Monthly Archives: August 2011

London Food Haunt No 1: Casa Nostra Cafe

Our top-10 countdown arrived at my single favorite place to eat in London: the Casa Nostra Cafe. I’m a little daunted by having to describe the Casa Nostra, so let’s begin with a few statistics.

Yelp reviews: 0
Google Places reviews: 0
AllinLondon reviews: 0
Visit London reviews: 0
Trip Advisor reviews: no listing

It would probably therefore be advisable to provide a map so that you guys can actually find it.

6 Hastings Street. Why yes, my fellow scholars, that pinpoint is just three tiny blocks away from the British Library!

Obviously it is rather remarkable to find a cafe in London which nobody has ever reviewed online and which only three or four people, according to Google and Flickr, have ever photographed. And yet find it my friend Ned and I did, one cool day last October when we needed a quick lunch before popping back to the British Library. I’ve since gone back–what–thirty times? More?

The Casa Nostra Cafe recently brought on a big, jolly Polish lady to assist at lunchtimes. Until then, and even now outside of peak hours, the staff consists of two grandfatherly men named Mario. If you suggest that this is confusing, chef Mario will say, with accompanying illustrative hand gestures,  “No, no! Small Mario, Big Mario.”

Small Mario is the chef, his hair graying, his face set in a perpetual smile behind Geppetto glasses, with a pack of cigarettes somewhere in reach (for use outside) and the poofy white hat which denotes his profession and matches his white apron. Big Mario is the waiter, also in glasses but clad all in black as if to heighten the contrast between their sizes and indeed their personalities: he’s the contemplative one, the one who reveals himself by degrees with each successive visit.

Except for breakfasts, English cafe foods are almost all pre-made. Hundreds of chain shops sell BLTs in little paper boxes. Charlotte Street’s otherwise excellent Italia Uno, which makes sandwiches large enough to club a small animal with, has its pasta set out on the counter in unappealing tubs. None of this is done at the Casa Nostra Cafe. If you walk in the door, engage in a brief staring-contest with the board listing today’s pasta specials, and ask for something like the amatriciana (penne, ham, onions and spices in a tomato sauce), spaghetti polpettine (which is what Italians actually call “spaghetti with meatballs”), or the rarely-offered but earth-moving puttanesca (capers, olives, anchovies, and a whole lot of garlic and chili pepper), then Mario will bring you a glass of water and some silverware while Mario starts cooking your meal from scratch.

Pasta puttanesca, a hungerer's best friend.

Important caution: this is pasta as real Italians make it, without any of the bonus Olive Garden trappings. Yes, Mario comes around with parmesan, but if you order “pesto pasta,” you won’t get a basil pesto white wine cream sauce with pine nuts, onions, and a sprig of parsley. You’ll get noodles with pesto on them. If you order “spaghetti bolognese” or “spaghetti polpettine,” there will be some tomato sauce, to be sure, but not the inch-thick layer of gloopy rich vegetable chunks you get in cans.

Pictured: Thing That Would Annoy an Italian Chef

Mario and Mario will also be happy to serve you up a tomato, basil and mozzarella salad, or–from opening at 6 a.m. to the cafe’s ill-defined closing hour somewhere around 2 p.m.–a full English breakfast. Now, the full English breakfast is a sacred art in England, as you can imagine, although, like barbecue in the States, there are regionalisms: in Yorkshire, for example, they fry everything and serve you blood sausage.

The Full English at Casa Nostra is the best I have ever had:

Front row: toast, beans, sausage, fried egg, tomato, bacon. Back row: Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (in English and Greek on facing pages), cup of tea. Please note that the cup of tea is included in the price, but Marcus Aurelius isn't (although...read on).

Now, the food at Casa Nostra is by no means the best food I had in London. Even the puttanesca may not crack my top five London dishes. No, the Casa Nostra takes the top spot because it is an experience.

When you read as much travel literature as I do, about intrepid westerners accidentally bumbling into The Perfect Local Place that nobody from out of town knows about, where everyone orders “the usual” and the food is perfect and the atmosphere inimitable, you start to feel cheated, like that place can’t really exist. There can’t be a secret kept so well it avoids the fate of Anthony Bourdain, a camera crew, and overnight fame. Indeed, on the Rome episode of his show Anthony Bourdain deliberately refrains from naming a restaurant because he doesn’t want to ruin its perfection.

Mario and Mario told me to tell my friends about them. Still–over the course of the year, more and more with each visit, a little voice in the back of my mind said, this is that place. This is the magic of the Local Hole-in-the-Wall. Eating at Casa Nostra you feel like you know a really great secret. The tiny dining room has posters of Italian country scenes and a small plaque with a corny Italian-American joke, in a frame that’s much too big.  The clientele are almost all people who live on the same block and they greet Mario and Mario by name. Day in and day out, small Mario hurls friendly insults at the cabbie who sets his taxi on the curb in front and dashes in for a sandwich and chips.

And then there’s big Mario, in black. He’s quieter, straight-faced, possessed of a thoughtfulness so deep it could easily be misread as sadness. Mario is fascinated by the madness of the English language, and cracks puns which, rather than drawing groans, reveal some sort of fundamental and even slightly embarrassing absurdity. He adds a dash of parmesan to your friend’s meal, turns, and says, “Some parmesan for you?” You say, “Yes please!” He finishes: “…or for your pasta?”

To get big Mario talking, bring a book. Any book will do. Mario loves books; he once told me he has two thousand of them at home, and that they are his “pride and joy.” He’s especially interested in (if I’m remembering this correctly) ancient Egyptian architecture and Japanese botany. Each new visit revealed a new facet of Mario’s reading. One day he told me the Latin names and origins of every weed in the pavement in front of the cafe. One of the weeds came from Peru; “a long way to come to live on this street.”

One day Mario set a glass of water in front of me and said, “水のガラス.” I said, “What?” Mario said, “水のガラス.” I looked perplexed and suddenly panicked: what if he was speaking in English and my confusion was an insult to his accent? But no: “It is Japanese for ‘glass of water.'” “Oh!” “Yes. Now you can say ‘glass of water’ in Japanese.” “Thank you.” A humble nod and Mario stepped away.

Then there was the meal, photographed above, in which I was reading an edition of Marcus Aurelius with Greek on the left-hand pages and English on the right. Mario picked up the book, said “Ah! Marcus Aurelius! Are you reading it in the original?” Somewhat sheepishly (since I had a good guess what was about to happen), I admitted to reading the English. He placed his finger in the middle of the Greek page and began to read aloud.

Big Mario mans the counter.

I’m always worried that the Casa Nostra Cafe’s appeal is only clear to me. I’m always worried that I will take people there and they will say, “why on earth do you love this place so much?” It can grow sadly quiet, and it has not been decorated or remodeled in what feels like decades; the lighting leaves everything looking rather yellow. Surely there are other places to get breakfast, and other places to get pasta, if not as good and not made right before you. The Casa Nostra’s charms are unflashy: the cast of regulars, the two Marios and their personalities, chef Mario’s unflagging enthusiasm, the not-infrequent squabbling in Italian, the days when somebody has left a gigantic wheel of cheese on the counter, the banter about plant species and Japanese gardens and seeing Aristophanes performed in the original Greek, the droll wit, the irrefutable authenticity of the whole experience. I suppose my fear has been that it is easy to visit once or twice and never realize that this is the place travelers always dream of finding: the totally unknown local haunt where all the cliches of the Undiscovered Gem can come true.

My fears reached fever pitch when I took my two best friends from America for a breakfast visit to Casa Nostra in February. Would they think me crazy? Would they love it as much as I do? All the worrying was for nothing. When big Mario found out that my friends had traveled all the way from Texas, he was so overjoyed that he started doing magic tricks with the silverware.

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London Food Haunt No 2: Tayyabs

Queuing–that is, standing in line, to you Americans–is a great English art form. If queuing were an Olympic sport, with judging for orderliness, peaceful disposition, lack of cutting, and lack of complaining, the English would win every round every year. And, in my eleven months in London and its environs, I have never seen a queue as perfect as the line to get a table at Tayyabs.

Every night from about 7 p.m. onwards, hungry lovers of Pakistani food wait for their fill of London’s definitive curry and tandoori. At the head of the line is a tall manager with a tie who holds a receipt-tape list of everyone who’s made a booking for the night and furiously crosses out each name with pen when the appointed party arrives, and then makes them wait a few minutes anyway, probably to scare them. The main line files past the door to a private dining room, past three small tables for couples or singles, across the front desk with its phones and business cards, along a wall back into the restaurant past plaques and newspaper clippings attesting to Tayyabs’ nearly 40 years of legendary cooking, past the corner where people who need to use the bathroom politely say “excuse me” and duck across the burgeoning queue, across the face of the sweets counter where an aging man tends to the wares and puts your ordered-up desserts in little paper bags, and then, if the queue is particularly long on this night, out at last into the main dining area, while seated people around you devour food so divine they all look like they’re being kissed for the first time. The longest I have ever stood in line for a table at Tayyabs was 50 minutes.

The service is brutally efficient, totally inhuman, and a miraculous example of hive-mind. Waiters swoop in on your table with crispy papadum crackers and chutneys, communicate almost solely by eye contact, and bring your meal before you’ve even had a chance to want it. I once clocked the turnaround time on a complete table-busing at 30 seconds, including the supplying of fresh place settings. The waitstaff are like a swarm of bees, one of them always appearing out of nowhere to address your slightest need, take your finished meal or pile even more stuff on your table. This is fortunate because Tayyabs have maximized their floor space by cramming tables so close together that customers are effectively unable to move.

My friend Michelle illustrates how to get trapped in the corner by zealous staffers pushing tables together.

So you get the idea: Tayyabs is an institution, on the same block since 1974, with no amount of expansion able to stem the flood of customers. The restaurant roars with life, loud, happy life, and since it doesn’t serve alcohol a little over a third of the life roaring through the restaurant is drinking booze it brought from home (Tayyabs doesn’t charge any “corking” fees either).

And then there’s the food.

Pictured: lamb heaven (foreground), spinach heaven (back left), banana lassi heaven (back right)

Your choices are many, so visit often. The “dry meat,” a favorite of my professors, sounds decidedly unappetizing but isn’t really all that dry; it just doesn’t come in a sauce. The lamb falls apart underneath your fork. Of course, it also does that in the karahi gosht, or lamb curry (above), and also for that matter in the chana gosht, a stew of lamb and chickpeas (bottom of post). Tarka dhal (lentils) come rich with spice–not the spicy kind so much as the mouthwatering-flavor kind–and the spinach dishes draw contented sighs, but the real stars are the meat dishes, expertly grilled to a tenderness the English are otherwise very shy about. The chana gosht, in particular, is like a Bollywood wedding in your mouth: loud, exuberant, festive, brimming with every color in the flavor-palette, something you haven’t quite encountered before but something you know you can’t possibly miss for a second. (Yes, Tayyabs is Pakistani and therefore not of Bollywood. Whatever.)

If it all gets a little too spicy, make sure you have a jug of banana lassi at hand (the mango lassi is the only disappointment I’ve ever encountered here): the rich yoghurty banana drink will keep your tongue alive and your stomach peaceable no matter how spicy an item you order.

Saag allo (I think) (half-finished)

Take your time eating, because as soon as you finish the Tayyabs waitstaff will swoop in, take your plates, and bring you the bill and goodbye chocolates. There’s a queue, after all. But to fight it you may use your secret weapon: the naan. Tayyabs’ naan (just regular will do, you don’t need the garlic kind) strikes a miraculous trapeze balance between sponginess, feather-lightness, and grilled flavor, and there is no shame in abandoning your silverware and scooping your food up with your bread. In fact, the greater shame may lie in not joining naan and dhal in happy marriage.

Yes, yes, you must often wait quite a long time to eat at Tayyabs. Yes, waiters sometimes forget your drink or your rice. Yes, papadums are sometimes free and sometimes not. But this is not a restaurant you complain about, or even review. Tayyabs is like a really good friend: you get used to its quirks while learning to love it. Not that it’s very hard to learn. Not that it’s very hard to sink into your chair after a 50-minute wait, dip into the mango chutney, breathe deeply, and let a look of serenity rise up the lines of your face as you realize the wait has been worth it.

When I started telling people that I was moving to London, back in March 2010, one of the very first replies I got was the (at the time cryptic) remark, “I am jealous of your newfound proximity to Tayyabs.” Back then, of course, I had no idea what the speaker might mean. Now–well, if anyone I know says they’re going to London, I may well reply exactly the same way.

Up close and personal with chana gosht. God I'm going to miss this.

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London Food Haunt No 3: Pie Minister

This is the only chain in my top ten, but it’s no ordinary chain. Pie Minister is as English as English food gets–and that, friends, is a beautiful thing. The humor is English: the name, punning on Prime Minister, and the logo, a whimsically-designed affair.

Hello, pie-eating little bird.

The box in which a to-go pie is packaged provides “Eating Instructions: Open flap and munch.” Pie Minister’s London location is a tiny box of a place, literally nothing more than an oven, a warmer, and a counter; if you aren’t taking your pie away, you sit outside the stall at a little wooden table. In foul weather this isn’t so nice; in fair weather it’s hard to forget that you’re only a few feet from the south bank of the Thames. It’s like a picnic, but with hot pie and mash.

I’ve never had the same pie twice and have never been less than ecstatic. Each Pie Minister pie is built out of a beautiful, delicious crust, so crisp and thick that cutting it for the first time can be a challenge to new customers, and by the end you may be turning your pie on its side to better attack its miraculous shell. Inside–well, that could be one of a million things, most of them wittily named in the best English tradition. There’s the Moo & Blue, for instance: steak and blue cheese. Heidi Pie: spinach, goat’s cheese, and sweet potatoes, a thrilling combination. The Thai Pie has chicken and belly-warming green curry, the Matador is stocked with olives, chorizo and sherry, and Mr Porky Pie features pork, bacon, apples, and leeks. An awful lot of the pies contain booze: there’s steak and ale, the aforementioned chorizo and sherry, and a new Shamrock Pie with Guinness–and the pork and apple pie’s got cider in it. Maybe this is the secret that makes their fillings so rich, so explosively yummy.

You may at this point be hankering for a picture. Wish granted.

Okay, now I'm hungry.

Right to left: pie, very nice mashed potatoes, and minty peas–rather an acquired taste, and I didn’t acquire it to be honest. This was the only time I ever ordered the peas, in fact; my “usual” is pie, mash, gravy, and “Victorian lemonade” (both pulpy and fizzy).

It’s just about the quintessential English experience. Delicious, filling English food with fine ingredients in a wonderful crust, and you have it on a little paper plate with (the picture above notwithstanding) fork and knife made out of balsa wood. To go to and eat at Pie Minister, you have to brave the elements. The cheery people at the counter might put an extra stamp on your frequent-customer card. “Brown sauce” is available–it’s not good, but it’s English and it’s there, and you do kind of have to try at least a drop at the tip of one fork-tine.

Pie Minister is about as close as you can get to a picnic in London without going to Hyde Park or Hampstead Heath. It’s a cheery, funny concept brilliantly executed and it’s right in the middle of the touristy bit of London–so I spent several months walking by it thinking it was a tourist trap. Oops. Missed out on one of the city center’s quirkiest, best-priced, and most delicious little food stalls. Who couldn’t love Pie Minister?

Go on then, dig in.

If you’ll permit me a bit of a teaser, though…

There’s a bit of a step up from here to the top two food haunts on my list. I love Pie Minister and Borough Market and like the bagel shop well, but they are roughly the same kind of thing you can find in many a city–eccentric twists on favorites, bountiful farmers’ markets, and in Pie Minister a place that really captures the local spirit. These are essential London food haunts, but they surely have their equivalents elsewhere in the globe.

The top two spots on my list are occupied by eateries the likes of which do not exist–could not exist–anywhere else on earth. They are more than unforgettable: they are unrepeatable. They are London. Read on…

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London Food Haunt No 4: Borough Market

Borough Market is foodie paradise. It’s a bit congested by tourists and people looking out for free samples, but (a) it’s still awesome, and (b) the free samples are too. This exceptional market, spilling out from under a railroad bridge in London’s Borough neighborhood and into the nearby streets, has a wealth of produce, fish, exotic meats like ostrich and kangaroo, a huge range of dessert and pastry stalls, some ready-made food vendors, and more. At one stall a Turk hawks about sixteen kinds of Turkish delight; next to him is the jam lady, with her cherry-and-port or mango-and-ginger jams; then you have the meringues, Artisan du Chocolat with its bags of misshapen factory rejects (they still taste great!), a whole row of exotic olive oils, Parmesan cheese, cheeses from Comte in France with a poster showing pictures of the dairy farms which make it, a guy handing out samples of venison sausage, and a table stacked high with loaves of artisan bread. Uto Beer sells a range of hundreds of exotic beers from around the world. An Italian stall proclaims prosecco the new champagne. Somebody’s even selling tortilla chips and salsa.

This is what foodies see on their street-corners in heaven.

Borough Market is a great place to stage an urban picnic. My parents and I had one there during my first week in London, with the aid of Comte cheese and venison sausage.

Yum-in-progress.

If you’re more patient and want to cook at home, you’re in great luck: nearly every ingredient imaginable is here, at places like the specialty shop for Spanish ingredients or the truffle oil stand. But if you just want to pop in for a bite to eat, life isn’t all that rough either. The exotic meats stall gladly sells ostrich steak sandwiches, scrumptiously off-the-beaten-path. The Spanish place will put chorizo in nearly anything. And then there are the two guys with a gigantic pan who roast duck all day.

Duck sandwich?

Your duck sandwich comes in a roll baked elsewhere at the market (I think), with mixed greens and a light helping of (non-murderous) mustard. The duck is fatty and melty and delicious.

If even that’s not doing it for you, head across the street to the Posh Banger Boys. Bangers are, of course, the English word for “sausage,” and they’re usually served as “bangers and mash”: sausage and mashed potatoes. Aside from being possibly the most meat-and-potatoes meal of all time, bangers and mash is maybe the least colorful, and not without nutritional question marks. So why not add some green veggies, a dash of vivid color, and in all probability even more nutritional question marks? Well, that’s just the Posh Banger Boys’ job:

Appearing in this family portrait: grilled Toulouse sausages, caramelized red onions, lettuce, mustard, toasted bread roll.

Also across the street from Borough Market: The Rake, Uto Beer’s pub, in which they serve something like 300 different bottled beers as well as a rotating selection of five international beers on tap. Important: don’t order something you’ve heard of before. That’s just boring.

Borough Market is just about the ideal “out to eat” experience. You walk around, you see lots of amazing things, you have a number of free samples, you buy some great jam and misshapen but saintly chocolates, and then you pig out on a duck, ostrich, chorizo, or sausage sandwich (or an equally lavish salad, or the vegan stuff I didn’t try). The fresh juice stands hook you up with something to drink, as will the prosecco guys and the beer shop. Sure, it’s crowded, but people flock to Borough from across London for a reason. It’s got something for everyone. What’s not to love?

Some of the many temptations I'd be glad to be led into at Borough Market.

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London Food Haunt No 5: Brick Lane Beigel Bake

At the northern end of Brick Lane stand two bagel shops–actually, “beigel” shops–one next to the other. They are more or less the same (and both are open 24 hours, almost uniquely in the London food scene) (why are there so few 24-hour food places in London? Beats me), except that the one on the left has a yellow sign instead of white and will put herring in your bagel if you ask. Nevertheless, customers only ever use one or the other, and are strictly loyal, not because of any significant difference but because, like sports teams, you choose a bagel shop and then it’s yours.

So when I say that the Brick Lane Beigel Bake–the one on the right–is clearly the better one, you must keep in mind that it is in this irrationally competitive spirit. That said, The One on the Right does have some spunk. There are take-no-baloney cashiers and beigel ladies with manifestly no patience for the indecisive, drunk, or stupid. Once when I was there a homeless guy tried to sell stuff to the staff and got shouted out. Tough crowd.

The Brick Lane beigel doesn’t stack up to good old New York bagels, or so I am told by a Real Actual New York Jew. The stuff they put in it, though, is more or less unique in the bagelverse: hot salt beef. Hot, juicy, salted beef, in gigantic tender chunks, the closest England gets to brisket. And it’s all slathered with impossibly spicy Colman’s mustard, which has the same action as good wasabi and which therefore creates a sensation not unlike a black hole opening in your sinuses and collapsing the bone structure of your nose.

This is a Brick Lane Beigel:

Did I mention they're generous with the beef?

Notice, in the picture, that the mustard level in the upper right quadrant is near-lethal. The idea is to merely feel mild pain with each bite; it’s exhilarating and slightly draining, but it leaves your respiratory system feeling refreshed and by the end of the bagel you feel like you’ve had a nice workout. The cool-down ideally comes in the form of a smoked salmon and cream cheese bage…uh…beigel.

I’m going to leave the last word to my friend Tim, who crashed in London for  a night while traveling and got to experience the hot salt beef beigel first hand. We took our first bites; there was a long silence punctuated by more eating; finally, after about a half-minute, came his verdict.

“Oh, man. Transcendent.”

Pictured: transcendence.

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Favorite London Food Haunts: Nos 10-6

Farewell, London!

On 21 August, I fly back to the United States and end 11 joyous months in London. It will be a bittersweet day; I recently told a friend who asked whether I was excited or sad, “85% sad.” But everyone has to say their good-byes at some point, and over the next five blog posts I’ll be saying my farewell to London.

Of course, those of you know me know that my primary way of relating to a place is by eating its food. And, therefore, my goodbye to London will take the most personal form I can think of: a tribute to my five favorite London food haunts. So the next few posts will count down from No 5 to No 1 on my list of the London cafes, restaurants and dives I’m going to miss most.

At the request of a friend, though, here are my honorable mentions: Food Haunts Nos 10-6.

10. The Shampan, Brick Lane. The only one of Brick Lane’s 50+ curry houses which doesn’t have an annoying hawker out front begging you to eat within, and for good reason: it’s also the only curry house on the lane that’s nearly always full. The Shampan serves regional Bangladeshi food, so many of the house specials are things you’ve never heard of with lots of x’s in the names. Yummy grub.

9. Churchill Arms, Kensington. An annoyingly overpriced pub in the front, but in the back are two tiny rooms from the ceilings of which dangle approximately a billion potted plants, vines, and flower-boxes, and in those tiny rooms eager customers are served gigantic piles of delicious Thai food by a Thai family all dressed in Hawaiian shirts. A scrumptious, richly multiflavored, more than filling pad thai at American prices in a quirky conservatory setting? Sign me up.

8. Master Super Fish, Waterloo. How can you not love a place called Master Super Fish? Run by Maltese immigrants, this apparent dive is in fact a favorite among taxi drivers who park illegally in front and ask the hostess to “watch my cab and see it doesn’t get clamped,” and for good reason. The fish is all fresh and you can hear them dropping your order in the fryer. The walls are decorated with a collection of currencies from around the world, including coupons from Canada which they mistook for money. Your fish and chips come with gravy boats of ketchup and tartar sauce, plus onions and pickles if you wish. Oh, and the portions are…

...big.

7. Özer, Regent Street. The only thing in my top 10 that could possibly be considered fancy, although the price is still reasonable for the awesomeness you get. Cozy-elegant atmosphere (the waiting area is a bunch of cushions) for really, really good Turkish food–not exactly the Turkish food my mom or step-grandmother make but inspired modern twists on the classics. Baklava worth waiting for.

6. Cafe Marrakesh, Whitechapel. There’s nothing like a real lamb tagine served in Morocco, after hours and hours of exquisite slow-roasting in clay. But having your lamb tagine served to you in London does come with one benefit: you don’t get E. coli afterwards. Trust me. I’ve had it both ways. This cafe serves up a nice tagine (though the lamb is cooked with seasonal vegetables, not prunes – sigh) and pretty good smoothies too. Cash only, but one time I was short on cash and they let me bring the balance the next day. Nice guys!

They serve sandwiches, but sandwiches are for losers when you can have this:

Hungry yet? It's unthinkable that Moroccan food isn't big in the United States yet. Some day soon...

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Galician Food and the Pilgrims who Love It

The pilgrims who walk to Santiago de Compostela, and from Santiago to the Atlantic coast, are a diverse bunch. Many of them are German; in fact, Carina and I had a couple of German friends. We called them, simply, The Germans. They were two blondeish men, aged about 30, formidably tall and thin, and on our second day of walking we ran into them almost every hour. They were faster, more professional walkers, with big packs and big gaits and a lively pace, but we passed them often because they had one weakness: every time a cafe or bar appeared, The Germans stopped for coffee and cigarettes. Then we’d pass and wave to them as they smoked, and the whole process repeated itself.

There were other regulars on the path to Fisterra: a couple of blonde Spanish girls who avoided the rest of us, and who badly paced one of the longer days and as a result arrived at the night’s shelter after 9 p.m., when, due to the odd hours of the trail, I was in pajamas already; a seriously pudgy man with a messenger bag who overtook us quickly and then overtook us several more times despite us never visibly overtaking him; and a gang of six Americans, who had never met before the trail and who had all started in different places but apparently met and said, “a fellow American! We should stick together the rest of the way.”

Some of the villages were tiny enough that, for instance, we once inadvertently had dinner a table over from the six Americans. That was in Olveiroa, at a marvelous little restaurant-bar called As Pias where the menus were printed on wine bottles, the meat was divinely tender and flavorful, and the soup served in veritable pots.

A brief explanation of Galician food: they have hearty soups, lots of potatoes, and everything else is made of gigantic slabs of meat. Galicia is culturally very close to Ireland (Carina even saw a bagpiper in the street; also, compare the words “Galicia” and “Gaelic”) and the meat-and-potatoes cuisine certainly is a part of this. At one restaurant, in the coastal town of Cee, Carina and I split a platter that looked like this:

Even though we were sharing this, we could STILL only finish half. Of course, that might be because there was a first course of rice covered in fried eggs and tomato sauce. Yes, you read that correctly.

Most of the restaurants and bars on the trail serve either some cut of beef with potatoes, or bocadillos, which technically means sandwiches but in practice might better be translated as entire loaves of bread with stuff in them. Bocadillos are approximately a foot long, one small Quizno’s sandwich wide, and six inches tall. They’re also delicious, being made of terrific bread and a select handful of yummy ingredients (like the superb local chorizo). Then there are empanadas, which are, in Tex-Mex terms, more like cold quesadillas, not the empanadas we know and devour.

Carina was lucky to have temporarily abandoned her attempt at vegetarianism, because it’s a hopeless pursuit in Galicia. (Worse because there is no Spanish word for “meat”; “carne” does double-duty, also meaning “beef,” so if you ask for food without meat they bring you pork.) Our only really well-rounded meal on the trail itself was in the village of Ponte Maceira, which has an outstanding restaurant worth the extra cost to stop and savor. Take a look at our goat cheese salad, leavened with lettuce, asparagus, tomatoes, and more greens:

I could go for this right about now.

All of this more or less changes in the coastal town of Fisterra, which is both a tourist mecca of sorts and a fishing hub. The combination leads to large numbers of fish restaurants lining the city’s harbor. Fisterra is a little more crowded, and there is also a tendency for pilgrims to stay there longer, since for many of them it represents the end of weeks of walking. For Carina and me, Fisterra was a milestone of sorts, the end of the continent, but for some pilgrims it is the end of a month-long expedition.

That may explain why the walk from Fisterra north to Muxia is so little-walked; we met almost nobody on it for two days. We did run into The Germans on our way out of town in Fisterra, and they told us they were finished. We helped them find a pharmacy–one was having knee (?) problems after all that walking–and said a cheery goodbye.

Up in Muxia, the number of pilgrims was perhaps five or six at midday, when we stopped by the official shelter. Then we had a hearty lunch–in my case, a couple of small grilled fish and, what else, soup and potatoes–and got ready to board the bus back to Santiago. The bus took on a few genuine locals, plus only five or six hikers: a couple of unfamiliar faces, Carina, me, and–not really a surprise anymore–The Germans. Ah, but they had taken a taxi up the coast! I momentarily thought that this was uncharacteristically wimpy of them.

But no. They had walked all the way to Fisterra from France. They told us they had been on the trail, walking, for 36 days. One of The Germans napped the whole bus ride home; the other listened to his iPod. Carina napped, too, and I read a spy novel. It had been a long, rewarding journey–but longer for some than others.

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