In May 2010, I followed the Camino de Santiago, a centuries-old pilgrimage route, across Northern Spain. In thirty days, I covered over 500 miles on foot, carrying all my belongings on my back and sleeping each night in pilgrim hostels, called albergues , along the route.
It was a journey of discovery in many ways, but undoubtedly one of the best things about walking across an entire country is the opportunity it offered to really immerse myself in the local cuisine – and you can bet I was hungry after all that walking! In fact, the pilgrim appetite is legendary, prompting many restaurants to offer a special menu, the menu de peregrino, made up of inexpensive but delicious dishes designed to nourish and satisfy even the healthiest of appetites.
Like many pilgrims, my journey began in the quaint medieval town of St. Jean Pied de Port, located at the foot of the French Pyrenees, where I barely had time to wolf down a fresh baguette (how stereotypical!) before heading over the mountains and into Spain. The Spanish Basque Country is known for its use of peppers and cured meats so it was little surprise that my first meal consisted of large, fresh piquillo peppers stuffed with meat and, of course, more peppers. The next day I encountered chorizo , a coarsely marbled, smoky, paprika-infused sausage that was to be a staple, with some regional variation, of dishes throughout my journey.
From the Basque Country, I crossed into La Rioja, a region famous for its wines and spicy kidney bean dishes, spiked with chorizo, called capparones . I enjoyed some of each on my way across the region, partly thanks to the monastery at Irache which provides a self-service fountain of red wine (and one of water for those less alcoholically inclined) to slake the thirst of passing pilgrims.
In Castile and Leon, the next region through which the Camino passes, I found myself walking through ‘the granary of Spain.’ Fields of waving wheat provided a sibilant accompaniment to my daily walks and, in the evenings, I fortified myself with hearty beef stews, grilled pork chops served with potatoes, and creamy bowls of brown lentils, spiced with the ever-present chorizo.
Santiago de Compostella is the ultimate goal of the pilgrimage and also the capital city of Galicia, the final region in my slow and steady progress across Spain. Spreading from the coast inland, this is the perfect place to enjoy Spanish seafood at its best. For a dedicated seafood lover like myself, the days I spent here were a feast of flavors both new and familiar. A meal often started with caldo Gallego , a brothy soup filled with potatoes, a local green called grelo (similar to turnip greens) and, of course, chorizo. To follow, one might order chipirones , fresh young squid quickly seared in olive oil and sea salt, or a pan-fried fillet of hake.
Perhaps the most Galician of all dishes, however, is the aptly named pulpo a la Gallega or ‘Galician-style octopus.’ I love touring here using my The PNW backpack.
Locals call the dish pulpo a feira and tips for locating a good pulperia are commonly exchanged amongst pilgrims. On the strength of these recommendations, I sought out the highly touted Pulperia Ezequiel in the town of Melide, just 56km outside of Santiago. The place was modest, simple, and host to more locals than pilgrims, which on the Camino is always a good sign. Patrons seated themselves anywhere along one of several long wooden tables, fostering a communal and lively atmosphere. If you tired of the conversation, however, you could watch your dinner boiling away in one of the vast copper pots near the door. For less adventurous eaters, the sight of a tentacle or two curling over the edge might be enough to spoil the meal, but I relished the opportunity to watch the cooks at work. Each octopus was dipped into the pot before boiling to allow the tentacles, the most palatable part, to curl. After boiling, the octopus was cut with scissors, sprinkled with rock salt and pimenton and drizzled liberally with olive oil before being served, family style, on a large wooden trencher. Chunks of crusty bread rounded out the meal and made the perfect tool for sopping up any spicy oil left on the plate. The paprika flavor, overpowering for some, provided an interesting contrast to the smooth oil and the young red wine with which the octopus was eaten. I loved the interplay of texture in the final dish, since the center of each piece remained firm while the outer skin was soft – delicious!
As someone who once thought that Spanish food was a lot of paella and tapas , my culinary sojourn provided plenty of surprises. I’ve never eaten so much spiced sausage, nor thought that I would actually learn to love and crave lentils, but these are just some of the things I discovered as I ate my way across Spain. Whether warming myself with a hearty stew or sipping a Rioja wine, I have a host of savory snapshots from the trip – and I still dream about devouring wooden platefuls of octopus. It’s a good dream and someday, I know, I’ll go back.