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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