Spain: Stalking the Wild Tapas of Santiago de Compostela

Hake stew los Hornos
Hake stew los Hornos

Eating Galicia: A foodie's Holy Land

By Paul Shoul
Photos by Paul Shoul

The capital of Galicia, Spain, Santiago de Compostela, is home to one of the world’s great cathedrals, the end of the road for thousands of Pilgrims who have walked here since the Middle Ages seeking salvation. I was stalking the perfect bite, and I was in the right place.

Serving up the beef at O Dezaseis
Serving up the beef at O Dezaseis. Paul Shoul photos.

Santiago is a beautifully preserved historic town, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Galicia is also blessed with some of the best food anywhere. Brilliant fresh local produce, cheese shaped like a woman's breast, grass-fed beef and the most abundant seafood in Spain.

It is a foodie's holy land. I saw a funny sign about the religious pilgrims with a picture of two blistered feet and the caption "No Pain No Glory" to describe their arduous journey to the cathedral.

My pilgrimage to Galicia was to be equally inspirational but was to attend the Atlantic Food Conference, learn as much as I could about Galician cuisine, and search out the best restaurants in town.

There would be the inevitable "pain" of eating too much on this journey, but what the hell, one must expect to pay something for enlightenment.

This is the second year that Galicia has hosted the Fórum Gastronómico Santiago. It features presentations and classes by some of the world’s great chefs and a multitude of exhibitors from the best Spanish food and wine companies.

Pedro Roca, a Galician chef, prepares empanadas.
Pedro Roca, a Galician chef, prepares empanadas.

Aside from the crowds grazing on free samples were the restarauteurs, wine experts and chefs who had come to the conference learn from each other.

I attended a presentation by Chef Pedro Roca on a traditional Galician specialty. This was a nuts and bolts presentation for professionals.

He made three empanadas (meat pies): an open-face sardine tomato red pepper and onion in the traditional Galician shape of an oval boat: an autumn pie with chestnut flour and wild mushrooms and one of layered crusts with mushrooms and chicken.

When Ferran Adria speaks... the food world perks up its collective ears, clears its palate and pays close attention to this enthusiastic man whom many have labeled the best chef in the world. Ferran’s “Molecular Gastronomy" breaks down food to its essence and then rebuilds it into any form.Galician empanadas are renowned, and he is a master. I went with some star-struck trepidation to the next presentation by the chef who has changed everything.

The creator of culinary foam, he turns apples into caviar and given the urge could surely transform a grilled cheese sandwich into an asparagus. He entered the auditorium like a rock star. We were food people and he was our Messiah, a mass of cameras surrounded him (myself included).

Ferran Adria, famed for 'molecular gastronomy.'
Ferran Adria, famed for 'molecular gastronomy.'

It was quiet when he spoke. His words would be repeated over time like the gospel at food temples around the planet. During a multimedia presentation he showed us some of his fascinating cooking techniques. Each new creation was unique, whole new species of food emerged.

It was miraculous; Ferran could turn water into wine. The problem with the words of the Gods are that they are often not taken as the metaphor lessons as they were intended. They are internalized self interpreted and re-preached as absolute truths.

He has shown the cooking world that our limitations are self-imposed. That anything is possible. I am a huge fan, but to paraphrase Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park: "just because you can does not mean that you should."

Ferran is a true abstract artist, unrestrained by convention, but his food is like an edgy fashion show, fun to look at, it makes you think, but if you wore it to work you would look ridiculous.

His creations escaped from his laboratory, and when let loose on an impressionable world, spawned many little copycat monsters.

Oysters in San Tome.
Oysters in San Tome.

My concern is that when taken too far, the Ferran effect is in fact turning wine into water. Traditional cooking in Spain is a glorious thing; perfect food created by the world’s real greatest chef, Mother Earth.

Ferran is closing his famous restaurant el Bulli in two years, has been appointed a tourism ambassador, and commented on a need to return to traditional foods. Thank you, holy one. It is exactly what I had come to Galicia to do

Galicia is famous for its seafood. It has the largest fishing fleet in Spain and is the second largest producer of mussels in the world. We took a day trip out to Rías Baixas on the coast to the town of Cambados to visit the nearby shellfish beds at Santo Tomé - Serrido.Let's Eat!

They thrive in the balance between fresh and salt water from the estuaries. You can arrange a guided tour with one of the members of Guimatur, a cultural association of women who work as shellfish gatherers.

There is a continuous effort to monitor and maintain the health of the shellfish crop by limiting the amount that can be taken each day and strict standards for the minimum size of each type of clam.
Named after its young chef and owner, this is an upscale restaurant that combines playful nouvelle cooking, with a devoted respect for the integrity of local products.After the backbreaking work of digging, the entire harvest is purified for at least 24 hours in large tanks to purge them. They are fantastically fresh and clean, which we had a chance to discover in one of Cambados leading restaurants, Yayo Daporta.

According to Chef Yayo, everything on the tasting menu (55euro) was locally grown.

Octopus Cannelloni, oysters and cockles served with a terrine of foie gras, and my favorite, Scallop Carparccio with crunchy bread, garlic and paprika sauce were just part of the menu. Read more...

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Paul Shoul
Paul Shoul is a Northampton, MA-based photographer who doubles as a staff writer for GoNOMAD. For thirty years he's lived in the Pioneer Valley and chronicled life there though his work in the Valley Advocate and Preview magazines. He's also been seen in the Boston Globe, New York Times, BBC, the Chronicle of Higher Education and many other publications. Today as well as shooting around the world for GoNOMAD he works for local nonprofits, banks and advertising agencies.