We’re just back from five days in Northern Spain, mostly checking out old haunts from when I lived there 32 years ago, but taking a look at the coffee and tea scene too.
Not a drop of rain fell in Spain while we were there, neither in valley nor in plain, but being in the Basque Country most of the time (we visited Bilbao, San Sebastian and Pamplona), we did see a lot of berets, though mostly confined to older men, and definitely more common in working class Bilbao than the more gentrified (and studenty) San Sebastian.
I wonder how many of the old beret-bearing blokes used to have coffee as youngsters in some of the old bars we visited. The very fact that two of the most sumptuous cafés we tried – in Bilbao and Pamplona – have been serving quality coffee for over 100 years shows how Spain has a long tradition of coffee going back about as far as Italy (The cappuccino may have come from Italy, but the cortado is very definitely Spanish, and all of us know how to order a café con leche, however poor our linguistic skills beyond that).
But that tradition is why it’s so easy to find decent coffee wherever you go in Spain, whether it’s a posh place dating back to 1871 (we’ll highlight that one in our separate blog piece on Bilbao) or a simple bus station caff (San Sebastian).
Apart from a lovely little family-run coffee shop in Pamplona where they roast their own coffee, we didn’t really find any speciality coffee shops along the lines of what they call ‘artisan’ or ‘third wave’ in the UK, but maybe there is less need for a ‘third wave’ in a country where the quality has always been good?
Funnily enough it was in San Sebastian that we had our only experience of poor service (ironically the nearest we found anywhere to what we’d recognise as a coffee shop in the UK), proving yet again that good coffee alone is not enough to make a coffee shop attractive. But it was also in San Sebastian where we happened upon a place we liked so much we managed to pay three visits in our short 48 hour stay in town. More on that place in the San Sebastian blog later…
But the big surprise in Spain was the tea!
We were amazed how easy it was to get good quality loose leaf tea in all sorts of cafés. And how common it is these days for a Spaniard to be seen ordering tea at the bar (something that was almost unheard of when I lived there 32 years ago).
Judging by how many shops there are selling tea (but not serving up a cuppa, sadly), Spaniards have also taken to tea in a big way for consumption at home. In fact, the tea retail outlet was far more common on the high streets we saw this week than in any UK high street I’ve visited in the last few years.
And the thing is, even in cafés that don’t specialise in tea, it’s quite common to find good loose leaf tea in a beautiful stone or iron pot.
If you’re into a classic British-style cuppa, you may need to ask for cold milk to go with your tea, but nobody bats an eyelid when you do, and some of specialist tea rooms we did visit (in Pamplona, and over the border from San Sebastian, in Hendaye in France) had a great selection of other teas like puerhs, oolongs, white or green teas, which only the best tea rooms in Britain tend to stock.
We also found a wonderful Egyptian tea room in Bilbao, where the tea is served from fantastic Syrian tea pots. More on that when we blog Bilbao next, but how often do you get to an Egyptian tea room in the UK (outside Edgware Road anyway)?
So Spain certainly came up with some wonders (as did our little foray into France).
But don’t get me started on the timing of the Spanish routine. I’d forgotten just how out of synch we can be. From tip-toeing round our B&B because we were up at 8am before anyone else, through the oh-so-long ‘siesta’, when most cafés and tea rooms are closed (how strange is that??), to the extraordinary evening schedule: at 7pm, when the sea front at San Sebastian is packed with pre-dinner walkers, most of Britain is already on their pudding.
We got to restaurants for dinner as soon as they allowed us at 7.30pm, but nobody else came in till after 8.30pm, and presumably many diners only start their aperitifs at 10pm, with bed some time around midnight, at least judging by what time most of Spain gets up in the morning…
Ah well, on the plus side, it ALWAYS seems to be the right time for tea or coffee in Spain. And this was a great little trip, as we in the Cuppa? team prepare for a much bigger voyage set to start later this year (but more on that as the date approaches…)