When I first came to Spain, in 2004, it was a cheap country by most standards. In some ways, it still is, but one of the most notable shifts over the past 5+ years has been a dramatic rise in the cost of eating out. I remember visiting a Bodega restaurant in Valdevimbre, Leon in 20061. The bodegas in Valdevimbre are famous all over the province – good, rustic, home cooked food served in unique caves carved into the hillside. And they used to be great value for money too. We paid â‚¬26 for lunch for three of us, including a whole tortilla guisada (stewed Spanish omelette), grilled wild mushrooms, lamb chops, bread, wine, desserts and coffees. I remember being so struck by the price that I kept the receipt to show people.
But the world has changed a lot since those heady, pre-crash days of 2006 and restaurants round here have responded in quite a peculiar manner. We’ve been back to the bodegas many times since then, and we still go from time to time, but it’s not quite as satisfying any more. Nothing obvious has changed – the food is still good (perhaps not exceptional) and the caves are still, well, there. But you’d be very lucky to eat at any of them for less than â‚¬26 a head now. They are at least as expensive, if not more so, than restaurants in the UK. This is a story I see repeated almost everywhere now, at least in our part of Spain, and it has resulted in what can only be described as a two-tier restaurant system.
If you want to eat for â‚¬10 a head or less, you can either go to the fast-food chains, kebab houses and Chinese buffet restaurants, or you can visit the more humble ‘local’ restaurants and cafeterias that are still serving Menu del Dia for â‚¬6 (very low end) to â‚¬12 (pretty much top end). Beyond that, it seems that most restaurants that used to occupy the middle ground (say â‚¬20 per head) have, for one reason or another, gone upmarket. That’s not to say that much has changed in what they are serving, but prices have definitely skyrocketed.
Whichever way you analyse it, this trend is almost certainly down to the horrific economic crisis that currently has a tight grip on Spain. In some ways, of course, it seems completely illogical that restaurants should hike their prices in response to declining incomes and plunging demand for ‘luxury’ goods and services, like restaurant dining. Surely they should be slashing prices in order to get more customers through through the doors? Certainly you see that happening at the lower end of the market where prices are already comparatively low. Restaurants that used to charge â‚¬10 for their Menu del Dia might now be offering a Menu Anti-Crisis for â‚¬8.
To understand the logic behind this strategy, I think you have to take a closer look at the current Spanish predicament. Forgive me for generalising – perhaps the situation is different in other parts of Spain – although I fear not. Before la crisis, the term mileurista2, referring to someone who earns 1000 Euros a month, was coined as a derogatory, sarcastic phrase to describe workers on the lowest rung of the salary ladder – basically any young person with qualifications just starting out in the world of work. The qualified Spanish youth were leaving Spain in droves in search of better possibilities and higher salaries elsewhere in Europe (which explains why you can now buy t-shirts in London’s Camden Town with the slogan “I went to London and all I saw was a load of Spanish people”, or something like that). Nowadays, to be a mileurista means at least to have a job, which is a privilege now reserved mainly for the, shall we say, more mature. With youth unemployment approaching somewhere near 50%, economists and sociologists are talking about the lost generation. The term mileurista has lost its social stigma and gained an ironic element of positivity.
So before the crash, you had the young class of employees earning â‚¬1000 salaries, together with a broad section of the older population (think 40+) represented by state employees, established business owners and employees entrenched in positions they had held for 20 years and heavily protected by workers’ rights legislation, earning â‚¬2000 and upwards. Nowadays, the young professionals are either unemployed or getting by on jobs that pay the bare legal minimum. But the middle-aged government workers, policemen, teachers and lawyers are still there, and so are their â‚¬2000-â‚¬3000 salaries.
And the restaurants seem to understand this.
The mass market restaurants know that their customers are hard up and in search of a bargain, hence all the â‚¬6 Menu Crisis. The upmarket restaurants know that the people who had money before the slump still have it and are still willing to spend it. Everyone else has had to change their game. The potential clientele for a medium-priced, decent meal has slowly evaporated and the great swathe of restaurants occupying the middle ground between McDonalds and Michelin star have presumably seen their revenues take a turn for the worse. The result has been a curious ‘gourmification’ as these local, rustic, homegrown restaurants go in search of the well-heeled classes who can afford the not insignificant amounts these establishments now need to charge to offset the decline in numbers. â‚¬20 main courses are now the norm at half-decent restaurants around here.
This was brought home to me on Sunday when we had lunch at Las Pallozas3, near Ponferrada, on the way to see the spectacular Medulas. Everything I’ve just described was bought together neatly under one little thatched roof. It was Sunday lunchtime, and the restaurant was full (that’s maybe 50 people) of middle aged, beige wearing, presumably â‚¬2000 euro earning, ‘you-can’t-sack-me-for-less-than-â‚¬60k-because-I’ve-been-here-for-20-years’ types. Not a youth in sight apart from their chino-clad children. What would, five years ago, have qualified as decent local cuisine was described in fancy gourmet language and touted as only using the best of local produce. Great – but once upon a time, using good local produce was not an excuse for exorbitant prices. It was the norm. The menu consisted of every conceivable combination of local peppers, local cured beef, local chestnuts and local goats cheese. The food was very nice. We had two glasses of local wine, a plate of local cured meats to share, a main course each (beef medallions in chestnut sauce for me, cod with a red pepper mousse for Jessi) and one dessert (a chestnut cake, what else) and the bill was just short of â‚¬70. Extortionate? No. Expensive? Perhaps, given the prevailing economic climate and the nature of the cuisine.
I guess I just feel for the ‘lost generation’. Watching restauranteurs pander to the only Spaniards who still have any cash to spend is the inevitable result of the horrible current economic situation, but it doesn’t make it any easier to swallow for the young and out of work who just a short while ago must have taken it for granted that an honest meal at a decent local eatery was within their reach.
By the way, if you’re ever in the area, Las Medulas are definitely worth a visit. They were once the largest open-air gold mine in the whole of the Roman Empire and are a spectacular, almost other-wordly vision from the high-up lookout platform at Orellan. And if you like peppers, cecina, chestnuts and goats cheese, you should check out Las Pallozas for lunch. You won’t be disappointed.