Galicia loves seafood. The scallop shell is an emblem of their pilgrim walk, the camino de Santiago. I saw a church covered entirely (and beautifully) in scallop shells and many pilgrims with a scallop shell painted with the camino emblem attached to their backpack or their wooden walking stick.
Razor clams are a favourite, as are clams, more pedestrian (but still fabulous) mussels and gnarly percebes, plucked from the cliffs before the waves crash in by expert brave fishermen. If you have been to Spain you will have noticed the percebes, it is hard to imagine that you can eat them that first time they take you by surprise. Black and pointed, looking like a velociraptor talon, not something tender, saline and delicious. Harvested in Galicia and popular in Spain, they are cooked by plunging them briefly in boiling salted water for just a couple of minutes. Pinching them to remove the outer leathery carcass reveals a delicate addictive interior, juicy and bright.
Popular also are chocolate brown prawns (camarones), which I bought with local chef Xosé Cannas live and wriggling in the local market in Pontevedra. We boiled them briefly in his restaurant Ultramar until bright pink and we ate them with speed. They were gorgeous. Succulent and sweet, as I sat and tucked in, I understood the passion Galicians have for their wonderful fresh seafood and shellfish. They love it, respect it and cook it just so, never more. Always fresh and often alive before it meets the kitchen.
I was keen to see what was behind the plate on my table. We made our way to Muros, a small coastal town with a strong fishing heritage, as with all of Galicia. Churches there have ceilings that look like upturned boats and occasionally you will notice a house with a glamorous front, often built by returning emigrants from the US with romanesque features. These fronts pop in grey seaside towns, built to accommodate fishing boats delivering fishermen home for supper.
I went out to visit a mussel farm on a 100 year old mussel boat, a gorgeous wooden vessel complete with carved masthead (was he Neptune?) restored to former glories. We boarded the boat on an in-between day, a type of day that every Irish person will be familiar with. Starting grey, becoming blue and bright and returning to grey again before bolting to blue with fluffy clouds once more. Galicia is often compared to Ireland, for many reasons. The Celts settled there and there has been much traffic of fishermen between Galicia and Ireland for hundreds of years. Galicians are pale and have dark hair, a few times I had people speak Spanish to me, assuming that I was from there. (And I am a peculiarly pale creature).
There are many small shellfish farms in the harbours of Galicia. Small pontoons disguise ropes heavy with shellfish below, the ropes gripping the pontoon and the and the shellfish gripping the ropes. Mussels, oysters and scallops commonly. There are approximately 4000 mussel farms in Galicia, large rafts crafted of eucalyptus that would make you mindful of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and their escapades, with up to 500 ropes each. Each rope when mature can have half a tonne of mussels clinging to it. Mussels that started their lives as wild seed on Galician rocks. They are gathered at 3 months and attached to the rope by a biodegradable net which gives them just enough time to cling on before fading into the sea. At 18 months they are mature enough for our tables.
We were short on time, if we had had more I would have cooked some mussels on that boat for us to eat. I hope I can return and do that some day. We finished with a small glass of the local orujo, a liquer distilled from wine, with the fishermen. We toasted the fabulous fishermen who we raised a glass with, the shellfish of Galicia and the sea. A joy of a day.
I visited Galicia with the #inGalicia blog trip, created and managed by Captivate in partnership with Spain.Info (who sponsored the trip). I maintain full editorial control of the content published on Eat Like a Girl at all times. The Joaquin Vieta is available for hire for groups up to approximately 20 for €100 an hour, and food and drink can be arranged.