Galicia, Spain | Of sea salt and bay leaves

Relaxed lunches, evening strolls and omnipresent seafood fill the days in this seaside province
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First Published: Sat, Aug 17 2013. 12 10 AM IST
The imposing façade of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. Photo: Juan Naharro Gimenez/Getty Images
The imposing façade of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. Photo: Juan Naharro Gimenez/Getty Images
A group of around 10 women cluster in front of the fish counter in the supermarket. They are waiting for today’s catch, which includes a bounty of “Centollas”—large, hard king crabs that I find rather creepy-looking. At €5 (around Rs.390) a pop (restaurants charge at least €13 for them), they’re a steal.
As the women await their turn, culinary secrets are casually handed down from one generation to the next.
“Should I throw them into boiling water?” one young woman asks in Spanish.
“No, absolutely not,” a more matronly one chides her. “You’ll lose all the flavour if you do that. You have to place the Centolla in cold water and only then let it boil.”
“Yes, and the water should boil for just 15 minutes,” another chimes in. “Don’t use any seasoning, but add some sea salt and a bay leaf if you want to get the full flavour.”
Welcome to everyday life in the province of Galicia, Spain’s seafood paradise, where most conversations inevitably veer around to the topic of aquatic creatures.
The narrow lanes of La Coruna’s old town are filled with tapas joints. Photo: Savita Iyer-Ahrestani
In this north-western part of Spain, where the surrounding terrain is mountainous, filled with pine and eucalyptus trees, and where it rains for much of the year, you’ll find yourself gorging on all kinds of seafood—eel, hake, scallop, octopus, to name a few—all of which sound much more delicious when they’re called by their Spanish names: anguila, merluza, vieira and pulpo, respectively.
You’ll even get to try some species you’ve never seen before, like a percebe or barnacle, and navaja, a sort of knife-like black and white invertebrate whose name translates to “razor shell” in English.
“Can you show her some?” my friend and hostess, Seli Freire, a native Gallega, asks a friendly restaurant owner. “She doesn’t know what navajas are.”
The affable fellow obligingly brings over a clump of the said razor shells. They’re tied together and enclosed in a yellow net bag. When he pokes one with his index finger, it moves.
“Eeks, they’re alive!” I shriek, recoiling.
“Of course,” the man replies, clearly taken aback at my ignorance. “They have to be alive for you to eat them as fresh as possible” (ditto for the crab: When we bring it home from the market, it’s alive).
In these parts, it doesn’t take much to turn out a flavourful seafood dish. All it takes is some olive oil, plenty of garlic for lightly frying fish, clams or prawns, and perhaps some tomatoes and peppers, with a simple sauce on the side. But Galicia’s real speciality is the Pulpo a La Gallega—chunks of boiled octopus served in a wooden platter atop a bed of fried potatoes and garnished with paprika, rock salt and a lot of olive oil.
It’s by far everyone’s favourite tapas, and, I’m told, really not that difficult to make.
“Most of our seafood is actually cooked simply, you know, usually in salted water flavoured with a bay leaf,” says Seli. “That’s the best way, really, to savour and get the best out of it.”
For most people, the journey to Galicia begins and ends with the province’s capital city, Santiago de Compostela, the site of the horrific train tragedy of last month. But when I went there, the image of the high-speed train careening down the curve and flinging itself off the rails was far in the future. All I knew during my visit was that the town was famous for a magnificent medieval cathedral, the shrine of St James The Apostle, that is one of the Catholic faith’s most important shrines.
This edifice is a testament to centuries of European history, each one of its intricately carved façades a work of love that celebrates both the efforts of ordinary human beings who built them by hand, and the talents of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque architects through the ages.
All around the cathedral are the narrow, winding lanes of Santiago’s old town or Zona Vella—a Unesco World Heritage Site since the 1990s—where I chance upon buildings that boast of carvings from the Middle Ages; small fountains that have undoubtedly been around forever; very tiny, very old churches, and occasionally, Spanish old ladies clad in black from head to toe, sitting quietly on a flaky, old bench and watching people go by.
But to get a feel of the real Galicia (and to partake of its seafood cornucopia), I knew I would have to get out of Santiago. Only then, said Seli, would I be able to truly savour this region’s verdant landscapes, the rough beauty of its coastline and the might of the Atlantic Ocean—wild on windy days, and smooth as the surface of a perfect emerald on calm ones, as it pushes into the land, forming little bays that the locals call rias.
In Seli’s city La Coruña (residents call it A Coruña), the beauty of the surroundings, the plethora of seafood and the singsong Spanish of the locals interlaced with Galician words give the town a distinctive vibe. Yet this city is still very much España—and I am no stranger to Spain.
That means late, unhurried lunches, relaxed afternoons and evening strolls through the streets of La Coruña. It means sitting for a long time on a bench in the city’s central square, the Plaza de Maria Pita (named for a brave woman who defended La Coruña in 1589 against the English Armada) and watching people as they go by. It means wandering back towards the narrow lanes around the square as the summer day slowly succumbs to dusk. It means choosing a tasca (tapas joint) at which to sit down and order an ice-cold Estrella Galicia beer or a glass (or two) of the region’s rich Ribera del Duero or Rioja wine, to wash down some Jamón Serrano, Manchego cheese and something fresh from the Atlantic’s waters.
As the night lengthens, and we join the crowds moving on to yet another tasca to order another round of tapas, I can’t help but tell myself that you don’t need much more than some sea salt and a bay leaf to truly savour life.
Savita Iyer-Ahrestani has written for; Vogue India; Businessweek (US edition); Dr Oz’s; and Latina magazine’s The Latin Kitchen, among others.
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First Published: Sat, Aug 17 2013. 12 10 AM IST
More Topics: Travel | Galicia | Spain | Seafood | Centollas |