One doesn't simply visit Galicia. One feels it. One experiences it. One eats and drinks it. A wet and windy region in the northwest of Spain, it has more in common with the moist hills of Ireland than the stereotypes of Castile. To leave it is to carry with you a sickness and longing in your heart called morriña. To leave it is to carry with you a few extra pounds. For maybe nowhere else in Spain is the fish so fresh, the meat so hearty and the wine so varied. Galicia is Celts, witches, elves, white faces and light hair. Galicia is food.
I was up on a trip with some friends and I had grand designs on the local gastronomy. The honey-coloured streets and glowing squares of Pontevedra’s old town sat brightly under an enthusiastically blue sky. Praza de Leña, Praza de Santa Maria, Praza de Verdura, Praza Herrería; musical squares that invited the visitor to sit and eat and drink. And I did. Over the three nights in Pontevedra my stomach was never empty and my mind was always cloudy with the tantalising wisps of well-meaning alcohol abuse.
From the seas came large prawns, scalded orange and grilled with salt; calamari so fresh they were almost sweet; and navajas – razor clams – landed on the tables, grilled and doused with lemon juice. More marine delights arrived in the form of bite-sized scallops called, rather deliciously, zamburiñas; their taste meaty and slightly nutty. And another bubbling terracotta pot, this time with red peppers, roasted and stuffed with a gooey mix of salt cod, garlic, pepper and cream.
Even for the toughest belly that might be enough. But then the lords of the land arrive, served up hot on the platters. Fresh pimentón sausage served up hellishly: chorizo al infierno – a hefty raw tube of meat that crackles and pops over a dish of flaming aguardiente. This is followed succinctly by zorza, an odd piecemeal dish of churned up loin pork fried in garlic, paprika and oregano and served with chips. Breathe.
The belly whines and curses you, though secretly revelling in its filling, but is silenced as cheese shows up. Tetilla – the little tit. A creamy cow’s milk cheese in the form of a lady’s breast. And then pimientos de Padrón, little green peppers of which the occasional one is spicy, sidle up quietly on a salty plate. You eat, plucking the juicy flesh from the storks, and then lean back in your chair wondering if your heart can take it.
In an effort to burn off at least some of the Galician countryside now residing in my belly I headed to the Islas Cíes for a walk. These islands (there are three: two connected by a spit of land and one, a bird sanctuary, floating off on its own) are part-national park, part-untarnished paradise. The only civilization to blight these islands is a cafeteria by the quay and a campsite.
Away from the stony churches and bagpipes of the city the eucalyptus and ferny forests that bobble the Cíes Island seemed to be something of another time. A piece of driftwood from some forgotten chunk of Pangaea. To walk over it was to transcend. It was to redefine the notion of beauty. Fine white sands curled around water that radiated out from crystal, through cyan to cerulean. Boats swam around while locals took their flesh out for the sun and thousands of yellow-legged seagulls provided a laughing soundtrack.
The land was a tapestry of flowers and plants: sand reeds and sea daffodils, sea fennel and Angelica pachycarpa with its aniseed headiness, gorse, pink daphne, white rockrose, and the screaming bright yellow Cytisus insluaris broom. Cíes leaves the visitor an awestruck amateur botanist.
After a homemade sandwich of pork loin and heat-wilted cheese; after gawping stupidly at the views from the island’s lighthouse; and after swimming in the breath-stealingly cold water (but that on seeing your revelry, also entices the locals to join); after all this you stroll through the pines and acacias and return to the world of the real and the living and leave behind the stories of pirates and the secrets of the park. Back to Cangas, a town of ferries and fishermen, where small wooden boats bob colourfully in a small harbour bereft of movement but for the tide.
Cambados, a town twice previously visited, offered a charming fisherman’s atmosphere under a bubbly grey sky. Its hardy coastline shanties led off into a clutch of cobbled streets, stuffed with bougainvillea and flowerpots. Food was Galician octopus – pulpo a la gallega, boiled and cut up and coated in olive oil and pimentón, and almejas a la marinera – fat local clams stewed in a liquor of garlic, shallot, parsley and white wine. This, and every other dish in Cambados, was washed down with copious glasses, and eventually bottles, of cold, crisp Albariño wine. Cambados is the ‘capital’ of the Rías Baixas wine region, and Albariño is its powerhouse grape variety. Tart, acidic and full of fruit, it was destined to always sit comfortably by seafood. And it did. Lots of it.
A walk through the lanes and dirt tracks: through vineyards protected by dogs or tended by lone farmers with umbrellas; past heavy stone huts and along streams and the Umia River. The clouds hung low on the surrounding hills and the still naked vines provided a starburst of green that promised fruit-gold in autumn. Still hungry.
And so the odyssey, nay, the pilgrimage into Galicia and its food led me, for a fourth time, to the Celtic stronghold and Christian centre of Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of a patron saint lie in a box under the most beautiful cathedral imaginable. Tulips filled the gardens around palaces and churches older and grander than Madrid and my stomach grumbled.
In the Abastos Market men cut up fresh octopus and sold potatoes and turnip tips called grelos. Old ladies with creased faces sat by bottles of homemade liquors and baskets of eggs and wild mushrooms. Modern Galicians lined the old market walls drinking white wine and eating empanada – that juicy galego pasty. We ate mussels in a secret spicy sauce (tigres rabiosos) and then moved to an old wooden tavern to give our stomachs their final missions. San Simon cheese (a lightly smoked tetilla) was swiftly seconded by chorizos cooked in wine and xoubas (battered and fried sardines).
The food onslaught continued with more cheese: Cebreiro, a light and soft cow’s cheese originally pertaining from the village of the same name that perches precariously on a windswept hilltop in the Galician hills. Then heaps of meats, potatoes, cooked peppers and glasses of local red wines: Ribeira Sacra and Bierzo – meaty and fruity and made from the Mencía grape. Finally, to quash all sense of decency, slices of Tarta de Santiago (a jam-free Bakewell) were forked into the mouth with shots of crema de Orujo (pomace brandy cream) and pacharán (a blood-red sloe gin).
If you have any functioning taste buds you will love Galicia. If your eyes still work in any way Galicia is a place that will find its way through your optic nerve and straight to your heart. Galicia is an Eden where you eat the apple and everything else.
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