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Gourmet Galicia: Sampling the Atlantic Diet

Gourmet Galicia: Sampling the Atlantic Diet
Galicians take their food very seriously, with almost every meal a feast and tasting still a ritual. Anna Maria Espsater joins them on a culinary journey. 
 
For the unversed, arriving in Galicia can be a disconcerting prospect. With its abundant greenery and ancient Celtic roots, you could be forgiven for thinking you had inadvertently rocked up in Wales. But this north-western corner of Spain has a culture and heritage all its own; an enticing mix of Celtic connections, Portuguese influence and Spanish mores.

Its culinary traditions stem from the small fishing communities that dot the rugged coastline; from the region’s long-standing affair with the sea; and from mountainous, inland vineyards plump with Albariño and Treixadura grapes.
I made Santiago de Compostela the first stop on my gastronomic pilgrimage and it proved to be a smart decision. One of Galicia’s key attractions, Santiago is perhaps best known for its imposing cathedral, complete with shrine to St. James and UNESCO World Heritage Site status since 1985. It is where the devout, or just plain energetic, flush up after their 780 kilometre long walk along the Way of St. James. I skipped the hike and opted to go straight to dinner at a spot where many of these weary pilgrims descend from their journey; Hostal de los Reyes Católicos.

Founded by the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, in 1499, it is one of Spain’s best Paradores. Its restaurant serves good Galician grub and provides a noble introduction to the region’s cuisine. Think cooked hams; cured hams; spicy sausages; empanadas (small pastry parcels, stuffed with all manner of delightful savoury fillings); rustic bread; Pulpo al Gallego (traditional Galician octopus with olive oil and sweet paprika); scallops, langoustines and marinated peppers served with crisp Galician whites, and you should be
Gourmet Galicia: Sampling the Atlantic Diet
drooling. It promised well for my journey to come.

The city buzzes with business and it’s tempting to linger, but travel further and you’ll get a real feel for life and food as it is lived in much smaller communities . The dramatic coastline is made up of rías, ancient sea valleys reminiscent of fjords, with many tiny fishing villages dotting the spectacular landscape. In Rías Baixas lies the settlement of Combarro, a quiet backwater on the Ría de Pontevedra. Impossibly picturesque and timeless, the village houses several hórreos, old-fashioned wooden huts built on stilts. Elsewhere these are used for keeping grain, but here they have been utilised to help dry the fish. Nearby O Grove on Ría de Arousa displays a more modern side, where mussels keep Galicia’s fishing industry alive. Floating rafts of eucalyptus wood, known as bateas, are used to farm the mussels, and you can take a boat with glass interiors to get up close to the rafts and gaze at the thick ropes dangling below laden heavy with the beasts. The onboard chef commits alchemy to transform the mouth-watering pickings into a simple, but delicious lunch of freshly steamed mussels served with an obligatory white Albariño wine.

The next small settlement along the coast is Cambados, home to the Fefiñanes Bodega, a local wine producer that specialises in the albariño grape variety as well as the potent Galician tipple orujo. This grape-based spirit is best enjoyed in moderation, but some of the different flavoured versions are divine . Several restaurants along the Cambados stretch of coast make their own orujo and both the tostado and coffee-flavoured varieties make for a splendid digestif. Either will have you singing all the way back to Santiago.

If Galicia is best known for its coastline, venture inland and you’ll find something altogether different; a landscape covered by patchworks of pine forest and deep river canyons slicing through the mountains. Seafood and fish feature heavily in the Galician diet, but up here in the hills you can satisfy meat cravings with everything from suckling pig to tender venison.

In the mountainous south, Mondariz, home to one of the region’s spas, known for its mineral-medicinal waters and healthy fresh air, is a great place to move from munching to mooching. Once recovered and ready for more culinary sampling, it’s a short hop to Vigo, the region’s largest city and one of Spain’s busiest ports. There is an excellent seafood market in the city where you will hear cries of, “Ven a probar las ostras”, (Come try my oysters) from the boisterous oyster ladies. I had my heart set on the full works and was spoilt for choice. With the day’s catch piled high - lobsters, clams and crayfish, mussels, crabs and scallops – a sumptuous seafood paella covers the range very nicely.

The final stop of my gourmet tour was the small historic town of Baiona, within waving distance of the Portuguese border. An old fortress, now a parador, surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean overlooks the town and its replica of the Carabela Pinta, the first ship to arrive back from Columbus’ journey to the Americas. History is palpable here and the town’s cloistered nuns still sell cakes baked to centuries-old recipes which they serve through a hole just big enough to slide a Tarta de Santiago (an almond-based crumb cake) round a miniature turnstile in the convent wall.

And if life moves at a slow and steady pace, nowhere is that more apparent than at mealtimes. The Galicians take their food seriously; every meal is still a feast and tasting still a ritual. I’ll drink an orujo to that!

Further Information: Spanish Tourist Board (www.tourspain.co.uk) and the Galician Tourist Board( www.turgalicia.es).
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