his children are 30 year old grown ups who make more money than him/her. Trouble arises when there are TWO head of the families (i.e. eating with wife/husband, parents and in-laws). This controversy is easily solved if the two head of families live different cities. Then, the host (him in whose city the meal takes place) will usually pay the bill. In any other situation the matter will have a dodgy solution.

    I suppose there are a few more exceptions to the general rule of equally-sharing but I cannot come up with them right now.

    What is never done (it would look very odd and even unfriendly) is to keep track of your own individual food and drink orders and pay only for them.

  4. Denise

    In León, the last croqueta etc, is “la verguenza”, and only the “sin verguenza” will eat it….
    Another great thing about Spain. In contrast, when my father (British) comes over, he inevitably orders a “plato combinado” and guards it jealously from all the other people at the table. It’s revealing that Spanish has a word for people sharing the table (“comensal”), whilst English doesn’t, really.

  5. xoanwahn

    Since I live in Galicia, I found Graham’s comment really funny. Even here, the idea of the last piece being ‘vergonzosa’ is quite predominant and no one ever wants to take it. This is actually something I grew up with back in Miami so I assume it’s common in Canarias as well, since that is where my family is originally from.

    I also think that the word ‘comensal’ is quite interesting. A lot of English words approximate it, I suppose, but every one I can think of a) never really fits and b) has a more appropriate Spanish synonym. Crazy that.

    And yes, we do seem to share a lot here, don’t we. A lot of different foods are just sort of placed at the center of the table and everyone is expected to dig in. It’s nice but it can be hectic when teenagers are involved.

  6. bill (Legazpi)

    I was brought up in the UK and was always told not to grab the last piece of food, and instead politely ask first. And most British people I know are the same, so it never struck me as a particularly Spanish thing. In my experience people in the UK also normally split the bill by simply dividing it by the number of people present. I don’t ever remember having to work out the part which I had consumed. So I don’t find this too unusual.

    As for the argument over who pays for the whole thing, I find that very Spanish. I also find it at best tiresome, and often just plain pathetic. Sorry, but I can’t count the number of times when I’ve had to sit through these stupid arguments. I don’t consider it to be “sharing” or “generous” at all, because it’s just someone trying to deny somebody else the chance to contribute so they can get “one up” on them.

  7. Parubin

    @ Bill :
    Agreed.

    The best way is always split the bill up by dividing the number of people, unless there is an extreme degree of friendship and the number of people is small, in which case it doesn´t really matter who pays the bill. Someone will nicely take care of if whithout the tiresome and absurd discussion over who pays.

    Actually the argument over who takes care of the bill usually happens when there is not this level of close frienship, and it is very often annoying, because the argument does not come from true sincerity and it is just a way of showing off or getting one up.

    I, too, find this arguments over taking care of the bill, when they happen, very unconfortable, but they never arise between true friends, I have to say.

  8. Tom

    @Denise & xoanwahn – actually, the word in English is ‘commensal’. But your point, thatg we don’t use it, stands: it’s clearly something we used to do more.

    Personally, I’m more than happy to share salads, tapas, ham, cheese and other delicacies. But there are times when commensality is somewhat out of place, like in a ‘proper’ a la carte restaurant. In such places, I think it’s fair to order one’s dish and guard it, albeit without jealousy.

    Oh, and paying the bill is also often a symbol of status, but not always in a negative way. Guess how many times my in-laws have let me pay the bill in seven years of fine (and not so fine) dining? They pay not to make me feel small, but because they can more easily afford to.

  9. franco

    “In my experience people in the UK also normally split the bill by simply dividing it by the number of people present. I don’t ever remember having to work out the part which I had consumed.”
    Dito, I have never had friends/relatives adding up just what they have had, it’s simply split right down the middle, no matter what anyone has had. Alternatively, if we eat with friends, they pay for everything, normally without us knowing, then we do similar next time we are eating out. Raciones lend themselves more to being shared than say your average UK meal, but we always do similar when in a Chinese/Indian restaurant, order all sorts, and share it.

  10. BrianA

    Many of my nights out in the UK used to involve a”kitty” when everyone chipped in a sum of money and this “pot” was held by one person to pay for food/drink. Sort of the Spanish way in reverse.

  11. Colin

    Graham,

    Here in Galicia, the last item on the plate is known as la verguenza gallega. Now I understand why . . . .

  12. Bill (Legazpi)

    @BrianA – the Spanish I know often do a “kitty” as well, but usually for excursions, weekends away, etc when more than one bill will be shared

  13. xoanwahn

    @Tom – Thanks for that! I honestly didn’t even know that word existed. I think if I used it with a group of my English-speaking friends, they would all just look at me and laugh…which probably means that one will just get stored in my head for now.

  14. gary

    I love the sharing – what never ceases to amaze me is where the time goes when you share raciones the spanish way. You sit down to share a few platters at nine and before you know it they’re sweeping up round you and its way after one!!

  15. gary

    Where the honour system does apply in England (in the north at any rate) is when a group of blokes go out together on a regular basis. Say there are five of them and they have six drinks in a round – someone will pay twice in a night. Like paribins example – the lads will make sure that the same bloke doesnt catch the bad end of the round every week, nothing is agreed – it just happens.

  16. Mo

    I´ve never experienced any oneupmanship of this kind. I just find Spaniards incredibly generous and relaxed concerning food and drink, as Ben says.

  17. Gabriel

    Visiting my relatives back in Galicia, I learned not to take the last piece of food on a plate (not that unusual a concept in the United States either, btw) because that was “la verguenza del gallego.” Galicians, it was said, were too humble to take the last morsel.

    So I found the saying from Asturias (“Yo, el gallego.”) contradictory to my own experience. I’m guessing it’s the result of friendly rivalry among neighbors.

  18. Richardksa

    @BrianA y @Bill: Among my Spanish friends, and I assume everywhere in Spain, the “kitty” is called a “”Bota”. A Boot.
    When escorting a group of non spanish around Madrid, which I do often, I make a point of casually introducing the subject of bill sharing very early on. Then they know the rules!!!

  19. Bill (Legazpi)

    @Richard – thanks – I had it in my head that it was called a “bote” (jar) but I expect I just misheard it

  20. Ben Post author

    @Richard and Bill – Marina and friends have always called it a Bote, but there’s no reason why both shouldn’t be right!

  21. Espanglish

    I love the Spanish custom of “invitar.” It is clear up front who is footing the bill for the night and I don’t find it one bit of “upsmanship.” I think that it is a kind and gracious manner to invite friends to dine with you.

    I do remember eating with our friends, a Spanish couple, in El Puerto and the whole thing dissolving into she and I having a silly argument that went “que si” “que no” “que si” until she finally said “Look, when we made the plans to go out, I clearly said ‘we invite you to eat with us tonight.’” The matter (apparently) was settled before we ever went out and I just didn’t know it. :-)

  22. Lime

    My Latin teacher said once that Spanish table customs reflect even in vocabulary: Spanish verb “comer”, unlike other romanic languages like French (“manger”) or Italian (“mangiare”) comes from the expression cum + edere, which means “eat whith (somebody)”. I found that quite interesting, as eating alone (modern life changes apart) is seen quite pitiful and strange. So many cultures eat, but only Spaniards “comen”.

    PS: Sorry for my mistakes in English, it isn’t my first language.

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