On Friday, March 14th, I flew to Santiago de Compostela. Santiago is the capital city of Galicia, a region that hugs the northwest corner of Spain above Portugal. The city marks the end of El Camino de Santiago, a Christian pilgrimage route in Europe whose Spanish section winds through the picturesque north. Unlike dry, flat Madrid, the north of Spain is lush and green. When I went to the Basque Country with my mom two years ago, I loved the change in landscape as we drove northward.
It wasn’t shrines of apostles that drew me to Galicia, but rather fresh seafood and a reunion with a friend who teaches there. Me and a friend from Alcalá joined our hostess in Santiago for the weekend and threw in a day trip to A Coruña, on the coast. As it was a relaxed weekend of casual exploring and soaking up the sun (apparently, right up until our visit, it had rained every day for 63 days straight in Santiago), I’ll offer some brief highlights.
I arrived into Santiago while my friend was still in school, so I walked straight to a spot recommended by my 36 Hours guidebook by the New York Times travel section. That book has never steered me wrong and Friday was no exception. Right next to the Mercado de Abastos, a huge food market, lies Abastos 2.0. The small tapas bar has neither a fixed menu nor a refrigerator, as its dishes draw ingredients directly from the market’s ever-changing offerings. Shrugging off my heavy backpack, I sat on the terrace’s barstool. Perusing the day’s menu, I realized it was written in Gallego (or Galician), the language of the region. Gallego is a lovely mix of Portuguese and Spanish. Trusting that anything would be delicious, I ordered a cup of gazpacho for €1, my first gazpacho all year, and the “xurelo y tomate,” an impossibly fresh chunk of mackerel swimming in tomato and olive oil and slightly dusted with flakes of sea salt. The waiters kept checking in on me to see how I liked everything (a rarity in Spain, to say the least), so I ended up getting more. The “raia atemporada,” a “streak” of fish with lettuce and chopped onion paired well with a glass of white wine made with a local grape, Godello.
I explored more on my own, ambling through the alleys and taking in the old, gray stone buildings that distinguish the city. The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela seemed weary with the passing of time, paint flaking and moss growing on the facade; but I loved the musty, cool smell of the interior and the gold-splattered altar.
Later, I met up with Molly and my friend from Alcalá, fresh from a five-hour train ride. We went out for dinner and shared plates piled high with razor clams, mussels dolloped with marinara sauce, tortilla española, pimientos de Padrón, and a cod-filled empanada. I was especially excited to try the pimientos de Padrón: little green peppers fried in olive oil and sprinkled with coarse salt. I’d eaten the peppers before in Madrid and Alcalá but they were nothing like these, which were straight from the nearby town of Padrón itself.
The peppers are picked from the vine before they start to redden. As we were tasting them at the beginning of the their season, they didn’t have much of a burn at all, though the flavor was delicious. The peppers grow hotter the longer they are left on the vine. Bigger peppers tend to be hotter, but apparently the spicy ones always take you by surprise. I ate plates and plates of peppers while I was in Santiago. But that was nothing on the roughly seven hundred peppers that food writer Calvin Trillin and his wife consumed while in Santiago to research an essay about his obsession with pimientos de Padrón. That essay, one of the many delightful ones in his book, Feeding a Yen, partly drove me to visit Santiago. Good food writing always inspires cravings in me where there were none before.
Another notable food moment was Abastos Market on Saturday morning. The market, both indoor and outdoor, was the real deal. It was authentically Spanish in every way and also uniquely Galician. Eyes wide, I slowly took in the halls of meat and fish: sausage links, chorizo, ham legs, gutted and unidentifiable animals, skinned rabbits, offal, dried pigs’ heads, mussels, clams, razor clams, scallops, spider crabs, crawfish, cuttlefish, shrimp, prawns, and more. Butchers with blood-spattered aprons dismembered prehistoric-looking fish and hunks of raw meat. Trays of seafood caught my eye when I noticed movement in the jumble of shells and claws. Half of the seafood was still wriggling in vain. It seemed like all of Galicia’s sea creatures, from the shallows to the depths, were being tamed into culinary submission around me. It was wonderful.
In the U.S. we are accustomed to meat that’s presented in the most sanitized, uniform, processed, and non-threatening ways. There’s something so invigorating about the way Spaniards connect with the food they eat. Here, you’re able to feel so in touch with what you’re eating, whether you passed through the orchards where it grew on the way to the restaurant or you saw it attempting to crawl out of its tank minutes earlier. Here I’ve eaten roast suckling pig completely intact: ears, eyes, and all. Also, Spain’s culinary culture places a premium on ingredients: showcasing them rather than obscuring them, and it favors what is real and basic over what is pretentious and elaborate. That’s why restaurants usually serve raciones (sharing plates) of just sliced ham or cheese, but of the highest quality.
Elsewhere in the market we saw old women selling their homemade queso de tetilla, literally “tit cheese” (obviously named). It’s a lovely cheese: mild, semi-hard, and smokey. We lingered over wooden crates of vibrant produce, buckets spilling over with flowers, and bottles of homemade liquor de café (a traditional Galician blend of coffee, sugar, and brandy) wine, and orujo (pomace brandy, another traditional beverage). Some weathered old farmers just had a few crates, while others had stalls brimming with fruits and vegetables.
We tried pulpo Gallego, which is arguably the most popular dish in Santiago. It’s simply fresh octopus boiled in a copper cauldron, then trimmed with scissors, sprinkled with coarse salt and paprika, and drizzled with olive oil. Once you get over the strange texture, the curling tentacles, and the still-working suction cups (even dead, they’ll cling to your finger), the octopus is really quite good. When simply prepared, the freshness comes through.
That night we went to the best pulpería (octopus joint) in town, according to my friend, Bogedón os Concheiros Pulpería. Like many of the best restaurants you’ll find in Spain, it took “no frills” to an extreme. There was no ambience whatsoever, just wooden tables in a harshly lit space. Nor were there plates or silverware. The menu had five items, more or less, without prices listed. In my experience that indicates that something is very expensive, but here that just meant the food was so ridiculously cheap that you needn’t bother yourself with the cost. All of this was Spanish, and the food was amazing. We devoured plates on plates of pulpo, pimientos de Padrón, and jamón asado (roasted, paper-thin, slices of pork with a savory, curry-spiced sauce). We sopped up the piquant red sauce in a bowl of what was simply called carne (meat) with big hunks of bread. We drank bowls (a Galician custom) of homemade white wine from unlabeled bottles. For the eight of us at dinner, the check rounded out to only €10 a person. It was a quintessential Galician dining experience, and I loved it.
As we were leaving the restaurant, I smiled at a sign on the door in Spanish, which translated to:
“Qualities of our octopus:
The octopus is not expensive.
The octopus is not fattening.
The octopus is a full meal.
The octopus is an aphrodisiac.
The octopus is a natural food.
The octopus only eats seafood.
That’s why the octopus is sold HERE.”
The next day my friend and I ventured to A Coruña, a city on the coast of Galicia. We climbed the Tower of Hercules, built by the Romans in the 1st century AD. According to the brochure, it’s “the only lighthouse of Antiquity that is still in operation today.” After trudging up the stairs, we had a 360 degree view of the city and Atlantic coastline (my ocean, as I think of it). Then we popped through the Old Town, the marina, and the rest of the city, finally resting to eat empanadas on the beach, burying our toes in the sand. It was my 5th time at the beach since September. I was born and raised on the coast, and when I went to college I stayed seaside, in Boston. Living in the center of the country is tough sometimes, so I take rejuvenating jaunts to the shore when I can. It’s always worth it.
We came back to Santiago that evening, and after some tapas with the girls I caught a late flight back to Madrid. I would be back up north two weekends later to revel in the verdant hills and fresh seafood of Asturias.