A Gift of the House

Sobremesa is a term common to Spain and parts of Latin America. Translating as “around the table,” the word reflects the act of gathering and lingering beyond the meal. It’s when the dishes are pushed aside, the coffee or liqueur poured and the real conversation begins.

When my husband and I visited the enchanting city of Granada in southern Spain, we witnessed sobremesa everywhere. Tapas bars overflowed with intergenerational crowds—children chased balls on the sidewalks while their parents talked over glasses of wine. Older couples sat together past midnight at Café Futbol, espresso cups before them. At El Pozo, we joined a group of food explorers and dug into revueltos—garlic shoots and tiny shrimp scrambled with eggs—and sandwiches of roast pork. Then, we sat back and chatted.

We were in Granada for Semana Santa, the weeklong festivities that culminate in Easter Sunday. The week unfurls with fervor. Thirty-four church organizations prepare for months for the massive processions that travel through the streets. When we arrived, we naively wondered where to go to see a procession. We soon learned we didn’t need to go anywhere. We’d hear a drum’s deep bass tone and soon after, the crowds would part to make room.

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Men in vivid, long gowns led the groups, with other men in brocade carrying scepters just behind. Sometimes children, tucked in alongside the adults, wore miniature versions of the same dress. Marching bands played mournful songs. Women in black lace mantillas, their wrists wrapped in rosaries, carried candles. By week’s end, the streets were covered in a layer of wax.

The highlight was the pasos, or floats, borne on the shoulders of the young and strong. Flickering with gold and candles, heavy with flowers and religious relics, the floats passed and the crowds hushed and leaned forward to place their hands on the ornate sides. It reminded us that these processions are more than just spectacle. They are a sacred tradition.

If tapas aren’t quite a sacred tradition, in Granada they come close. The city is one of the few places where tapas are still free—considered a gift of the house. With each drink you order, you are handed a small plate of food. And each round brings a different, and some say better, tapa. To encourage you to stay in one bar versus moving to another, the proprietors save the fancier tapas for your later drinks.

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Tapas can be as simple as olives with a few slices of cheese, but often they are far grander. We ate pork stewed in Moroccan spices, heaping plates of fried anchovies, chorizo with a side of salmorejo (a chilled tomato and bread soup that’s like gazpacho’s sturdier cousin), roasted peppers capped with tuna, bread with marbled red ham and a slice of tomato, and plump mussels from the nearby coast. No one rushes you at the table, and people stay out late. Sobremesa is a natural result of a culture that places food and congregation at its core.

Of course, it’s possible to recreate some of that spirit here. After returning from Spain, we invited friends over for a Spanish-style dinner. We tried out versions of some of the food we loved—both tapas and larger platters for sharing. The conversation was lively and guests delighted in seeing what dish we’d carry out next from the kitchen.

To throw your own Spanish party, keep the food simple and the courses coming. Lay out cheeses, bread, olives and cured meats, then try out some of the recipes featured here. Make sure there’s a comfortable place to sit after eating. The point is to linger, and after a good meal, what’s better than that?

By Vivé Griffith