‘I pay €15 for a few potatoes’: What it’s like being a vegetarian in Spain?

With news that Barcelona has recently opened its first vegetarian and vegan butchers, writer Esme Fox, who lives in the city explains what it’s like being a vegetarian living in Spain and how it’s changed over the years.

'I pay €15 for a few potatoes': What it's like being a vegetarian in Spain?
Being a vegetarian in Spain. Photo: Esme Fox

Veggies Farmers Butchers is the first vegan and vegetarian butchers in Barcelona and opened its doors last week in the heart of the Gracia neighbourhood. They offer everything from veggie burgers and vegan chorizo to plant-based meatballs and even vegan cheeses. 

But while things are changing on the vegetarian and vegan food scene in Spain, for people like me who don’t eat meat, fish or seafood, it’s still a challenge and there’s still a long way to go. 

Yes, it’s true that there are some Spanish dishes that are naturally vegetarian, but these are very few and far between. It’s also true that today, most major Spanish cities will also have a couple of vegetarian restaurants – many more if you live in larger cities such as Madrid or Barcelona.

But if you’re going out to eat with other people, they don’t always want to have to go to the one or two vegetarian restaurants with you all the time.

When it comes to tapas, the obvious ones you can get in Barcelona in most places are patatas bravas, tortilla de patatas and pimientos de Padrón (fried small green peppers) and usually some type of cheese such as Manchego. Occasionally some places may have a few extra international additions such as hummus or guacamole with nachos.

Unfortunately, in my very local neighbourhood of Barcelona, bravas or tortilla de patatas is about all I can get, as most places don’t even offer the peppers or the cheese.

When I go out for tapas with my Spanish friends, they usually split the bill and expect everyone to pay an equal amount. I often feel disgruntled at having to pay €10 to €15, when all I had were a few potatoes and know I will have to eat dinner back at home later.

When I lived in Andalusia, the tapas were much better for vegetarians, and menus inevitably included things such as berenjenas con miel (battered aubergines drizzled with cane honey), patatas alioli (a garlic potato salad), goat’s cheese with red peppers and gazpacho (cold soup made from tomatoes, peppers, garlic and cucumbers) or salmorejo (similar, but a lot thicker and made with bread) and espinacas con garbanzos (spinach with chickpeas).

When it comes to main dishes, it’s even more difficult to find vegetarian options. The main ones that come to mind are vegetable paella, pisto in Andalusia (similar to ratatouille), tortilla (omelette) or escalivada (roasted aubergine, red peppers and onions) on toast in Catalonia.

Escalivada with goat’s cheese on toast. Photo: Esme Fox

However, most typical Spanish restaurants will only serve one of these dishes if you’re lucky, and more often than not the only vegetarian dish on the menu will be a salad, but even then I’ll have to ask them to leave out the tuna. And when it comes to paella, most places will only serve one between two, meaning you have to convince whoever you’re with to order the vegetarian one instead of the seafood or meat ones.

Very occasionally, there may be huevos rotos (broken eggs) with potatoes and grilled peppers or pisto instead of the ham or the sausage versions or if it’s in season in autumn – a wild mushroom risotto (it’s a very good day when I find one of those).

It’s very rare that I’ll find a menu of the day which includes any vegetarian dishes at all, meaning that most of these are out for me too. 

That is of course if I go out for Spanish food, but living in Barcelona means I have access to excellent restaurants selling a range of international cuisines. Most of the time I choose to go out for Mexican, Thai, Japanese, Italian, Vietnamese, Korean or anything else where I have a choice of different dishes.

I just know that when people come to visit and want to eat at typically Spanish restaurants all week, I’ll be eating a lot of potatoes and salad.  

But if you live in small town or village without access to international food, being a vegetarian in Spain can still be challenging.

But things have changed a lot since I moved to Spain and continue to change rapidly, particularly when it comes to the offering in supermarkets. Back in 2014, you couldn’t even buy veggie burgers in the typical Spanish supermarkets, but today I can buy everything from veggie burgers and sausages to tofu and even veggie or vegan cold cut style slices to put in sandwiches.

In 2016, Barcelona officially declared itself as a ‘veggie friendly’ city, meaning that it would encourage residents to embrace a meat-free diet at least one day a week and produce a vegetarian guide for visitors. While the change did not happen instantly, things have been changing in the last four years. 

There’s now even Spanish company, which is making its own vegan, meat alternative. Heura Foods is a plant-based startup from Barcelona founded by Marc Coloma and Bernat Añaños, which aims to change the food system into a more sustainable one. They make both plant-based chicken and plant-based burgers and meatballs to sell in supermarkets and restaurants across the country.

Spanish chain restaurant Honest Greens offers a 90 percent plant-based menu. Photo: Dan Convey

I’ve also seen restaurant start-ups such as Honest Greens come on the scene, which has a 90 percent plant-based menu, but doesn’t necessarily target itself as a vegetarian or vegan restaurant. The company opened its first location in Madrid in 2017, but it wasn’t until it expanded and opened a branch in Barcelona in 2019 when I discovered it. Since then, this healthy restaurant serving gluten-free, vegan, plant-based and paleo dishes has become so popular with both locals and the city’s international crowd that it has opened up two more branches.

In a study by The Eco Experts in 2020, it was revealed that Spain ranked number 13 on the list of the best countries for vegans and vegetarians in Europe, surprisingly, it even came ahead of Germany, France and Greece. The best countries for vegetarians and vegans were Switzerland, Finland and Norway, while the worst country was Portugal. 

Spain may have a way to go yet before it compares with Switzerland or Finland, but all this signifies that the vegetarian and vegan food movement in Spain is changing faster than ever before. In fact, it was only in July of this year that Consumer Affairs Minister Alberto Garzón called on Spaniards to consume less ‘carne’ to protect their personal health as well as the future of the planet.

READ ALSO: ‘Eat less meat’: Minister calls on Spaniards to cut down on carnivorous habits

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Does Spain have a dog poo problem?

Many foreigners in Spain complain that the streets are full of dog faeces, but is that actually true and what, if anything, is being done to address it?

Does Spain have a dog poo problem?

Spain is a nation of dog lovers.

According to the country’s National Institute of Statistics (INE), 40 percent of Spanish households have a dog.

In fact, believe it or not, the Spanish have more dogs than they do children.

While there are a little over 6 million children under the age of 14 in Spain, there are over 7 million registered dogs in the country. 

But one bugbear of many foreigners in Spain is that there’s often a lot of dog mess in the streets, squares and parks.

The latest estimates suggest it’s as much as 675,000 tonnes of doodoo that has to be cleaned up every year in Spain.

Many dog owners in Spain carry around a bottle of water mixed with detergent or vinegar to clean up their dog’s urine and small plastic bags to pick up number twos.

And yet, many owners seem to either turn a blind eye to their pooches’ poo or somehow miss that their pets have just pooed, judging by the frequency with which dog sh*t smears Spanish pavements. 

So how true is it that Spain has a dog poo problem? Is there actually more dog mess in Spain than in other countries, and if not, why does it seem that way?

One contextual factor worth considering when understanding the quantity of caca in Spain’s calles is how Spaniards themselves actually live.

When one remembers that Spaniards mostly live in apartments without their own gardens, it becomes less surprising that it feels as though there’s a lot of dog mess in the streets. Whereas around 87 percent of households in Britain have a garden, the number in Spain is below 30 percent.

Simply put, a nation of dog lovers without gardens could mean more mess in the streets. 

Whereas Britons often just let their dogs out into their garden to do their business, or when they can’t be bothered to take them for a walk even, Spaniards have to take them out into the street, unless they’re okay with their pooches soiling their homes. 

There aren’t many dog-friendly beaches in Spain, and the fact that on those that do exist, some owners don’t clean up their dogs’ mess, doesn’t strengthen the case for more ‘playas para perros‘ to be added. (Photo by JOSE JORDAN / STR / AFP)

Doggy dirt left in the streets is most certainly not a Spain-specific problem either, but rather an urban one found around the world.

In recent years, there have been complaints about the sheer abundance of canine faecal matter left in public spaces in Paris, Naples, Rome, Jerusalem, Glasgow, Toronto, London, San Francisco and so on.

READ ALSO: Why do some Spanish homes have bottles of water outside their door?

Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a worldwide study to shed light on which cities and countries have the biggest ‘poo-blem’, with the available investigations mainly centred on individual nations, such as this one by Protect my Paws in the US and UK

And while it may be more noticeable in Spain than in some countries, it doesn’t mean the Spanish are doing nothing about it.

In fact, Barcelona has been named the third best city in Europe for dealing with the problem, according to a study by pet brand

Although Barcelona’s score of 53/80 was significantly lower than many British cities (Newcastle scored 68/80 and Manchester 66/80, for example) its hefty fines of 1,500 for dog owners caught not cleaning up after their canine friends might be a reason. 

And some parts of Spain take it even more seriously than that.

In many Spanish regions doggy databases have been created to catch the culprits. Over 35 Spanish municipalities require dog owners to register their pets’ saliva or blood sample on a genetic database so they can be traced and fined, if necessary. 

In Madrid, you are twice as likely to come across someone walking a dog than with a baby’s stroller. (Photo by JAVIER SORIANO / AFP)

This DNA trick started earlier in Spain than in many other countries; the town of Brunete outside of Madrid kicked off the trend in 2013 by mailing the ‘forgotten’ poo to neglectful owners’ addresses. Some municipalities have also hired detectives to catch wrongdoers.

So it’s not as if dog poo doesn’t bother Spaniards, with a 2021 survey by consumer watchdog OCU finding that it’s the type of dirt or litter found in the streets than bothers most people.

READ ALSO: Clean or dirty? How does your city rank on Spain’s cleanliness scale? 

It’s therefore not a part of Spanish culture not to clean up after dogs, but rather a combination of Spain’s propensity for outdoor and urban living, the sheer number of dogs, and of course the lack of civic duty on the part of a select few. Every country has them. 

On a final note, not all dog owners in Spain who don’t clean up after their pooches can be blamed for doing it deliberately, but it’s certainly true that looking at one’s phone rather than interacting with your dog, or walking with your dog off the leash (also illegal except for in designated areas) isn’t going to help you spot when your pooch has done its business.

Article by Conor Faulkner and Alex Dunham