Galicia: Salt of the Earth, Fruit of the Sea

April 2008

The bond of the people of Galicia to their ocean is complete. The coast is punctuated by rias or fjords - fingers of the ocean reaching deep into the land, delivering the riches of the sea virtually to their doorsteps of Galician homes. 

A large bearded Gallego fisherman named Gaspar told my sons that it was not that long ago that the water was blackened by schools of fish. With a twinkle in his eye he bragged that he once caught a school of sardines in his swim trunks. Today, shellfish are at fraction of historical highs.

My sons Tim and Jonathan met Gaspar in the fishing village of Carril located on one of the Rias. The town is the site of Los Peperetes, the premium tinned shellfish of Spain. Their tiny plant is called Jelopa, named by the founder for his oldest son, Jesus Lorenzo Paz. It sits right on the waterfront. 

Across the street one can see a small beach apportioned into little rock lined squares of sand where the berberechos (cockles) and two types of clams are seeded and farmed. The shellfish grow in the top meter of sand with the berberechos on top, next a layer of almejas (clams), then another layer of a type of clams/almejas that are often eaten raw. 

They are all harvested after about a year of growing and brought to the preparation area at dusk. There they are put into a large sea water bath to rest and purge sand all night long. The next morning the seafood is prepared and placed in individual tins – all by hand, with a great concern for absolute quality. My sons tried percebes (goose barnacles), chipirones (tiny cuttlefish) in their ink, zamburinas (scallops), navajas (razor clams) - which were all terrific. The Gallegos have the gift of turning just about every sea-creature into a treat!

This February my wife Ruth and I decided to ‘get away from it all' and spend a few winter days in the Rias Baixas (Lower Rias) – the fjords of Galicia in Northwest Spain. We packed lots of woolen clothes and rain gear as we embarked on our damp wintry adventure to the land of the Celts – which turned out to be no adventure at all! 

As we flew into Santiago de Compostela and drove along the coast visiting one sparkling fishing village after another, we passed dozens of acacia trees with bowers of gorgeous golden flowers. There were tall camellia trees (not bushes) covered with pink and white flowers. Every once in a while we would catch a glimpse of lemon trees so covered with their bright yellow fruit that we could not see a leaf. We experienced a pristine springtime as it was emerging.

One of our destinations was Finisterre – finis terra - the end of the world. There by the lighthouse on a rocky point of land, we saw young pilgrims with their backpacks completing this last lap on the 400 mile long Camino de Santiago – as pilgrims have traveled for more than 1,000 years. Then, we went to the rival town of Muxía which trumps the claim of Cabo Fisterre to be truly the western-most land in Europe. 

They 'one-up' another famous town too. Padrón may have the little green pimientos de Padrón peppers and it may have been where the stone ship carrying the remains of Santiago (Saint James) from the Holy Land came to rest, but it was at the lighthouse of Muxía where the Virgin Mary stepped ashore from her own stone ship! It is commemorated by the lighthouse El Faro Virgin del Barca. And lest you think that stone ships do not float, you can visit a nearby Casa Rural and inspect one yourself! 

Our trip could not have been more engaging as we visited one harbor after another along the endless fingers of the fjords which run for hundreds of kilometers. We headed north along the “Costa del Muerte” until the shore turns east along the Rias Altas (the upper fjords). The shoreline is called the Coast of Death because of the high winds, turbulent waters and rocky coast where thousands of ships have met their fate – not the least of which were the ships of the Spanish Armada, when 1500 sailors lost their lives. 

Right at the very northwest point is the village of San Andrés de Texeido where death-defying young men repel sheer granite cliffs rising from the windswept sea. They risk their lives to chip off percebes – goose-neck sea barnacles - from the sheer face of the cliff with the ocean crashing below. In the local restaurants the percebes are steamed and served just as they are. My son Jonathan told me not to leave Galicia without enjoying some – even though the cost is astonishing at $80/lb. He was right. They have an inimitably pure taste of the sea – like Ipswich clams, but more so. I felt humbled by the brave men who risked so much to bring them to our table. 

Many people first think of the exotic parts of Spain: gypsies, flamenco, forts, fountains and colorful tiled patios. This legacy of 700 years of a Moorish presence is fascinating and significant. But the tapestry of Spain contains many more threads. Ruth and I find it absorbing to explore the variety of cultures still represented in this ancient land. For example, some of you may not even know of Celtic Spain – complete with bagpipes and the misty hills of the Northwest.

The next time you are planning a trip to Spain, I urge you to consider spending some time in green and gorgeous Galicia – especially in the early spring before the tourists come. The scenery is dramatic, the people are the salt of the earth and the seafood is incomparable. 

Tu Amigo,