A taste of a place – Santiago de Compostela
With its gothic streets, imposing cathedral and the sound of bagpipes, Santiago de Compostela makes for a beguiling destination. You could be forgiven for thinking you had arrived in northern France, or perhaps Ireland, (particularly given the tendency for rain here). But no, this verdant corner forms the most north westerly part of Spain, often referred to as Green Spain.
Fans of gritty “Galician Noir” dramas such as Fariña and The Mess you Leave Behind, we had long wanted to visit this evocative part of Spain, the only region we had yet to visit.
And so, in common with 1000s of others, we found ourselves a little battered but in high spirits, in the “capital” of Galicia, Santiago de Compostela at the end of our own 12 day Camino walk. A trip which, in our true fashion had been hastily arranged only 6 weeks prior to departure.
Not only had we made it in one piece, but we were hungry (particularly after 260kms on foot)! We had done our research, which told us that the 1200kms of rugged Galician coastline makes seafood the king here.
The infamous rain in this corner also produces good pastureland and thus, the region is famed for its “ternera gallego” (beef) and its cheeses including the “say what you see” named “tetilla” (small breast) cheese.
In addition to the larder of goodies, the fertile soil is key to the beautiful wines. There are 5 different wine denominations in Galicia. We happily sampled a few elegant albariños from the Rias Baixas region and also some great reds from Ribeiro and Ribeira Sacra.
Galicia is a veritable food heaven!
We loved Santiago’s dark streets with their old fashioned “ultramarinos” grocery shops. Wooden serving counters still in use (no “self service”, back in the day!). Also a multitude of tiny restaurant windows displaying their bounty of fish and meat to entice the hungry traveller in.
In the heart of the busy streets we found an oasis in the great no frills bar Bar Orense. Here the wine is still served in the traditional ceramic drinking bowls and an elderly matriach keeps her eye on all the comings and goings, including whilst we were there, a couple of loudly singing peregrinos/pilgrims, clearly “tired and emotional” after their journey.
Santiago also happens to have one of the most impressive markets we have seen.
Known locally as the “Mercado de Abastos“, this historic place feels like a village in its own right. With 8 halls and in excess of 70 stalls groaning with beautiful produce such as bacalao, cheese, cured meats, sausages, wine etc etc. Elderly ladies sit patiently on the perimeter of the market selling their homegrown produce and wares (it will make you wish you had gone self catering!).
One of the first great food experiences of our stay happened on the way in. We almost fell in the door of “Cafe Restaurante O Xantar”, seriously in need of a beer and hungry to boot after our final stint on the camino.
The excellent complimentary pintxo (bite) with a beer led us to believe we should stop for lunch, rather than continue into the city which could be busy and touristy. Touristy, this place was not and our instincts proved correct; the menu del dia here was top notch home cooking. Of particular note was the expertly fried hake fillets with steamed spuds and the bean and wild mushroom stew starter – the kind of wholesome and hearty fare that we would tend to cook at home.
We stayed at the Hospederia Tarela (Praza da Pescaderia Vela) which was in a great location, behind the cathedral and thus away from the main hubub of arriving walkers/pilgrims.
We were impressed with the local bars in “our” square; one of which served an excellent breakfast tostada con tomate, so generous it required a knife and fork.
Another bar opposite served up a trio of pintxos to accompany a drink. In fact, we were super impressed with the hospitable Galician custom of serving a complimentary pintxo with each drink. Another great example of this around another corner, were the freshly fried, homemade crisps and salsa at Damajuana (we definitely need to dine in this popular spot next time we are here, if these were anything to go by).
On our first evening in town, we ventured only as far as the market place (around 200m away – our excuse was that the old legs/feet were tired!). There we found “Abastos 2.0“; a hole in the wall joint on the outside of the market where the menu depends on what was good that day. A super fresh marinated (raw) mackerel dish with a glass of fine local wine was the order of the day.
We also made a trip to “The Green House” in the unforgettably named Rua da Conga. A friendly vegetarian/vegan restaurant with a cosy family atmosphere and cute, leafy decor. We enjoyed Egyptian falafel and some subtly spiced samosa like pastries, which I think may have been from Singapore. This little taste of spice was very welcome and reminiscent of the type of food we eat at home.
The morning after our arrival in Santiago, on gaining our “pilgrims” certificates of completion, we celebrated with a coffee in the hallowed auspices of the Parador. Uncertain whether or not visitors were allowed, we breezed by the doormen with the requisite sense of purpose and planted ourselves on the beautiful patio. Here we enjoyed a few moments in the rarified atmosphere to reflect on our achievement (and to make important decisions such as where to go for lunch)…. If you can get past the doormen, this hotel is certainly worth a visit.
To celebrate the end of our camino journey, we decided on a meal in Aisle 5 of the covered market (“Nave 5 Abastos“) with its vaulted ceiling – our favourite spot in this slightly overwhelming city. Here rows of communal wooden benches and chefs/vendors working in collaboration are to be found – a fitting location and ethos.
Amongst the cheerful throng of diners, we were served by a charming chap from “A Ostreria“, who talked us through the local wines. He then proceeded to serve up the best and freshest steamed mussels, the sweetest clams and the freshest fried anchovies we had ever tasted. This was followed by perhaps the biggest (& best) cheeseboard known to man/womankind!
Our Spanish friends had told us we wouldn’t go hungry in Galicia and they were certainly right. Not only were portions generous, the people themselves were so generous and hospitable. The quality and sheer abundance of produce here was seriously impressive and the love and pride the people had for it was clear to see.
Oh, that seafood and the albariño wine – I would come back in a heartbeat, just for those 2 things! Hasta pronto Santiago, we know there is so much more to sample – we will definitely be back…
A few other local dishes we managed to fit in during our short visit!
Empanada – savoury pastry (pie, if you are from UK) containing tuna, octopus etc. Can be individual, or more often a slab from the mother pie. Makes for a substantial snack and great for a picnic.
Octopus – Polbo a feira (Pulpo a la feira) Boiled octopus, sliced, served on a board sprinkled with olive oil, smoked paprika and sea salt. Sounds simple, but isnt. You’ll know when you’ve had the real deal.
Tarta de Santiago – The ubiquitous almond and citrus zest cake dusted with icing sugar, emblazoned with the cross of St James (Santiago). Should be moist (sometimes isnt!).