The 'sobremesa'

The growing interest in the gastronomy of almost any country is unstoppable, although it was not so long ago that when travelling in mainland Europe, at least, no-one bothered looking for a famous restaurant. There weren't any. Just a restaurant with acceptable food was sufficient. Now every tourist knows that Spain's national diet consists mainly of paella, omelette and ham, later learning that gazpacho is a cold soup made from raw vegetables, and that migas (fried breadcrumbs with bits added) is originally a Muslim dish, and that pimientos de piquillo (small fried green peppers) only grow in Navarra, etc.

But when a Danish food writer asked me the other day about the meaning of the word sobremesa, matters grew complicated. In the first place the word has no translation, logical perhaps since the concept does not exist outside Spain. Trying to describe to a northern European or American that the sobremesa involves a group of men (usually) staying seated at the same table where they have eaten lunch, engaging in small talk for hours on end, is hard to comprehend. Why stay with the dirty glasses, napkins, and general detritus of a long lunch to merely talk? Of course the participants do indeed continue drinking (and smoking cigars if they can) although usually whisky, gin and tonic, etc, and more coffee, but neither the waiters nor the owner of the restaurant make any attempt to move them on. Indeed, any break up of the magic circle is considered terrible manners, as the intimate spell must not be broken and no-one leaves until the end. Often the sobremesa (literally 'on the table') lasts longer than the actual meal. No, in common with words like siesta, chistorra and sukrat, the meaning, as well as the custom itself, remains eternally intact.