Food / Travel in Spain

Pulpo and Pimientos in Galicia

The view from the Tower of Hercules in A Coruña, Galicia

The view from the Tower of Hercules in A Coruña, Galicia

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 of the country. Unlike dry, flat Madrid, Northern Spain is lush and green with rolling hills. When I visited to the Basque Country with my mom two years ago, I watched landscape change in wonder 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 for 63 days straight in Santiago, but we lucked out with the weather), I’ll offer some brief highlights.

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Calla lilies seemed to be everywhere in Santiago.

Calla lilies seemed to be everywhere in Santiago.

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 this 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 use ingredients bought that day 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, dusted with flakes of sea salt. The waiters kept checking in on the solitary guiri to see how I liked everything (a rare gesture in Spain, to say the least), so I ended up ordering 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.

Lunch at Abastos 2.0, the tapas bar adjacent to the Abastos market. mackerel with a tomato and olive oil sauce and gazpacho.

Lunch at Abastos 2.0: mackerel with a tomato and olive oil sauce and gazpacho.

 

Fish with lettuce and onion on a creative serving dish.

Fish with lettuce and onion on a creative serving dish.

 

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The winding streets of Santiago.

The winding streets of Santiago.

 

I explored more on my own, ambling through the narrow 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 my hostess, 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.

Padrón peppers are plucked from the vine before they start to redden. As we were tasting them at the beginning of the the season, they didn’t have much of a burn at all. The blistered, salty flavor was delicious. The peppers grow hotter the longer they are left on the vine; bigger peppers tend to be hotter, but the spicy ones will always take you by surprise. I ate plates and plates of pimientos de Padrón while I was in Santiago. But that was nothing on the roughly 700 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, drove me to visit Santiago. Good food writing always inspires cravings where there were none before.

Inside the Cathedral of Santiago

Inside the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

 

Looking up in the cathedral

Looking up in the cathedral

 

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The Cathedral of Santiago

The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, its facade under renovation

 

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Abastos Market on Saturday morning was a singular experience. The indoor and outdoor market was the real deal, authentically Spanish in every way and also uniquely Galician. Eyes wide, I took in the halls of meat and fish: sausage links, chorizo, ham legs, gutted and unidentifiable animals, skinned rabbits, offal, dried pigs’ heads, mussels, razor clams, scallops, spider crabs, crawfish, cuttlefish, shrimp, prawns, and more. Butchers with blood-spattered aprons dismembered prehistoric-looking fish and hunks of raw, bloody meat. Trays of seafood caught my eye when I noticed movement among the jumble of shells and claws; many of the sea creatures destined for the plate were still wriggling in vain. It seemed like all of Galicia’s marine life, from the shallows to the depths, was being tamed into culinary submission around me. It was fantastic.

In the U.S. we are accustomed to meat that’s presented in the most sanitized, uniform, processed, and non-threatening form possible. There’s something so invigorating about the ways Spaniards connect with the food they eat. In small town Spain, 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. And Spain’s culinary culture places a premium on ingredients: showcasing them rather than obscuring them. It favors the real and simple over the pretentious and elaborate. That’s why restaurants often serve raciones (sharing plates) of just sliced ham or cheese of the highest quality.

Elsewhere in the market we saw señoras 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 strong, 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.

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Queso de tetilla

Queso de tetilla

 

One of many pigs' heads hanging in the market

One of many pigs’ heads hanging in the market

 

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Many of these sea creatures were still wriggling about. That's fresh for you.

Many of these sea creatures were still writhing about. That’s fresh for you.

 

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Bottles of homemade liquor café and liqueur

Bottles of homemade liquor café and orujo (pomace brandy)

 

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Lemons with character

Lemons with character

 

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Picnic

Picnic time

 

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We tried pulpo Gallego, the most popular dish in Santiago. It’s freshly caught octopus boiled in a copper cauldron, 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-functioning suction cups (even dead, they cling to your finger), the octopus is quite tasty. When simply prepared, the freshness comes through.

That night we went to the best pulpería (octopus joint) in town, Bogedón os Concheiros Pulpería. Like many of the greatest restaurants you’ll find in Spain, it took no frills to an extreme: no ambience whatsoever, just wooden tables in a harshly lit space. Nor were there plates or silverware. The menu had five items and no prices listed. In the U.S. that can indicate the food is very expensive, but in Spain it usually just means the food is so ridiculously cheap 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 homemade white wine from unlabeled bottles out of bowls, as is the custom in Galicia. 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 written 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.

Pulpo Gallego at the market

Pulpo Gallego at the market

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 the Atlantic (my ocean, as I think of it). We popped through the Old Town, the marina, and the rest of the city, finally resting to eat empanadas on the beach and bury our toes in the sand. It was my fifth time at the beach since September. I was born and raised on the East 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.

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The view from the Tower of Hercules

The view from the Tower of Hercules

 

A Coruña

A Coruña

 

The marina

The marina

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.

Hello/Goodbye to the Atlantic

Hello/Goodbye to the Atlantic

 

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3 thoughts on “Pulpo and Pimientos in Galicia

  1. So much to LOVE about your photos, Erin! Including the seafood! Seems I missed a bunch of delicious by not going to Galicia on previous trips to Spain. Won’t make that mistake again ~ thanks!

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