Tapas, shellfish and sweets for the pilgrim
View of the Praza do Abastos, Santiago de Compostela old market. Pablo Neustadt / © Icex
Author: Miguel Vila Pernas/©ICEX
"Ultreia!" The traditional greeting exchanged between pilgrims. On reaching the top of Monte do Gozo, they catch their first glimpse of the cathedral towers in Santiago. The end of their journey along the St James is near. In only a short time, they will be fulfilling the tradition of embracing the statue of the Apostle in the cathedral and enjoying a city that has been providing pilgrims with bed and board for over a thousand years.
As they descend Monte do Gozo, pilgrims pass the O Tangueiro bakery, from which the smell of freshly baked bread and empanada (a pastry pie with meat and vegetables) wafts on the breeze, making pilgrims want to throw away their energy bars, isotonic drinks, nuts, dried fruit and all the other high-tech fuel for the physical exertions undergone along the way.
Plaza del Obradoiro shows Santiago in all its splendor. It is like an architectural catalogue: Romanesque art in the Colegio de San Xerome, Baroque in the cathedral façade, Neo-Classic in Palacio de Raxoi, and Plateresque in the old pilgrims' hospital, now a five star hotel: Hostal de los Reyes Católicos. In keeping with its tradition, the Hostal provides breakfast, lunch and dinner free of charge to the first ten pilgrims to arrive at its door every day with their Compostela (proof that they have covered at least the last 100 km / 62 miles on foot or 200 km / 124 miles by bicycle of along the St James' Way).
If you are not one of the Hostal's guests, a second option for pilgrims carried away by the colors, smells and flavors of Galician products is to visit the second most famous monument in Santiago de Compostela, Plaza de Abastos (the city market), built in 1941 in the same place it had been occupying since the second half of the 19th century.
The place is a typical food marketplace, with 70 traders selling the best food from the sea, the market garden and Galician livestock. There are lots of paisanas, women from the villages surrounding the city who take their own produce to sell in the market, including fruit, vegetables, eggs, etc. This traditional aspect of the market is combined with more modern services, such as home delivery, telephone or Internet shopping, delivery of products to anywhere in Spain, and a vacuum packing service used by many pilgrims for their purchases.
In the market, travelers can also come across the city's best chefs buying top class food for their restaurants. Marcelo Tejedor or Manuel García, are regular visitors to the marketplace. The bar in the square means you can eat your purchases there and then, so many visitors buy their fresh shellfish and take it to the bar, where it is cooked and eaten straightaway.
On Bars and Taverns
The city's many bars, taverns and restaurants offer a wide and varied range of gourmet options for pilgrims arriving in Santiago. To start, how about a selection of tapas? In Compostela it is traditional to serve a free tapa with drinks at midday or in the evening, before lunch and dinner. University students are fans of these pinchos, as these tapas are known, with names such as cocodrilo (pork with potatoes) in Bar Abellá, or tigres (spicy mussels) served in Bar Trafalgar, cooked pig's ear in Orella or the simple yet delicious stewed potatoes in Negreira, known locally as El Patata. In the new part of town, Bar Avión serves homemade tapas during the week. On Fridays no expense is spared and you get a whole velvet crab with your glass of wine!
The custom of serving a free tapa with your glass of wine or beer is common throughout Santiago, although there are bars where you have to pay for them (usually at a very reasonable price) but they are a little more elaborate. A Taberna do Bispo, in Rúa do Franco, was the first place to do this and was later followed by bars such as El Patio, Casa Rosalía and El Yunque. Abastos 2.0 is the one of the latest surprises in Santigo de Compostela culinary scene. It has become an example of how to create an innovative business model for a tapas bar.
Pilgrims watching their purses can, if they wish, eat informally by trying some of the smaller dishes (known as raciones) served in the city's bars. A classic place to do this is O Gato Negro, one of the last remaining traditional taverns, famous for its fantastic stews. Cockles, xoubas (small sardines) are all popular, as is their conger eel empanada (a kind of pie), which arrives at midday and is gobbled up immediately.
Sitting Down at the Table
Santiago has restaurants to suit all tastes and budgets. Depending on your preference, a wide range of choices is available, from a menú del día (menu of the day) or pilgrims' menu (starter, main course, dessert, bread and a drink) costing around ten euros, through to the most modern signature cuisine. O Dezaseis is a favorite with visitors, and so is the innovative Casa Marcelo, which has no a la carte, just one menu.
In the city's busiest tourist areas, such as Rúa do Franco and Calle Raíña, shop windows display a huge variety of fish and shellfish, as well as beef and other meats. One of the greatest exponents of Galician beef is the great Basque chef, Martín Berasategui. He declared recently that Galician beef was "the best beef I have ever tasted". In terms of Galician shellfish, you have to admit that the spider crabs, velvet crabs, clams, cockles, goose barnacles and other shellfish from the Galician coast are some of the best in the world, but they are expensive.
Pilgrims are particularly fond of scallops, whose shell is the traveler's badge of honor. Traditional restaurants in Santiago will serve it to you oven-baked, with finely chopped onion and tomatoes, although innovative chefs tend to serve them lightly cooked, to bring out all the flavor.
Peppers from Padrón (although they are actually from Herbón) are among the most traditional food served in Compostela. In the market square you can buy them from the women (known as pimenteiras), who bring them into town in huge baskets.
These peppers are sold "por cientos" rather than by weight (a "ciento" is about 400 gr / 14 oz.). Remember that the pimenteiras can distinguish between sweet and hot peppers, so their baskets only contain sweet ones. If you want a hot pepper, ask the seller and she will get you one from another, smaller basket, and not charge you for it.
You also need to bear in mind that peppers from Padrón are seasonal and available from June to October. Out of season the peppers will be from southern Morocco, but they are not such good quality and they have a somewhat unpleasant feature: some of them are incredibly hot.
Another seasonal product (in this case, winter) and very typical of Compostela is the lamprey, a fish that has been swimming around in Galician waters for 500 million years. A delicacy much loved by Roman Caesars, nowadays it is popular with the best gourmets, who compare it to game meat.
Its firm flesh and a strong flavor, together with the fact that it is cooked in its own blood and wine, certainly makes it taste more like game meat than fish. Two of the best restaurants in Santiago where you can try this unusual fish are Don Quijote and Sexto II, where they serve it Bordelaise style (cooked in wine), in an empanada (a local pastry pie) or in a stew.
The traditional dessert here is Tarta de Santiago, a tart made with almonds, eggs and sugar since ancient times, and available all over the city in shops and restaurants. A lot of them are made in factories, but if you want the handmade version, go to A Troia or El Coral pastry shops.
Tartas de Santiago, cheese and Galician wine are just a few of the many memories travelers take with them when they leave the city. If you do not want to restrict yourself to tourist shops, look for old-fashioned local grocers (Recouso, Valladares...) and ask for something more, such as the excellent Galician fish and shellfish preserves, Galician wheat bread or the unique Spanish liquors and eau-de-vie inscribed under a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI). You can find delicious Galician cheeses in an unusual shop, La Casa de los Quesos. And if you want to surprise someone, or be surprised, look for a little bottle of extra virgin olive oil from the ancient olive groves south of Lugo. Only a few liters are released for sale each year.