La Sobremesa: A Time Beyond Dessert

A big part of the fun of travel is those local restaurants, so excitingly different from everything you’re used to back home. But when the main course of your meal is over, and everyone is eyeing the dessert list, do you ever feel a lingering sense of disappointment that you have to leave soon – that *this* meal in *these* surroundings will soon be over?

If so, get yourself to Spain. They do things differently there – and it starts when the food ends.

It’s well known that the Spanish lifestyle is joyful, lively and usually enjoyed on the streets, out in the open, as befits a famously balmy climate. Nowhere else is this more evident than in the way they eat and drink? Whether it’s the aperitivo, or a refreshing cold caña (beer) with delicious giant olives on the side, laid out on a terrace or balcony table or at a beach picnic, how Spain relishes its food scene has few equals. 

But of all Spanish traditions, nothing beats the one where, elsewhere in the world, the meal seems to be drawing to a close. It’s the point approaching dessert where the conversation gets flowing again after the face-filling rigours of the main course – and it can extend the meal by hours

This is the art of the sobremesa, and it’s uniquely Spanish. The word ‘sobremesa’ has no literal English translation other than “over the table”. It is the time after any meal when diners (comensales) stay at the table to talk, laugh, enjoy each other’s company, allow the food to settle in their stomachs, and give themselves room for a coffee or glass of wine. It could be as short as half an hour, and as long as the rest of the afternoon. It could happen on a weekday, a workday, a weekend, with family, friends, coworkers, and even strangers (it’s a good time to say hello to folk at other tables who are doing the same thing).

This isn’t just a summer thing, by the way. It could be the middle of baking weather or in a crisply cold late fall or winter when you might take things indoors. There are no rules and no limits to a good sobremesa. All that matters is that everyone at the table is having a good time, free from the grinding pressures of daily life and with no real urgency over how the rest of the day will go.

At the sobremesa, everyone knows this – including the restaurants. If you’re used to that creeping feeling that the waiters or waitresses would rather you vacate your table to a new customer – well, that’s not how Spain works either. You can stay for as long as your own sobremesa cycle allows, with desserts next and eventually coffee to follow. Unless the place is super-busy, it’s unlikely that you’ll be given that impatient “can you hurry up?” look or even get asked to move onwards. That’s just not how it’s done. 

Here’s one illuminating example from Mike Randolph at BBC Travel

“On a personal level, the sobremesa is fundamental,” said Dani Carnero, chef at La Cosmopolita in Málaga, where Spain’s best chefs, including Ferran Adrià, Joan Roca, José Andrés and Andoni Luis Aduriz, go to eat when they’re in town.

“As a chef, when I see people spending time at the table after lunch, I feel that it’s a sign that everything has gone well, but oftentimes people enjoy themselves even more than during the meal itself. The sobremesa can be magical.”

As legend has it, the first sobremesa in the history bookscan be traced back to Jesus in Canaan. However, the broad tradition flourished in the Mediterranean during the time of the Roman Empire, where statesmen would enjoy vast meals followed by entertainment performed by artists, poets and actors while everyone digested their food. 

This seems to have served as inspiration for wealthy families during the Renaissance. Having a refined palate grew in popularity among the bourgeoisie class, making it almost a race to see who offered the best – and longest – banquets. Napoleonic Europe with its luxurious tastes also embraced this vision of the leisurely idealised banquet, where a sobremesa ethos became ingrained into southern dining routines. 

Even through the darkest periods of human history, despite war and social revolutions, the sobremesa would survive – becoming, in a laid-back but enduringly resilient way, a symbol of hope to unite people (families, friends, strangers) and whole societies as they rebuilt their vision of peaceful coexistence together. 

It matters that all of this happened in a good-natured way. In the same way that the Spanish people value a restorative siesta in the middle of the afternoon, they also know the benefits of sharing good laughs over a satisfying meal. They know that doing the sobremesa adds years to your life – and how useful it is, in this world of quick reactions and hasty misunderstandings, to have the time to discuss things properly. 

In the words of my partner, a doctor formerly working in Barcelona:

“Since moving to Spain and over the span of a decade, there hasn’t been a single time where I didn’t enjoy a good sobremesa. As soon as you land you quickly learn about it, you get the hang of it, and without realising, you fall in love with it. 

Sobremesa is more than culture, and more than just a lunch. It is life itself, bringing people together. It even has the power to change you, as you quietly learn from others while they share stories and experiences from their lives. The sobremesa is social connectedness, with huge benefits for your mental health.

And the best of all? You don’t have to be a Spanish citizen to enjoy a good sobremesa or for it to be a touching experience. You just need to be willing to take longer, to give yourself the time to be present, and be willing to follow the lead of this Spanish art of the long, long meal.” 

Join Wheel & Anchor this October on a 15-day Spanish adventure exploring Andalusia. Begin in Madrid, followed by three nights in Seville. Dive into the cultural richness of Córdoba for four nights, then spend six extended nights in Malaga. Conclude the expedition with a final night in Madrid, cherishing memories of a diverse exploration through Andalusia’s heart. Get all the details here

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