eographically, the Spanish Province of Galicia is the wet and windy northwest corner of Spain, where the European continent meets the Atlantic ocean. Gastronomically it is a paradise for shellfish and wine lovers, with great peppers and beef as well. While spiritually, it is one of the holiest places in Catholicism, and culturally, it has its own distinct language (Gallego, a mixture of Portuguese and Spanish), and the bagpipes people play here are remnants of the Celtics who came here centuries ago. During a trip around the region you are reminded of all these thing at every turn, which gives this region it’s distinct character.
The Climate and Scenery
Arriving at the Airport in Vigo, Galicia, you can feel that you are at the point where the European continent breaks the wind and moisture blowing across the Atlantic Ocean. Driving from the airport in Vigo along the coast and then to Santiago de Compostela, it was raining, and you see that it is one of those places where the rain-jacket wearing residents don’t even bother with umbrellas, since the wind is blowing so hard they don’t work. Along the way, while passing through places along the coast like A Illa De Arousa we could see dozens of large platforms floating in the water where Mussels are farmed, as well as fishermen in their rain jackets, sorting the fresh clams and cockles the had found in the bays.
The Food and Wine
There is no doubt that this is the place to eat shellfish. It’s easily one of the best places in the world for that. Here, the cooking philosophy seems simply to not over engineer the recipe, just add a little oil or salt or whatever, and not mess up the natural flavor and freshness of the shellfish itself. The cold waters of the ocean, combined with the nutrients flowing out of the rivers from the continent produce really sweet and flavorful flesh and a nice texture. I got the impression that what we are eating was not long removed from being in the ocean a few steps away. The main specialities seem to be the Mussels and Percebes (Goose Barnacles), but they serve Razor Clams, cockles, clams, octopus, squid, crab, and oysters as well.
Percebes (Goose Barnacles)
I was not familiar with these before coming to Galicia, as I don’t know if they have them anywhere else. These things are expensive, because fishermen have to pick them by hand from rocks upon rocks out in the ocean, where the combination of waves and rocks can be dangerous. I suppose that fishing for them is one of those hazardous jobs like collecting Bird’s Nest of something like that.
The award for best foods to eat here definitely has to include the Padron Peppers. These little green peppers come from the town of Padron and have their own Denominacion de Origen, so that’s really the only place you can get them. There is a saying in Spanish, “Pimientos de Padron, unos pican otros no,” which means, “Padron peppers, some are spicy others not.” So when you bite into one you never know if it will be a spicy or a sweet one, but they are all delicious. They are sauteed with some oil, and lightly salted, and we ate those things like candy at every meal.
Mercado de Abastos in Santiago de Compostela
For me, one of the highlights for the trip to Galicia was our trip to the local food market, the Mercado de Abastos. This place was so much fun, because they had a whole row of fresh seafood stalls, selling all kinds of fish, and it was so fresh, you couldn’t smell anything but that pleasant briny smell of saltwater in there. An oyster vendor shucked a few fresh oysters and gave us a lemon, and we ate them there at the stall. If we had wanted to we could have even bought some more stuff to take over to the rows of great, casual restaurant stalls to cook them for us, but we were off to Lugo for some good Ox.
Wines of Galicia
All of this great food you can wash down with great and inexpensive local wine. I admit I was ignorant as to how much wine is grown here, white and red. All throughout the countryside you see little farm houses with vines sprawling out along the wires they have for them, so that the plant leaves can be grown to shield the grapes from the sun to avoid the weather fluctuations that could break the skin of the grapes. The main varietals grown here are Albarino, Torrontes, Treixadura, Mencia, among others, but these are the ones we tried. And some of the names of the Denominacion de Origen, are Ribeira, Rias Baixas, and Monterrei. Regardless of what kind you are drinking, we could order a bottle of good wine in a restaurant for 10-15 euros, and it was really nice. Makes me feel like we are really missing out in the US, since, when was the last time you got a good bottle of wine in a restaurant for that price. Here wine is just part of daily life, not something you put on your expense account.
Driving through the country along certain roads you may see groups of people walking in the rain or sun. They are walking with backpacks or walking sticks, alone or in groups, like trails of ants headed somewhere. Each year there are something like 250,000-300,000 of these hikers, and that somewhere is the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. As the legend goes, the Apostle St. James’ body was laid to rest years after he came to the Iberian Peninsula to spread the word. People will make the journey on foot, or even by wheelchair as I happend to see, from as far away as France (500 miles away). They come to hug the statue of St. James and visit his sepulcher below the church. In the church is a huge incense burner installed centuries ago, since the pilgrims could be in bad need of a bath after the long trip. The long walking journey seems long enough, but seeing the people walking in the cold rain takes your appreciation of their journey to a whole other level.