Why have the Spaniards stopped eating later than the rest of us?

Spain has always been the place where you would have a siesta in the afternoon, eat late and then dance the night away. But now, a once-sacred custom is being abandoned

It’s dark in Alicante’s Teatre club, the music is loud and the air conditioning is on at full blast. Stepping outside to join the people using the excuse of their nicotine addiction to escape the racket, though, the brightness of the sun hits you like a welcome slap. It’s 5.30pm, still almost 30C in the shade and there are tourists walking past in swimming costumes.

What has happened to the Spanish social timetable? This is the country where they famously take a siesta in the afternoons, eat late, go out drinking after midnight and dance until well beyond dawn. In Alicante and certain other Spanish towns, though, things are changing. The traditional Saturday night out now often takes place on Saturday afternoon. They call it el tardeo, a portmanteau of tarde – afternoon – and tapeo to go for tapas.

I started my “night out” at just before 2pm at a terrace bar, La Rotonda, behind the modernist arch of the city´s Mercado Central. Most people aren’t eating yet but the waiters are still practically running to keep up with the demand for trays of cañas, small glasses of beer, from the dozens of tables. My next stop is a nearby cafe called Damasol, for another caña and then a bowl of tangy salpicón de pulpo (octopus in a kind of vinaigrette), followed by a firm chunk of bacalao, salt cod, topped with tomato. At about 4pm the meal is finished off with a “gintonic” on Calle Castaños, a street almost entirely made up of terrace bars, with barely a table vacant. After that, the choice can only be a club such as Teatre or its unfortunately named rival, the Clap. For people who actually like the music they play in clubs, it’s then time to dance, before going to bed at around 11pm.

This was all given the official seal of approval in the summer, with a promotional video produced by the town hall, complete with a video soundtrack from a local indie band. On YouTube, inevitably, you can read indignant comments from residents of Murcia and Albacete insisting that they’ve had their own version of el tardeo for years. In fact, it’s not any kind of official, town-hall-directed phenomenon. According to Manu Garrote, one of the members of Gimnástica, the band on the promo video, it was just a realisation by older twentysomethings that they probably shouldn’t be dancing till 8am. Gradually, both older and younger people started to join them until now, unlike many Spanish towns, Alicante is livelier at 4.30pm on a Saturday than it is at 4.30am.

This is a startling transformation for anyone who is used to sleepy afternoons in Spain. Changes such as this always seem like a big deal because of how closely the social timetable is linked to national identity. Just look at the furore about the liberalisation of licensing laws in the UK. Those changes, which often amounted to little more than some pubs closing at 12am instead of 11pm, have been cited either as our adoption of sophisticated, continental drinking patterns, or as contributory factors in “broken Britain”.

Arguably, though, the hour at which you eat is a stronger social signifier. In the UK, insisting on having a full meal called “supper” at 8pm will still mark you out as irredeemably posh. And it’s noticeable that, underneath the superficial changes to the Alicante timetable, you’ll find a reassuring structure – they’re still eating between two and four. Lunch is still the backbone of Spanish society and that’s as true in San Sebastian and Barcelona as it is in Madrid or Alicante.

In the UK, in contrast, we try to ignore lunch and order our evening meal according to social class: first tea, then dinner, then supper. Would we be happier if we all sat down for a big meal in the middle of the day? Maybe so. In Spain, dancing at 5pm may be possible but, as Manu Garrote puts it: “Gastronomy never changes its timetable. Lunch is sacred.”

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