Travel

Santiago de Compostela :: A Real Foodie’s City

by Richard Frisbie
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday Apr 14, 2010

Our food correspondent, Richard Frisbie, was recently in Galicia, Spain on a pilgrimage. This, however, was no religious trek; he was here for the food. Braving Santiago's inclement weather, Richard was in search of a foodie's Holy Grail - the perfect octopus dinner.

Strolling through the picturesque ancient streets of Spain's Santiago de Compostela can be a pastime in itself. When last in Galicia, a friend and I did just that; wandering the cobbled streets seeking our muse. It was February and the camellia trees were in bloom in the square. Equally colorful umbrellas blossomed in the gray mist. Naturally, a light rain was falling, helping to earn Galicia the nickname "Green Spain". It was 50 degrees, a day made for a quest in search of the elusive perfection that can be octopus.


Bar-hopping for Tapas

We restaurant- and bar-hopped through the city, chasing countless tapas with the local beer and wine. My friend grew up in Galicia - going to school in the capital city, Santiago - so everywhere we went we found ourselves greeted and joined by people he knew.

Not surprisingly, most of our conversations centered on food. My friend is in the hospitality industry, and his friends are all chefs and restaurateurs. Santiago is a foodie’s city, and we were traveling in the inner circle.


Free Tapas with Drinks

A student’s dream, some of the tapas bars offer up their namesake for free when you buy a drink. It should come as no surprise then, to find out that they attract a young crowd, part of the 50,000 students attending college in the area.

Each bar has its own feel, and each is known for their tapas. One, Trafalgar, offered a large smoked tiger mussel in mustard sauce called tigres rabiosos - spicy tigers - because they’re hot enough to hasten the order of more drinks; another, Abella, gave us a plate of fried sliced potatoes topped with slices of pork loin. For the price of a drink - roughly $1.50 to $2 U.S. - one could almost make a dinner out of it.

Even when they’re not free, tapas is easy to come by. Other bars offer a variety of tapas for just a few Euros each, which pair well with their reasonably priced drinks. The selections and quality varied, but there was something good to eat in each.

Next :: More food; much, much more food...


A Foodie’s Inner Circle

One night, we enjoyed the camaraderie of the crowds and the food for several hours before ending up at O Celme do Caracol, a restaurant (with a good name) that caters primarily to the locals. The owner, German Gonzalez Pose, went to school with my friend.

In a city where a friend of my friend is my friend as well, I was quickly included in the intimacy that old school chums share. In their company, I was amazed how different the city looked from the inside; when one sees it as a native rather than a tourist. There we were, a few guys talking over plates of food, sharing wine, lies, and laughter.


The Freshest Sardines

Our conversation that night looped from old school days to lovers - both past & present - and business; real guy talk, but it always came back to food.

At one point German briefly disappeared, to return with a handful of sardines. He showed off their freshness- the clear eyes and shiny, unbruised bodies. Then he was gone again, this time to cook them so we could taste the freshness- bones-and-all.

"Don’t eat the head," he told us. "It’s too bitter. It will ruin the taste of the rest."

His enthusiasm and passion for cooking was infectious; our group grew as old friends and friends of friends were drawn to our table. Like moths to a flame, they couldn’t resist the shy smile and sparkling eyes of our host.


Homemade Seasonings

Of course our tasting didn’t stop with fresh fish; German soon brought out several bowls of salt and explained the uses of each.In between tasting and talking, I managed to get the recipe for one of them, and herbed salt:

Start with 2 lbs of Saltina, a large grain sea salt. Add 10 garlic cloves and a bunch of chopped parsley. Wrap in a linen dish towel and dip in boiling water for a couple seconds. When cooled enough to touch, squeeze out the water and remove the mix from the towel. Grind the ingredients together using a wooden mortar & pestle.

This herbed salt, moistened and dried, has a larger crystal that really "pops" in your mouth when sprinkled on vegetables or seafood. It can also be ground more finely, to intensify the flavors.

German is the first chef I’ve met who makes his own seasonings.

Next :: That elusive octopus!


Traditional Galician Octopus

In case you hadn’t guessed, it was German who served us the best octopus I’ve ever tasted.

I love octopus. I’ve watched it boiled, dipped three times into a copper pot of boiling water before leaving it to cook for 20 minutes, then saw the cook use shears to cut the tentacles into small slices to be served on a wooden platter. It’s a common Galician way to prepare and serve octopus, and it’s delicious.

But that’s not how German cooked it.

German follows an old family recipe that delivers a much better taste and texture - truly the best octopus recipe I’ve seen- and tasted!


Octopus :: Grilled - Not Boiled

If you’re feeling adventurous, German’s octopus recipe goes like this:

Bake a 5-6 lb octopus at 350-degrees in a convection steam oven set at 80% mist, for 50 minutes, in a pan with (only) a small onion. Remove from oven and cool.

That’s it! The octopus will keep in the refrigerator for 2-3 days, tightly covered in a water bath.

When you’re ready to serve it, salt it (using salt from the recipe above) and grill for about 4 minutes, turning once to crisp.

Aside from seafood, Galicia is known for the best potatoes in Europe. Peeled and parboiled with bay leaves, a sliced mound of them serve as the perfect bed for the crunchy-yet-tender tentacles, the whole topped with a great traditional Galician sauce.


Secret Family Recipes

German is truly a generous man. Aside from feeding us, he graciously shared a handful of family recipes. Of course he demurred at first, then smiled, saying "it is a secret family recipe, but I will tell you."

Then he’d carefully translate Spanish terms and techniques into English for me. By the end of the evening he gave me permission to publish them- for the first time.

Here’s German’s family recipe for the Galician sauce, really an oil, that can be used on many dishes:

First, he said "Take olive oil, garlic, hot and sweet paprika, and simmer it with a whole onion. Then remove the onion."

When pressed, he elaborated:

One gallon of olive oil, 5 heads of garlic cut in half, and one whole onion - skins and all. Add 100 grams sweet paprika and 10 grams hot. (The paprika amounts can be adjusted depending on the spiciness you enjoy, but should not exceed 110 grams total.) Simmer "a long time" (40 minutes) then cool with the onion and garlic left in until room temperature. DO NOT STIR. (He confided that most people ruin the sauce either by stirring it, or not letting it cool thoroughly.)

After it’s cooled, Gently remove the garlic and onion, pour off the oil and reserve, being careful to leave behind the paprika, which will have settled to the bottom.

Discard the paprika.
(It will make the oil bitter if stirred-in.)

The sauce/oil will keep at room temperature; store it in a squeeze bottle and apply liberally to just about any dish you want. (It would also be great as a dipping oil with a good crusty - think Galician - bread.)

Next :: One last taste...


The Taste of Friendship

German offered one more tip: "if you live in Miami you’ll have to refrigerate the oil. Otherwise, keep it in a cool place in your kitchen and use it often. Think of your friends in Galicia when you taste it."

On my first trip to Galicia, I remarked how comfortable I felt, saying something like "I love the food, the wine and the people."

My host at the time told me "You are of Irish descent. Your ancestors settled this section of Spain’s coast, centuries ago. When you come here, you are coming home."

I thought of her words often on this trip, as I sat in the restaurant with my new friends, stuffed with the bounty of Galicia.

I will always remember the delicious food, and treasure the warm friendships I made around the table at O Celme do Caracol, as I remember the other dinners on my trips to Galicia, and the friends who shared them.


O Celme do Caracol

O Celme do Caracol
Rúa da Raiña 22
Santiago de Compostela
Spain
+34 981 571 746

German Gonzalez Pose will soon be opening a tavern next door to his family-style restaurant. Both are just down the street from his parent’s restaurant, Los Caracoles, where the escargot is made with snails they farm themselves. You have to try them!


For more info

Tourist Office of Spain

Air Europa

San Francisco Hotel Monumento

Turismo de Santiago de Compostela

Richard Frisbie is a bookseller and publisher in New York State whose food & wine travel articles appear in LGBTQ and regional periodicals, as-well-as at Gather.com, Globalfoodie.com and GoNomad.com. He accepts free copies of books for review, restaurant meals to critique, bottles of wine and liquor for tastings, and all-expense-paid trips in exchange for articles about the destinations. He is paid for these articles. Richard promotes informed, authentic information about food, wine and travel, and does not allow the financial arrangements and/or sponsorship to affect his judgment. You can email him at: hopefarm@hopefarm.com


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