Santiago de Compostela

Posted on Saturday, October 3rd, 2009 at 11:58 am

The Cathedral

Many people know Santiago de Compostela because its Cathedral is the end destination for a major pilgrimage, the Camino de Santiago. The town is in Galicia, a unique region in the northwest corner of Spain distinguished by its Celtic roots and rough weather from the Atlantic Ocean.

Pulpo Pulpo a Feira

In terms of food, the fishing industry is still very important in the region of Galicia, where Santiago lies. For example, octopus is all over Santiago. I saw it presented two ways. The full, long tentacles might be presented on a plate or, as with Pulpo a Feira, the tentacles might be sliced into bite-size rounds meant to be eaten with a toothpick. To prepare Pulpo a Feira, the octopus is tenderized, either by banging its tentacles or by freezing it for a short time. It is simmered and then generously doused with olive oil and pimenton. I’d never had octopus so of course I had to have it.  I ordered the Pulpo a Feira at Sobrinos del Padre (Rua da Fonte de San Miguel 7). The octopus had two textures. The white center meat was firm and chewy, without being tough, while the outer purple “skin” and the “suction cups” felt pleasantly slippery in my mouth. The pimenton, on the spicy side of the spectrum, added a little kick to the dish.

Tetilla Cheese Carmen's Cheese Shop

All over Santiago, there is cheese shaped like huge Hershey’s Kisses. Called Tetilla, meaning “little tit,” it is actually meant to depict the shape of a breast. As Carmen, from a cheese shop in Mercado de Abastos (Plaza de Abastos, Nave 7) explained to me, “In the cathedral is a monument which had prominent tits. The priest made them cut out the tits because they were scandalous. The shape of the cheese is a protest.” Tetilla is made from cow’s milk. It is very mild with a slight tang. While it looks solid, it is creamy enough to spread. A cheese with such a shape and story could be just a tourist trap, but this is really delicious.

Tarta de Santiago IMG_1439Tarta de Santiago

Tarta de Santiago is made from flour, ground almonds, butter, sugar, eggs, cinnamon, and lemon zest. You can buy the whole cakes, always topped with confectioner’s sugar and decorated with a cross, all over town. Outside of going to a restaurant, it is more difficult to find just a slice. When I finally found one, it was delicious, mildly nutty, not too sweet, with the warm flavor of cinnamon. Its outside was crispy and reminded me of a madeline. The inside was moist, dense, and reminiscent of the texture of marzipan.

Empanada Tuna Empanada

Empanadas originated in Galicia. There is one carved into the cathedral, though it was covered by scaffolding when I was there. The pastry turnovers, most often filled with fish, seafood, or meat, were designed to be portable meals. I was familiar with South American empanadas, which are fully sealed, individually portioned pastries. In Galicia, however, empanadas are typically baked into large rectangles or circles, cut to the desired size, sold by weight, and wrapped in paper to go. (They also make smaller, single-serving versions, but they call them empanadillas.) I tasted a number of empanadas while I was there, including ones stuffed with tuna, octopus, and bacalao (salt cod). Each one was wildly different than the next, mostly because of the crusts. Some were flaky and buttery, while others were more bread like. To me, the most crucial element was the balance of crust to filling. I found a number to be overwhelmed by crust, concealing what was inside. When the balance was there, however, the empanada was a simple, satisfying, inexpensive, portable meal, still perfect for a traveler.

Pimientos de Padron Pimientos de Padron

These beautiful peppers are from Padron, a near neighbor of Santiago de Compostela. I wanted to taste them, so I asked a woman at the market for three peppers. She looked at me like I was slightly crazy, put a handful in my hand, and shooed me off, refusing my money. I nibbled one as I walked away. It was bitter and not very good. I knew there must be more to this pepper. At the cheese shop, Carmen saw my half-eaten pimiento and laughed at me. She told me that they have to be cooked quickly in olive oil.

Pimientos de Padron Pimientos de Padron

At dinner, I ordered the peppers, along with my pulpo de gallega. A huge platter arrived. They had been sauteed and sprinkled generously with salt. I ate one. No longer bitter, it tasted fresh and bright. As I made my way through all of them, each was slightly different, like pepper snowflakes. Some were bright and fresh; some were a bit bitter; some had a spicy side. They were addictive, like popcorn, but much more interesting.

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