When I was eight years old and had just moved to Spain, I was sent to a summer camp run by the parents of one of my school friends. On my first day, after swinging on monkey bars and finger-painting a mural, a whistle went off, and a hurdle of local children ran towards the dining room. “What’s going on?” I asked the supervisor. “It’s merienda time!” she replied. It was 11 a.m., and on the dining table were dozens of slices of bread—a simple Spanish barra, the slightly lighter and thicker version of a French baguette—drizzled with the extra virgin olive oil ubiquitous in southern European cuisine, and sprinkled with the perfect amount of fine table salt. I popped a slice into my mouth and was hooked. For the following decade living in Spain I embraced the mid-morning merienda.
Merienda isn't a cross between breakfast and lunch, or a substitute for one or the other. It's a wholly different experience. There’s a certain innocence about merienda. It carries with it none of the social connotations that accompany the idea of “brunch,” and neither is it analogous to British elevenses, which—much like high tea and cucumber sandwiches—are reserved for aristocracy. If someone gets peckish halfway between breakfast and lunch during a weekend shopping spree or a particularly tedious day at the office, they may mention they’re grabbing a snack from the vending machine, but they’d be met with incredulity if they announced they were “going for elevenses.”
There is no such thing as a Spanish brunch, because the Spanish ideas of breakfast and lunch are so incompatible. Breakfast is a steaming cup of rocket-fuel-strength coffee and a basic, functional snack to keep you going between leaving the house and getting to work, b. But lunch is completely different. In the US and UK, lunch is a stolen sandwich or salad in between meetings or a tupperware of sad-looking reheated leftovers; in Spain, lunch involves a good three- or four-hour break. It’s a hearty, solid feast for which kids come home from school, parents lock up their offices and family members visit. The meal tends to begin around 2:30, leaving a gap of about five and a half hours between breakfast and lunch, which is filled by merienda.
Spanish merienda crosses all social boundaries. It’s reportedly taken by royal family, but also enjoyed by the workers on the building site opposite my parents’ house. It’s the ritualization of this mid-morning snack that allows for the leisurely Spanish pace of life and the more elaborate two primary meals of the day.
For the rest of my summer, I looked forward to merienda time. The offerings weren’t particularly sophisticated: some jamón serrano cut straight from the cured pig’s leg hanging in the kitchen, or a bowl of natillas, a cold custard flavoured with lemon zest and cinnamon, but it allowed for a break in the morning’s activities, a time when it was OK for us to play with our food, eat while standing up and walking around, or skip it altogether if we weren’t in the mood, without fear of repercussions. Merienda was the freest of meals.
When I was in high school, our merienda break lasted half an hour, and it became a time to sneak off to the cafe down the road, gossiping about crushes and weekend house-party plans over a slice of coca, a type of rectangular pizza on shortcrust pastry topped with herb-roasted red peppers, or the ever-present bocadillo de tortilla, a warm wedge of potato and caramelized onion omelette between slices of bread rubbed with garlic and tomatoes. During exams, merienda time determined whether you were the type who sneaked behind school to smoke clandestine cigarettes, or someone who hid in empty classrooms making out. Either way, there was always food.
Now I go back to Spain and I see coffee shops offering avocado toast and egg-white omelets, with cutlery in little copper buckets and vintage ketchup bottles. The locals will gladly have their late leisurely lunch there, surrounded by friends, family, and copious wine, or pop in for dinner after a long day. They may even use it as a pit-stop for their morning coffee. But brunch? Never. Why would you bother, when you can have your speedy breakfast and your delectable mediterranean lunch? And in between, the perfect thing to do is tear off a slice of fresh bread, moisten it with syrup-thick olive oil, sprinkle it with salt, and savor your merienda while you contemplate the next meal.