I’m sure you have heard it all before- it is unthinkable to order a meal without meat at a restaurant in Spain. With the highest meat consumption in mainland Europe, Spain is stereotyped as a carnivorous country. However, this is not a holistic picture of Spanish culture today.


In March 2021, the vegan platform HappyCow reported that over 3,000 restaurants in Spain were offering vegetarian and vegan options. Establishments serving exclusively vegetarian and vegan food rose to 562 in that month alone. With increasing numbers of plant-based restaurants and meat alternatives becoming available in supermarkets- is Spain relinquishing its meaty habits? 

Aperol and tapas in the sun

I became a vegetarian in 2018 and am slowly edging my way to a more plant-based diet. My interrailing trip around Europe with friends galvanised my love for the sense of weightlessness that comes from travelling. Although, sometimes I have been hesitant to explore places which have a reputation for carnivorous cuisine. Travel is about freedom, not restriction! 


Food is so important in keying into not only a nation’s history and culture, but also in engaging with people. It feels like if you miss out on the food, you’re missing out on a crucial part of the experience.


Zoom camera at the ready, mic off mute, I chatted to madrileña Gabriela Llamas, who set the record straight about Spain’s meaty relationship with food. Author, chef and cooking teacher, Gabriela’s elegant gold-rimmed spectacles suggested a wealth of knowledge laid behind them. 

Kneading dough

For Gabriela Llamas, cooking is deeply rooted in the family. Her mother set up the renown Alambique kitchen shop and school in Madrid, sharing what she had learned about cooking in France. Following in her mother’s footsteps, Gabriela started writing about Spanish cuisine in lifestyle and food magazines worldwide. Then, she turned her hand to cooking demonstrations, teaching classes for both adults and children. As the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, Gabriela set up her own cooking school next door to her mother’s. 


What sparked Gabriel’s initial interest in cooking and food was a “family tradition” close to home, but not where you might think. “When I was little I lived with my grandmother and she had the most fabulous cook”. Her eyes lighted up as she recounted her childhood memories and this heavenly influence. “And she cooked like an angel. She did quite traditional food but with very little fat”. She acknowledges she was “lucky”: “I was born into a family which liked good food,  we have higher respect for it than many other people”. 


Gabriela spoke of her grandmother’s cook who catered for her Grandfather’s delicate stomach: “She always prepared things in a different way, much lighter”. 


And, this woman who, by the way, hated cooking, did it as an offering to God, a sacrifice, I imagine. I’ve tried to replicate many of her recipes but I could never achieve the same result. So, I think she is the person who most inspired me to cook”.


She talked about the subjectivity of cooking and how even the most traditional Spanish dishes, like gazpacho, can have a million different forms and alterations. “I think recipes are life-y”, she added. “I could give the same recipe to ten people and you would get ten different results. So…cooking is about making things yours”. People take their life experiences and embed it into their cooking practices and rituals- no meal can taste purely the same but is coloured by life and character. 


I asked her how she personalised and adapted dishes to make them vegetarian, whether consciously using vegetables or using meat substitutes. Gabriela admitted to being a vegetarian for a time and confessed: “I don’t really like cooking meat”. She said “I have to because I am a chef and I need to. But I don’t really like meat. I like poultry, like quails or duck, but I don’t like cooking meat like pork or…I’m not very keen on that but I know how to substitute a lot”. It is primarily down to cultural differences and personal preferences that people often exclude certain animals as ‘not meat’. ‘Meat’ is often exclusively referred to the flesh from a mammal, rather than poultry. 


Back to cooking. Gabriela likes “cooking with pulses and chickpeas, lentils, beans…all of those. And [she] tend[s] to cook mostly vegetarian”. But, she said, “I can substitute for instance, when I make lasagne, I sometimes substitute meat with tofu. People don’t realise it actually because you have the same flavours. I’ve even faked blood pudding, so, imagine. People think it was black pudding and it was just eggplant instead of black pudding. With pine nuts, the same spices, but it looked like black pudding and everyone thought “wow- isn’t this black pudding”, I said “no, it is just eggplant”. But I love to cook vegetables, I think it is my favourite thing to cook”.

Chickpeas as a healthy meat alternative

I was in awe of her innovative substitution (as I should be, she is a chef of course!). I made a mental note to be more adventurous next time I’m cooking, rather than just using a bag of Quorn again….


I’m a big fan of meat alternatives. Sales of vegan meat and plant-based products in Spanish supermarkets rocketed 31% between 2019-2020. With increasing consumption and demand of meat substitutes by consumers, I asked Gabriela if these vegetarian and vegan-friendly products will make their way off the shelf and into the restaurant kitchens any time soon? Or whether it is merely for domestic consumption?


Her response was, as always, insightful: “Probably they will make their way to restaurants because restaurant people [buy] prepared ingredients […] that they put together. In that sense, I would have them do their tofu themselves, their concentrate milks themselves. But not all of them do. You don’t need to do all this preparation themselves. You can get protein from many different places. Many vegetables have protein in them, fruits and grains. So, as long as you have organically grown proper things, you don’t really need to eat all of those substitutes. I do occasionally buy [tofu] sausages because I have a daughter who likes them […] so as not to give her too much meat and fat. But you never know what those things are made with. […] If you eat organic, you don’t need that much food. It’s better to eat less and more quality, than eating a lot of [processed] junk food”. 

Organic, home-grown vegetables

I could tell Gabriela started becoming dismissive at this point. I probed her further, asking if she was not really keen on meat alternatives.


“Occasionally I’d use them, […] if I had to make a vegan burger. I would rather make a falafel– which is a wonderful thing I adore. And a falafel you just have to soak your chickpeas, mash everything together and then fry it and that’s it. Or, lentils take half an hour to cook. It’s not such a big issue. Or if you want to make a hamburger with lentils and whatever, you can. […] You can make a chickpea falafel or hamburger in no time”.


During our 90 minute Zoom conversation, she would often mention a meal or ingredient then start describing the preparation and cooking method in intricate detail. These audible descriptions of recipes were so soothing and affirming that I am certain that she could convince you that cooking anything from scratch is possible- all it takes is a little bit of effort.


I asked her what she would advise people to cook when they don’t feel like cooking. “Just cook yourself an omelette, with spinach and some sesame seeds, and there you are”. Her matter-of-fact-ness was almost comical. With basic but wholesome ingredients, you can do a few simple things and then let the flavours do the work. “You have something very nutritious and then make yourself a salad and that’s it. It doesn’t have to be difficult. Make yourself some good bread or buy yourself some good bread. You can buy yourself some very good bread nowadays.”. 


In terms of meat alternatives and plant-based products, she understood that “they’re convenient”. “Occasionally, you can buy all of these things because not everyone has full availability to cook. But, if you get a little organised you can do very interesting things at home. The body is the most perfect machine on earth so it’s going to be much better than any lab-turned out ingredient”. The body’s a natural apparatus that only needs a diet of pure ingredients not processed foods.

Cooking with fresh ingredients

From our discussion, it was clear that she prioritised organic, freshly sourced ingredients of good quality, over any superficial elaboration. Gabriela is a firm believer in authentic, traditional Spanish cooking and cuisine; but don’t be mistaken into thinking she is out of touch. She has numerous nutrition and dietary courses under her belt. 


“I only eat [red] meat once or twice a month because I don’t need it. […] When my body needs iron or whatever it tells me. So I buy the best meat I can find, organic steak, and I make myself a steak tartare with good ingredients”. 


She reasoned with me that it’s important people do not become too restricted with vegetarianism, “but conscientious”. Gabriela consistently referred to eating what you enjoy and the social side of food. “Food is about what you enjoy […] you have to eat what you like. And, you know, there are no two people alike in the world […] you have to have freedom to eat whatever you feel”. And, ultimately, I think that is a more conscientious and intuitive way of eating.  

Intuitive Eating- listen to your body and eat what you enjoy!

Talking with Gabriela, I was inspired by her natural promotion to listen to my body more, supplying it with fresh nutrients to provide it all it needs. Rather than feeling like I was missing out on the experience of meaty protein, using quality organic vegetables creates a diet of a higher standard, as well as a greater quality of life.


Keep your eyes peeled for our next post where our interview continues with Gabriel on how important meat and the industry is important in Spain, and whether there is a better way to look after the environment.

Gabriela Llamas is a writer, chef and teacher of Spanish cooking. Book a cooking class or sustainable workshop with Gabriela at Alambique Cooking School, located in Madrid. Her book, ‘Let’s Cook Spanish: A Family Cookbook’ (2016),  is available from all good bookstores.