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LIFE IN SPAIN

The secrets of El Menú del Día: The surprising story behind Spain’s fixed-price lunch menu

Madrid resident Paul Burge discovers the story behind Spain's popular Menú del Día and asks - is it on its way out?

El menú del día is a culinary institution in Spain.
El menú del día is a culinary institution in Spain. Photo: Cpgxk/flickr

Wander up and down any street in Spain and you’re bound to see a blackboard propped up outside almost any restaurant announcing ‘Menú del Día‘.

A list of two courses with various dishes for each will have been hastily scribbled down by the chef that morning. And no menú would be complete without the final flourish of, ‘Pan, Bebida Postre o Cafe‘ (Bread, Drink and Dessert or Coffee) followed by an appetite-inducing and implausibly reasonable price.

There is a catch of course. El menú del día is only available from Monday to Friday and as the name suggests only at lunchtimes, normally 2 – 4pm. You’ll also have a fairly limited two or three options for each course. Hence the incredibly good value. I’ve eaten fixed-price menus in Spain for as little as €7. They can be as ‘expensive’ as €15 at more high-end establishments. But the average is around €12. 

So how did this fantastic value lunch menu come about and why is it so popular today? 


A  maincourse of swordfish and potato at Madrid’s El Maño restaurant. Photo: F Govan
 

By the late 1950s Franco realised just how much Spain had to gain economically from tourism. The ‘Spain is different’ marketing campaign of the late 1950s saw an enormous boom in tourism from 2.9 million visitors in 1959 to 11.1 million visitors in 1965.

General Franco’s Minister of Information and Tourism, Manuel Fraga subsequently decided to introduce legislation to implement a standardised format for a fixed-price menu to make sure all visitors could enjoy Spanish cuisine.

Originally it was called El Menú Túristico and was aimed specifically at tourists. El Menú Túristico was made law in Spain on March 17th, 1965 and an official state bulletin from the 29th March 1965 described in excruciating detail what was to be provided by all restaurant owners.

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Accompanying legislation also laid down the law regarding the management of cafeterias, university and factory canteens, as well as restaurant and café cars on trains.

It was inevitable then that the economical fixed-price menú became incredibly popular with Spaniards, and soon spread right across the country. By the early to mid 1970s el menú túristico had become el menú del día and was available in every single town and city in Spain, as it is today.

Yes, el menú del día is a culinary institution in Spain – culinary may sound a little pretentious, as el menú is anything but. Think basic and hearty.

So what’s the format? 


A typical menú del día of starter, main course, dessert, bread and a drink. Photo: F Govan

The menu includes three courses; ‘primer plato’, ‘segundo plato’ and ‘postre’. First and second courses plus dessert. You’ll also be brought an often generous basket of bread.

So what can you expect to eat?  For the first course you’ll be given between two to four dishes from which to choose, usually based on vegetables, eggs or pulses.

The offerings will vary depending on the time of year, as Spaniards love to use fresh seasonal produce. In colder months, think soups, stews or paella.

When the heat kicks-in salmorejo and gazpacho (cold tomato soups of varying viscosity) are common choices along with salads. Meat and fish dishes are mainstays of the second course, often grilled, sometimes fried. You might be lucky enough to find seafood, calamari or prawns on offer too.

And for dessert? Well, they rarely come as a surprise.

Expect a stream of egg-custard style desserts, like natillas, flan or pudding. Arroz con leche is nearly always on the menú too – creamy rice pudding. Personally, I find these options too heavy after eating two substantial courses. So you can always opt for fruit, which will literally be an orange or an apple which you will need to peel yourself!

‘Un surtido de helados’ – a selection of ice creams is also standard. But why do they only ever have vanilla!? If you get really lucky there might be Tarta de Santiago which is a delicious almond-flavoured cake from Galicia.

Will el menú del día be around forever? 


Photo: AFP

Well, it is no longer the law to provide one. Yet, so ingrained has el menú become in the daily rhythm of life it’s hard to imagine it disappearing. It’s true that gentrification, and the closure of family businesses due to retirement are taking their toll on the bargain menu. 

But menú del días are still springing-up in less traditional restaurants. Italian, Chinese, Indian, Senegalese, you name it, they all commonly offer a fixed-price lunch menu, such has it become a national institution. 
 
Paul Burge is a former BBC journalist who moved from Oxford, UK to Madrid in 2013 where he now hosts the highly entertaining When in Spain podcast, a free weekly show all about Spain – culture, travel, lifestyle, work, interviews and much more. Follow Paul’s observations and advice about living in Spain on FacebookInstagram, & Twitter .
 

READ MORE:  Eight steps to dining out like a local in Spain

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LIFE IN SPAIN

What childcare options are available over the summer in Spain?

Kids in Spain get around three months of holiday over the summer, but finding childcare options during this time can be challenging for parents, especially if they have to work. So what is available?

What childcare options are available over the summer in Spain?

Kids in Spain get to enjoy a ten to 12-week summer vacation, starting towards the end of June and lasting until around the second week in September. This is one of the longest summer holidays in Europe.

In the UK, kids get around half of this time with around five or six weeks, while in France they get around eight weeks and in Germany around six weeks.

Unless you are a teacher or are self-employed, most salaried workers in Spain, according to the Workers’ Statue, can only take up to two-weeks vacation at a time, meaning that parents are often stuck with what to do with the kids for the rest of the summer.

If you’re in this situation, what are your options for summer childcare and how affordable is it?

Summer school camps

Most regular schools in Spain offer campamentos de verano or summer camps. This means that your kids can carry on going to their normal school, even after the term ends. But instead of doing their lessons, they’ll get to do fun daily activities, crafts and games, as well as a variety of day trips.

If your children’s school doesn’t offer this option, then there’s always the possibility of signing up to a campamento at another nearby school.

Remember, you’ll need to enrol your kids in advance to make sure they’re able to get a spot.

The price for these is around €70 to €100 per week if your child is going all day, and this typically includes lunch. Be aware that these school summer camps are usually not available during the whole of the summer, so you may need to still organise childcare for the month of August or a couple of weeks in August, if you’re taking your vacation then too.

The advantage of these is that your kids will often get to be with their friends and will know the surroundings already, however it may not really feel like much of a holiday or a break from school for them, if they’re in the same environment. 

Specialised or themed summer camps

Another option, rather than going to a summer camp at a school, is a themed summer camp, based on your kids’ hobbies or the activities they love. There are many different summer camps across the country, focused on everything from sports and languages to music or even theatre.

For example, in Barcelona, the city zoo offers a summer camp, as does FC Barcelona, where kids can learn football from the pros all day.

In Valencia, the Bioparc offers a summer camp, as do a couple of the local outdoor swimming pools.

Try searching online for campamento de verano (summer camp) plus the name of the town or city where you will be, there are options across almost all of Spain.

As these are private companies, not sponsored by the state schools, they typically cost considerably more than the school summer camps.

Expect to pay anywhere upwards from €200 per week, and double this for popular summer camps. The general rule is that the better the facilities, staff and transport, the more expensive it will be. 

Temporary nanny or Au-pair

If summer camps or schools are not an option, or you’d prefer for your kids to get more attention or be around the house, hiring a summer nanny or au-pair is also a good choice.

There are many young people who want summer jobs in order to earn a bit of extra money and many career nannies who may be stuck without a job with their regular family in the summer.

This could be a good chance for your kids to learn another language, by hiring a native speaker from a different country. Many Spanish families hire native English speakers to look after their kids in the summer, so you could hire a Spanish nanny if your kids need to brush up on their language skills or even a French or Italian nanny, if you want them to learn new language skills.

According to Au-Pair agency Au-Pairs.com, the salary of an Au Pair in Spain is €70 per week if you live in the countryside, and €80 per week if you live in the city, which means between €280 and €320 euros per month, if they live in and more if they live out.  In cities such as Madrid and Barcelona, expect to pay a nanny around €10 per hour.

Ask family members for help

Many Spaniards will rely on family members such as grandparents to help look after their kids during the summer holidays.

If you don’t have family members in Spain then during the summer, you may be able to entice some family members to come over and help look after your kids or your children might enjoy a holiday back in your home country, if family members are able to take them in.

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