Eating and Drinking Well on the Camino de Santiago
My husband Hal and I have walked the Camino de Santiago twice (in 2013 & 2015), both times from the Pyrenees to the west coast of Galicia. We have not gone hungry. But let’s face it: Although there is sumptuous fare to be had along the Camino de Santiago, dinners can sometimes be mediocre and repetitive: three-course “pilgrim meals” emptied onto plates from cans, and a parade of rubbery tortillas de patatas prepared days in the past.
In fact, the vintage tortilla phenomenon is so pervasive, some bars post cardboard signs that describe their tortillas as recién hechas—”recently made.” (In one delightful episode, an English pilgrim tried to order the “recién hechas.” The bartender kept asking, in Spanish, “The recently made what?” Humor ensued.)
On our first Camino, we got lucky—we fell in with a manically cheerful Andalusian chef named Raúl, who taught us the art of eating well in Spain: Use charm and linguistic skills to find the best café and receive special treatment there; or simply take over the kitchen yourself and make something great. With him, we ate green paella in a hostel kitchen, trail breakfasts of pan tumaca, and possibly the best beefsteak in northern Spain. (He recruited half the citizenry of Nájera to lead us to a restaurant that met his specifications, and then he invaded the kitchen and instructed the staff on steak preparation—all with such good cheer that no one minded.)
There were no mad Andalusian chefs to offer us guidance the second time around. We had only my OK menu Spanish and the memory of Raúl’s lessons. Still, we managed to find, cook, or bumble into lots of good meals and a handful of unforgettable ones—for ourselves and the cadre of fellow pilgrims we befriended along the way. The owner of a wonderful little café in Ages remembered Hal and me and took us upstairs to her private dining room for a beautiful multi-course meal, and on several evenings we cooked for the group in some albergue kitchen. The “home”-cooked dinners we shared in sunny albergue courtyards became some of our favorite memories.
Our cadre came to rely on us, as we had Raúl. We helped curate their experience, to a degree, advising folks on the best café or albergue in a town, making reservations by phone (with difficulty & fear—for the woefully non-fluent, phone calls are anxious affairs), or translating when someone needed something from the pharmacy. A few of our new pilgrim friends started calling me “mom.” I smiled at being useful but also fretted a bit: How had I become a caretaker for all these folks? I wasn’t sure I was qualified—I’m not a natural, like Raúl, who never worried about whether anyone was happy. And thus, everyone was.
When we said goodbye to our walking companions in Santiago de Compostela, I was 98% bereft, but 2% relieved that for our walk to the coast, we were only responsible for feeding ourselves. We ended up matching strides with Silvia, a Catalan wine expert from Barcelona, and her fiancé Mike, for the walk to Finisterre—the “End of the World.”
Her culinary knowledge, charm, and linguistic skills far exceeded mine, and I happily became an apprentice once again.
The day we reached Finisterre, we four settled into a sunny outdoor café by the harbor, while Mike and Silvia coached me through calling for hotel reservations. While I (proudly) finagled an apartment rental with big windows overlooking the water, Silvia ordered a beautiful cava and treated us to a mariscada—a smorgasbord of Galicia’s famously abundant shellfish, fresh from the cold sea.
It was the most splendid feast we had on either Camino: grilled cigalas (Norway lobsters), zamburiñas (scallops in their shell, the ubiquitous symbol of the Camino, which we’d carried on our packs for 36 days). And best of all, percebes, the famous gooseneck barnacle, harvested at such peril on the wave-battered, rocky shores of Galicia. I relaxed and slurped the best shellfish I’ve ever eaten, while Silvia took care of the ordering and the bill, and taught us the art of the mariscada—and of generosity itself.
After the afternoon’s feast, we carried a picnic to the cliffs of Cape Finisterre to watch the sunset, a traditional endpoint of the pilgrimage. There we found some of our old pilgrim friends, who’d walked on past Santiago. We shared our dinner with them and passed around bottles of wine.
As the sun sank into the sea, I realized that I wanted the “worry” back: Learning to take responsibility for people and help make their experience better, as Raúl and Silvia had done for us, was a muscle I had begun to exercise on The Way. I wanted to strengthen it, and carry it home.
I’m still working on that. But I may need another Camino, just for practice.
10 Starter Rules for Eating Well on the Camino:
1. You’ll find the best pulpo at a real Galician pulpería. (It should have big cauldrons and a grill.)
2. Opt for the tortilla if it is recién hecha.
3. Don’t order anything off a mass-printed menu or mass-produced sidewalk sandwich board. (It’s probably from a bag.)
4. With an eye to #3, beware of paellas in pilgrim-infested cafés.* (The best paellas we had were homemade—by our chef friend and by hospitaleros at an albergue in Foncebadon.)
5. Order local wines. They will be delicious—and affordable.
6. Find out the local specialty and order that.
7. Boquerones and fresh bread are a brilliant afternoon snack.
8. So are membrillo and Manchego.
9. Get “pan tumaca”** (or pan con tomate) for breakfast (or make your own). You won’t regret it.
10. Eat grilled shellfish in Finisterre or Muxía. Try percebes if your budget allows. This will change your life.
To apprentice with our aforementioned Camino masters, follow Chef Raul’s incredible food porn on Instagram and study Silvia’s excellent wine blog.
*Silvia’s note on paellas: “Never go for them in a shitty cafe. Here is the rule: a paella should take at least 20 minutes to be served. Usually you prepare the paella seasoning in advance, and then, when people ask for it, you add the rice and the broth. It takes 15 minutes to the rice to be done and 5 minutes of “reposo,” or resting, which is done on the pan, fire out, covered with a cloth. So, if the waiter doesn’t advise you that it will take at least 20 minutes, it means it’s already done! No one should ever eat paella which is not prepared in the moment. You may die.
**Silvia’s note on “pan tumaca“: The expression “pan tumaca” is a rough (and incorrect!) Spanish transliteration of the Catalan phrase, “pà amb tomàquet.” It’s a very common meal from Catalonia, usually served with cold meats, salted fish, cheese, or tortilla. There is a whole school about the best way to prepare the best pà amb tomàquet. For breakfast or dinner. Never for lunch unless you have it in a sandwich (stupid protocol rule)!