It’s a familiar sight in Spain, especially on Saturday and Sunday lunchtimes: large groups of Spaniards sitting around restaurant tables, surrounded by empty coffee cups and the debris of a big meal, chatting and laughing with apparently no intention of getting up from their chairs. This post-meal socialising (usually after lunch, although it may happen after dinner too) can last for hours, and is such an integral part of eating in Spain that there’s a Spanish word for it: sobremesa.
Literally meaning ‘about table’, there is no translation of this word or concept in English – and for good reason. In the UK, when a meal is finished, it’s time to leave the table and get on with the day, no matter how enjoyable the food and company might have been. Post-meal socialising may occur, but it tends to take place in a separate venue – a pub or bar, for example – and have a very different feel to the preceding lunch or dinner. This is precisely why British expatriates living in Spain can find sobremesa hard to adjust to at first.
Spaniards say this after-meal activity is important for several reasons. If dining in someone else’s home, it can be a sign of gratitude to your host, to stay put for ages after you’ve finished your meal, chatting and cracking jokes. Many leading Spanish chefs also say they consider lunch service to be a success if they see diners in their restaurant enjoying sobremesa after eating.
Inspired by good food and plenty of wine, sobremesa can be a time of heightened conviviality in conversation – a time when people open up to one another in ways they wouldn’t normally. The intimacy and ease with which people chat during this part of the afternoon is often accompanied by post-coffee copas; gin and tonic and rum and Coke are particularly popular drinks for sobremesa time. After-lunch socialising is also usually the time for jokes, unrestrained laughter and general rowdiness.
In essence, sobremesa can be seen as an expression of the Spanish attitude towards life. It’s about not rushing a good meal in order to take pleasure in the company of friends and family, and enjoying these things without feeling like you should be doing something more ‘important’. Indeed, in Spain, these are the most important things in life and sobremesa is just one way Spaniards celebrate them.