What Europe Teaches an American about Eating: Dolce Far Niente
Picture this: you're in Paris, the buildings are as you thought they would always be – golden, elegant – you're walking along a wide boulevard, and the season is autumn.
There is an urge to admire everything surrounding you: the culture, the language, each Parisian going about their day as if this beautiful city out of films and novels was nothing out of the ordinary.
However, for some reason, you notice all the locals turning their heads out of what seems to be curiosity, or perhaps even amazement, at what they perceive as a street spectacle – The spectacle is an 18-year-old me walking the very same wide boulevards and simultaneously munching down a sandwich on the go.
Could you blame me? It was just my third day living in Europe, my first day of classes, and I had but a thirty-minute break for lunch where I had to walk from my building on Rue Saint Dominque to Rue de Grenelle. How was I to know that, when given the choice between starving or breaking the unwritten law of sitting down to eat your food, the former is the correct choice. Always.
Dolce Far Niente
Dolce Far Niente literally translates from Italian as "the sweetness of doing nothing." It is a concept that finds its way from the linguistic to the culinary scene, not only in Italy but in much of Western Europe.
This is a stark contrast to my American upbringing, where grabbing something to go is a daily occurrence, and even when going out to eat at a restaurant, there is not much standing in the way between ordering, eating, and paying.
What comes first when confronted with this new reality is the expected culture shock and the inevitable discomfort that comes with adjusting to a foreign concept. I had to buckle down and adjust my notion of time – from something that is to be watched over to something that simply is, and from then on, to arrive where the Dolce truly lies: in the events brought by food and the people you share it with.
The Play-by-Play of a typical Mediterranean Meal
For it to be a truly Mediterranean meal, you are most likely eating somewhere outside on a terrace. The sun is out and the plaza is bustling; under a shaded umbrella a lively waiter is taking your order.
My time in Spain was flooded with these Mediterranean meals, and it had become so custom to me that to eat in any other fashion doesn't feel quite right.
Lunch hour(s) in Spain is generally accepted as two o'clock, and as most jobs don't start back up again until five, there is no rush as the orders get going with somebody surely ordering algo para picar (literally: something to pick at) for everybody to share. Likely starters are a plate of chopitos (fried baby squid) or perhaps a simple pan aioli (bread with garlic mayo).
Before, throughout, and after, drinks are continuously refilled, whether it's another beer or another wine because the food should always be enjoyed with a good drink, and the orders for the main dishes are not put in until the appetizers are cleared.
Now, if you'd like a dish all to yourself, that's perfectly fine, but where is the fun in that? There is so much to try, and this is easier done with several tapas ordered and a couple of heartening chuletas de cordero (lamb chops) with roasted potatoes to go around. The tapas come in phases and the chuletas last, so throughout there are more drinks to be refilled and more conversation to have as the sunfilled day keeps on.
You are full, you are relaxed, and if you are anything like me, you are expecting the last bite of chuleta to lead to the table cleared and the check ordered – A foolish assumption if sharing the table with Spaniards.
When the waiter comes by and offers a postre (dessert), this is not but a simple formality – it is an anticipated question with a single right answer: Si, por favor. The toss-up only comes at what you order, not if you order. The choice is not an easy one, but one can't go wrong with a Tarta de Abuela (Grandma's Cake) or, if you can't decide, the waiter will happily put you on the right path.
Now, the check, right? Wrong. The next question will be what kind of coffee you'd like. A solo (shot of espresso) is the staple choice and does perfectly to a) settle the large meal you just ate, and b) combat the effects of the complementary shots on the house that the waiter will most definitely bring you. If you get lucky, the shot will be a limoncello, which will get you moving as you get through the rest of the day ahead of you!
And that, nothing less, is how you enjoy the magic of food with the people you love in a Mediterranean fashion.
Some tips to adjust
1) A habit I used to have was to constantly ask the waiter for this or that to the point where I was always calling them over – asking for a refill, letting them know that they had forgotten something, or that I needed the check. While this is acceptable when necessary, it is definitely something that should be shied away from. Try to keep in mind that the waiter knows (these guys are the real deal!) and that they will get to you the minute they can.
2) A lot of what I am mentioning throughout the article is much easier done when you have time on your hands and are not in a rush. With that in mind, try to make time for your meals, whether it takes some hard rescheduling or more precise errand-running, carve out the necessary time for a meal. Much like the saying goes in must-tip countries (don't go out to eat if you can't tip): don't go out to eat if you don't have the time.
3) The sweetness of doing nothing is only sweet if you let it be. It is something learned, and it starts with a shift of mindset. I went from asking myself what I needed to be doing to telling myself that this is what I should be doing – your loved ones should come first, and what better way to put them first then to dive in together in what is both a necessity and a joy: Eating!