A Splash of Local Colour: Drinking in Galicia

In Spain, drinking has proven to be a far more protracted affair than in the United States. Bars close far later than in the U.S. equivalents, and people start drinking much earlier, but in a strange way, lighter, too. An anecdote to drop us right in and explain:

With the same dining companion as before (someone, I must add, finds my slip-ups in Spanish and slight cultural differences/confusions sources of unerring hilarity; nice girl), we went to a local bar, ”Zodiac,” I do believe it’s called, before meeting up with a friend of hers at yet another bar. This was around eight or nine at night one weekend, and about a month into my stay here in Spain. Beer and wine are by far the most common drinks to be had on a day-to-day basis (of the alcoholic sort, of course; water, juice, or what ever else is readily available). So consequently for the vast majority of the time, excepting the very sporadic bit of liquor after meals, I only had beer and wine; I wanted a mixed drink.

When the waitress came for our order, I asked for the only drink in Spanish I know. To my admitted embarrassment, that is the humble Cuba Libre. I asked. She gaped slightly. I figured I said it wrong (as is often the case), but turning to my companion, she was already turning red and shuddering slightly. A fast learner but slow comprehender, I knew something was amiss, but could not fathom exactly what it was. Is a Cuba Libre not known in Spain? Is it something somehow frowned upon, like asking for an Irish Car Bomb in the UK? I pleaded for clarification after the waitress walked off -not before giving me a funny look- with our order for my companion’s plain Coke and my Cuba Libre.

As it turns out, nobody has mixed drinks before 10 or 11 p.m.

Oops.

You can, sure, but you’re apparently seen as some kind of wild drunk. Or so-I-have-been-told. As most people in the U.S. probably well know, a rum and coke with a friend at 8 p.m. isn’t exactly scandalous. Of course, slugging them down is a different story (usually), but I had no intention of slugging my one down, never mind more after that point (the more that I had no intention of having anyways). I just wanted a slightly different taste than beer or wine for once. But oh-ho, I was quite mistaken in that regard. When bars stay open until four or five in the morning, people out here typically space out their drinks remarkably well, at least until the floodgates of liquor are opened at 10 or so. A new cultural lesson, and a cautionary tale to you whilst in Galicia. In other parts of Spain? I’m not sure if it’s the same. During my weekend in Madrid I only drank with Galicians, so I have no outside perspective to influence my observations. I deal in strictly observed objectivity, don’t you know.

As far as beer goes, most locations have very little selection here. Most locations serve the local brands over other options for both pride and (possibly more importantly) cost reasons. To me, this is totally merited, but to me there is also reason for some variation. It’s a kind of situation sort of akin to the abundance of pilsners in Prague. In spirit, yes it’s the same concept, but perhaps not quite in execution. In Lugo, the most usual choices are “Estrella Galicia (basically ‘Galician Star’),” and it’s stronger cousin “1906 (still of the Estrella Galicia brand),” and “Mahou.” All are all right in their own regard, but I’m not personally wild about them. They seem to lack a particular defining note or character, but credit where credit is due, their tastes are leagues above any light beer or American name-brands like Budweiser or Miller (and I would personally say Sam’s Boston Lager, but I have my own issues with the Sam’s brand as a whole, so feel free to argue that one; I hold firm with the others). They’re an entirely respectable beer, just nothing really flashy; nothing I’d write home about. Well, aside from this, of course. As a low-level beer snob, personality is a key for me to give it multiple purchases, yet Estrella’s otherwise lack of real individuality -with little choice of other options in most bars- is a slight disappointment. I like it, don’t get me wrong, I just don’t expect myself pining for a glass of Estrella when I’m in other locales, like I do with Czech pilsners or certain American stouts.

A keen observer, however, will note that whining about Spanish beer is really a cheap shot when their wine is where the quality is found. Indeed, the wines are particularly fantastic, and I have been dropped into the lucky occurrence that the family I’m currently living with make their own home-made wine. The circumstances, as they are, could very easily be far, far worse. Red wine, as a quick note, is typically far more common than white, especially for home-vinters. I recently has my first home-made white wine in Orbezai (near Lugo), and it was actually extremely interesting. Slightly fizzy, and had a strange, almost floral sweetness that reminded me very pleasantly of a mead more than a grape-based white wine.

Another local libation is aguadiente, a sort of unaged brandy. It is easily found in stores, but it is also apparently often-distilled in homes, especially if they already make wine. The flexibility of this liquor is impressive, as Galicians utilize it in any of at least six different ways at any given point. Primarily, you can have it as chupitos (shots), which really is the path of least resistance when concerning liquor. Occam’s Razor to intoxication? Anyway, another method is a combination with sugar and coffee to create a slightly thicker, more liqueur-like drink (appropriately named licor de café). Yet another is infusing aguadiente with cream to make a sort butterscotch-y drink. Think of a less creamy Bailey’s, and you’re in the same ballpark. I’d say this stuff is quite a bit better. Yet another is a beautiful blend of aguadiente, orange peel, apple slices, heaping spoonfuls of sugar, all poured into a hardened clay bowl and set ablaze. Quemada, it’s called. Letting the azure flames settle as you stir the toiling brew, once they snuff out, the quemada is ready to drink. I keep being told the alcohol burns off in the course of the burning process, but having one of the piping hot glasses and it’s residual burn as it courses down your throat very quickly tells you that not all of the heat is from the flames; a good some of the alcohol has very readily survived to be consumed. Delicious, but dangerous if caught unaware.

On the drier side of the street, coffee is apparently wildly popular in Galicia. With breakfast, you should have coffee. After lunch, you should have coffee. After dinner, yes, you should have coffee. Not strictly against coffee, I’m admittedly just far more a tea man than anything else. Even so, coffee is served in a rather interesting manner here. It’s not quite like in the U.S., where you expect the typical, “ye standard l” coffee mug. Possible, sure, but from what I’ve seen, unusual. Here, you’re given just a few sips, generally, and not much else. More often than not is that in casual settings, it’s simply served in a glass, not a mug. It’s not even like it’s particularly strong coffee, like an espresso, but all the same, a normal amount would fill no more than a fifth or a fourth of a U.S. coffee mug.
In restaurants and cafés, it’s the same deal. Order a coffee, and it’s a little shot’s worth of joe, and nothing more. Cafe con leche: same thing. You can order a larger mug, but it’s still shy of the U.S. standard. Another subtle example of my country’s often-ridiculed “generous” portion sizes, I’ve come to sadly realize. As for the quality to the quantity, the message is a little lost on me. As a tea guy, it seems like it’s enough coffee to get the bitter bite on your tongue, but not enough to get the caffeine-related “benefits,” so to speak. More of a personal gripe than anything else, I’ll readily admit. Tastes totally fine, possibly good for all I know, but short of ersatz coffee, most coffees are quite same-samey to me, especially if you partake with sugar and milk.

Oh, and of course much like “Irish Coffee” there is “Galician coffee,” which is coffee and aguadiente. I told you: a thousand uses of that bloody liquor.

Now, chocolate. Oh my word, chocolate (think “chaw-ko-lahtay,” not English pronunciation of “chaw-ko-lit”). An undeniably winter-friendly ambrosia. One of those drinks/experiences that will be sorely missed when I leave this little region of the world. Basically, it is a cup of super-thick, yet drinkable chocolate. It’s more than drinking, though, it’s consuming. During a cold day, it’s a salve to sooth the frozen bones and chattering teeth. With multiple styles, mixes, and combinations (regular, dark chocolate, white chocolate, black and white chocolate, chocolate and ice cream, mint, coconut, hazelnut, toffee, and on and on and on), it’s hard not to buy it on top of anything else you order anywhere you go. For an average price of about €1.80-2.10, it’s so hard to go wrong in partaking whenever the inclination tickles you. Lazily filling a small coffee cup, the thick mix of chocolate and milk or cream just lounges, magnanimously waiting to be stirred by a most tiny of spoons. Depending on one’s level of indulgence any given day, one can consume it spoonful by leaden spoonful in a sweet, timely decadence. Or, in a fit of impertinence to its dulcet majesty, one may upset its saintly repose directly from its crystalline chaise lounge, née glass. Yeah, so, I’m fond of this stuff.

I’m simply fascinated by the web of similarities and differences this place continuously has to offer, and indirectly, how often I am able to stumble my way into situations where my glaring, non-Spanish heritage puts another difference in glaring clarity. Learing experiences, they are; they build character, they say. Hark, and be aware of the amusing pratfalls of new cultures and experiences! Best I can say is “sod it, and see for yourself!” If not, well, you can always come back, cough cough, I won’t mind.

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