Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Galicia: Stay Away From Last Week's Pulpo

(Don't forget, there are lots more photos posted here.

On the final leg of this journey, in a plane heading to Dallas (!), on the return to Portland. Not sure why American routes NY-PDX trips this way, I know they could go through Chicago, but, it is what it is.

I had hoped to do more regular posts, if not every day, then every other. But that was not meant to be. Seemed like there were very few free moments--exploring Santiago, Florence, Rome, visiting with Carlos, Cosimo, Rebecca (and Lidia and Allen in Rome for a couple of lunches) and just being in these wonderful places, there just wasn't enough time. In Santiago, Carlos and I rarely got to sleep before 1 or 2am--it was 5 or later after the Festa in Couso--and I have been literally exhausted most of this trip. Then I came down with an awful cold in Florence which hung out for at least a week or more and that stole whatever extra energy I might have had for writing. I'll try to fill in some gaps over the next few days. Crap, I still have some things from Rio to scribble down.

Ok, the food in Galicia was pretty awful which is pretty funny considering it was food that was one of the primary reasons Carlos and I decided to go there (see the first post on Galicia in the archive). Galcia is Spain's seafood horn of plenty.

When you look at the coastline in the satellite photos on Google Maps, you see row after row of something in every cove and inlet.

Zoom in and you'll see that they are clusters of shellfish "farms" where mussels and other such creatures are cultivated…there are thousands of these floating platforms up and down the coast.

Walk around Santiago's old town and you will see the product of them in every restaurant window, along with octopus, lobsters, crabs, barnacles (called percebes), and all sorts of fish.

Oh, there are also whole beef loins, and other hugh cuts of meat in these refrigerated window displays. Kinda makes you wonder how fresh your food is in any of these since most of the restaurants seemed to be largely empty most of the time. How long has that fish been in that window, señor?

We tried 10 or 15 different restaurants over our week in Santiago, and with the exception of two, all were disappointing and went on the "Don't Go Back" list. We did find a couple of more informal "tapas" places we wandered into more than a couple of times, partly for the food, for me, largely for the beer or wine, and especially, just to soak up some of the local customs and ambience.

Galicia was, and maybe still is, a very impoverished region of Spain. The food still reflects this rather spartan approach to nourishment: lots of boiled potatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, turnip greens, called grelos, and so on. Salt must have been too expensive in the old days, and it doesn't occur much in comida galega. This is one of the reasons why so many dishes tasted so flat. One night I ordered a plate of steamed mussels, and that is exactly what I got: steamed mussels…no salt, no seasoning of any kind, no oil, no garlic….N-A-D-A. Had they been seasoned in the least, they would have been spectacular since I'm sure they were very fresh. But for me, they were blah. I managed to score a bit of salt and used that some, but even that didn't wake them up much. My steamed mussels at home, even made with bivalves bought at Safeway are a million times tastier….

One dish we had several times that is a typical Galician starter was caldo galego, or Galician soup which is a meat broth laced with chopped grelos, chunks of potato and sometimes a bit of sausage. Usually, this dish too benefited from a dash or three of salt. Can't remember which, but one version used a broth that must have been ham or bacon based, and it was quite tasty.

Another ubiquitous offering in Santiago is the empanada, but don't think of little turnovers as we are used to from Argentina, but rather, think of a very thin pie, filled with some type of savory filling, no more than a quarter of an inch thick with the entire pie perhaps an inch to an inch and a half, and sometimes delightfully golden brown.
One morning I saw these being delivered to restaurants from a pushcart loaded with trays of empanadas. Carlos ordered one of thesa at a favorite bar called the Gato Negro and he found it delicious; I think the filling was chicken. On our next visit to this humble place which seemed to only attract locals and was, interestingly, maybe the only non-smoking place we entered in all of Galicia, Carlos ordered another slice of empanada. But, surprise! This time the filling was not chicken, not tuna, but instead, the nasty, ever-present pulpo, or octopus! It was amusing to see him pick out the tiny tentacles, and then nibble on the pastry. Yuk, I would have never have eaten even just the pastry, contaminated as it was with tentacle juice and stray sucker molecules! Brave man.

Our first night in town we stopped into one of at least 30 restaurants along the main drag leading from the cathedral, Rua Franco. This place, Taberna do Bispo was mentioned in some of the reading I'd done on Santiago, so we wanted to sample some of their very appealing tapas displayed across the bar. We picked four or five items and drank a couple glasses of wine.
The food was decent, not amazing. But it was fun to choose from the great variety on offer. The routine seems to choose a few tapas, drink a glass of wine, then head to the next bar on the list. We did this a few nights during our week.

The Gato Negro was a regular stop, as was a more student-oriented place, off the tourist trail, called the Cabalo Branco, one of our other favorites run by an older guy and his son, who was in his late forties, at least. The cool thing about this place was that, anyone ordering a drink was presented with a plate of free munchies which varied from night to night. We had bread and cheese, croquettes, a bit of emapnada, and so on, all pretty good.

Draft beer was amazingly present throughout Santiago, and I'm not sure if that is because it's a university town, or just something common to the area, which, by the way, produces some decent wines, especially whites like Albariño and Ribeiro. I liked 'em both, but I ended up drinking more beer, at least on our bar hops.

The local beer is call Estrella Galicia and is pretty quaffable, a light pilsner-style beer. In the bars, one orders a caña, and I had plenty! The Estrela folks provided bars selling their products with a variety of tap styles. Here are a couple.

The one actual restaurant we returned to twice was Casa Manolo, and, unfortunately, we only found it toward the end of the trip. It is apparently a fairly new place with a very contemporary interior.
The other tradition they broke was providing food that actually had flavor! We had a great bowls of lentil soup, caldo galego, a nice plate of fried chicken, a pork milanesa (think chicken fried steak) and on the last visit, some delicious roasted pork ribs that we missed on our first visit. And the funny thing was, this was the cheapest place we ate at: only eight Euros (about twelve bucks) for a full lunch including soup, meat, dessert and a glass of wine.

Very nice. In Europe these days, that is a real bargain. Our mighty dollar ain't so mighty anymore, but rather, the US is more like a third-world country. Thanks to Bush and his insane war mongering. Idiot.

Santiago is a wonderful little town (about 130,000, with 35,000 students), very special, and, yes, magical. I can recommend a visit to anyone interested in exploring a quaint, well-preserved Spanish town with a fascinating history, and very special music. However, pack a lunch, or stick with tapas. Unless you consider pulpo and boiled potatoes gourmet dining, you won't be impressed with the chow.

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