When I think of Galicia, I think of grey skies rushing blue, clouds chasing the rain away fortified by the wind. More rain behind to soak the land again, bringing four seasons in one day. Galicia is not what you expect of Spain. Maybe it is the weather, looking more to the North than the South. I loved the laid back vibe there, and the people. Galicia had been on my bucket list for a while, and it proved to be a lovely place to visit.
Why Galicia? Often in Spain people speak Spanish to me, or assume that I can speak it. That is because they assume that I am from Galicia in Northern Spain with my dark hair and pale skin. They quickly find out that I am not of course, but it happens almost every time (and I go often). With its wild Atlantic coast, excellent seafood (cooked with respect and never overdone) and their divine Galician beef, Galicia is a superb destination for food obsessed travellers. It is home to Albariño wine too. The food was the first draw, the second curiosity. I had met several people from Galicia and they had told me much about it which only made me want to visit more.
Galicia is green, rich and folding. Small towns knitted together with winding undulating roads. Houses and gardens are announced by horreos, like small churches on plinths, designed originally to stop rodents raiding their root and veg stores (you will notice there are no steps up, and so they are inaccessible to them). Many are still in use today, you will see most gardens with proud cabbages on tall stalks and snaking squashes and pumpkins.
Galicia was traditionally a land of fishermen (it still is in many ways), with streets by the water designed so that the tide could flood them, and fishermen could bring their boats in when they came home. Statues of religious icons face the water, to protect the fishermen and bring them back when they are done. The waters are as wild here as they are in my native Ireland, and coming home for fishermen wasn’t always a guarantee.
I wanted to know more about the seafood, and to understand the Galician food culture more, so I spent a morning with Galician chef Xosé Torres Cannas. Xosé has a wonderful Michelin star restaurant in the countryside on a hill overlooking the water (Pepe Vieira, which I will tell you about soon) and a restaurant and bar in Pontevedra, Ultramar. Ultramar, a name referring to the many Galicians who emigrate overseas, is a little more laid back serving a simpler style of food with a focus on local high quality ingredients, in terms of food and drink.
Xosé took me to his local market in Pontevedra to explore. The market is in a beautiful old building, the hall like downstairs section of which is predominantly dedicated to fish with vegetables and other bits upstairs. Fish is of a very high quality and very well presented. It is almost all local, fished from the crashing Atlantic nearby. There is lots of shellfish in particular.
Galicia is famous for the percebes (those shellfish that look like grubby dinosaur toes), prawns of all descriptions, mussels, scallops (the scallop shell is one of the symbols of the Camino de Santiago, traditionally the scallop shell was what pilgrims used to drink from and to wash themselves with), crabs and many more. We bought some percebes and some camerones to bring back the restaurant for a snack before lunch.
The camerones, boiled briefly in salted water, transformed from a wriggly chocolate brown to a blushing peachy pink. The percebes, also cooked for just a few minutes, looked gnarly and as though they had resisted cooking at all. A pinch and a twist reveals the tender meat inside, a little resisting at first but then tender, and juicy with a gentle salty flavour. They had both been cooked just so, and they were perfect. Even better with house crisps (my glorious shiny weakness) and a local vermut.
Then back to Pepe Vieira for lunch. More on that soon!
A Ultramar, Rúa Padre Amoedo Carballo, 3, 36002 Pontevedra, Spain http://www.laultramar.es/
Mercado Municipal de Pontevedra, Rúa Serra, 5, 36002 Pontevedra, Spain
Also in this series on Galicia
More on Galician seafood, from a fishing perspective, and heading out for the day on an antique boat
Next: Exploring the Fine Dining Culture of Galicia.