Sunday, 14 March 2010

Santiago, for those that love to eat

Santiago de Compostella. A city that has been attracting holy pilgrims in their droves since the ninth century, when the bones of the apostle Saint James were 'allegedly' discovered here. I say allegedly because the discovery was preceded by Saint James, despite being killed in the Holy Lands, - thousands of miles away from Galicia - re-appeared here, 800 years later(!), firstly in the stars to guide a shepherd home who'd got lost in the hills, and then a second time on the battle field - riding a white charger, no less - and single handedly saw off a whole army of ravaging Moors. Oh, and he sailed half way around the world in a rudderless stone boat as well. With 'facts' like that, it's difficult to know what to believe.

So, following the discovery, a Cathedral was promptly built on the site of his tomb, which has been pulling in the punters ever since. The idea is, you make your way here along El Camino de Santiago, ideally on foot (those Catholics love a bit of masochism, after all) and atone your sins. In return you get to skip the grilling in Purgatory, when that time should come, and head straight up to Heaven. Well, the trend stuck, and those pilgrims kept on coming. Suffice to say that the city is still awash with weary but euphoric-looking travellers, dressed in anoraks and sensible footwear.

Meanwhile, I made my way here by bus, and whilst I'm all for a back-from-the-dead fisherman turned mountain rescue man turned warrior general, the reason I've come, unsurprisingly, is to eat.

My guide for the day is novelist
John Barlow. Amongst other things, John wrote the culinary travelogue Everything But The Squeal, a thoroughly entertaining account of his own year-long quest to eat every single part of the pig in his adopted home of Galicia. A man after my own heart, it would seem. Since John has literally just finished guiding a very well-known celebrity chef (I'm naming no names) around the region as part of their research for a new TV series, I reckon I'm in for decent day. I got in touch with John out of the blue, and asked on the off chance if he fancied meeting up, and whilst we were toying around with places to go, he suggested that Santiago was a good place to "just walk around eating". I didn't realise quite how literally he meant that.

We meet at Cafe Paris. It's a fairly run of the mill bar, but it's a suitable starting point, as it marks the beginning of the Paris-Dakar crawl. Paris sits at the top of Rua Franco, and at the bottom is Dakar. In between are probably 30-odd cafes, bars, and other drinking establishments, in each of which you're supposed to have a cup of wine. As well as pilgrims, there are a lot of students in Santiago, and funnily enough, this is a favourite pastime of theirs.

But whilst booze is on the agenda today, it's only playing a supporting role. We're here for the food. John spent a few years living here after he graduated, and now lives up the coast in A Coruña. He's keen to show me around not just the places that have been going strong since well before he was living here, but also some of the new comers that he's heard about on the Galician gastro grapevine. In fact, he seems almost as excited as I am! We set off down Rue Franco, and our eating tour of Santiago is underway.

The first stop is a San Sebastian-style pintxo bar, complete with a huge range of immaculately presented bar-top snacks, most of which include jamon in various guises. John goes for albondigas - meat balls - a tapas classic if ever there was one, whilst I order stuffed calamari. They're packed full of a rich mushroom mixture, with enough garlic to raise a Saint... So far so good.

From here, we head up into the side streets, and end up in a quirky little place that has a sense of un-intended nostalgia about it... I.e. it looks as though it hasn't been decorated for about 45 years. The food is just as characterful as the place, and with our corto – a very small 'cut' of beer - we have some extremely tasty tigres rabiosos, or rabid tigers. A curious thing to be eating in a traditional bar in the historic centre of Santiago, you may think, but the tigers are in fact mussels, and they're rabid because they're cooked in a lip-tingly spicey sauce. Galicia is renowned for it's seafood, and these are well up to standard. The sauce is intensely punchy, but there's still enough sea-side flavour in the plump mussels to come through over the top.

Now we've done traditional and simplistic, it's time to check out a new-comer to Santiago's tapas bar scene. It's a compact little place, perched on the edge of the market. Each morning, they create a short menu of dishes from whatever is good on the stalls that day. It's slick and modern, with as much room taken up by the open kitchen as there is for diners. The look is all dark slate and polished chrome, with a red glow from the heater lamps on the kitchen's pass. I'm in a prime spot for eye-ing up what's coming out of the kitchen, and everything looks great. Whilst I'm um-ing and ah-ing over what we should have, John orders one of everything. Now why didn't I think of that?

First to arrive is the egg. But this is not just any egg. It's a pilgrim-worthy, faith-installing, epiphany-giving kind of egg. You know the sort? Well neither did I until I had a mouthful of this. It's cooked at 63.8 degrees, so it's completely soft, in fact only slightly more coagulated than if it had been raw. It sit swimming in a sauce of smoked potato puree accompanied by nuggets of paprika-loaded chorizo. It's finished with a sprinkling of crisp sour-dough bread crumbs for texture. These ingredients are the most basic of Galician staples, but with just a little inventiveness, they've been turned into something miraculous.

We work our way through the other dishes, washed down with a couple of glasses of the local albariño wine; pulpo shashimi, little parcels of manita - braised pigs trotter, and Berbechos 'Espresso' – cockles cooked for just ten seconds, using steam from the coffee machine. Each one gives a subtle twist to the staples of Galician cuisine, and each one is great. As we finish our last plate, we're still discussing the egg... So we decide to order another, just to make sure we've had huevos fix before hitting the road. And off we go.

On the way, we discuss some of the many larger than life experiences John encountered on his pork-fuelled quest through Galicia... Being showered with angry ants in Laza, being mistaken for a police man at a hippy colony near the Austurian border, having lunch with Fidel Castro's cousin, and then meeting one of the most important figures of General Franco's cabinet. Who ever would have thought that eating pig for a year would take a man such places.

Since eating pig is something that both of us enjoy, the next stop on our tour had to involve jamon. We march up the hill, to a little 'restaurant and rooms' type place where John promises we'll get the best jamon in Santiago. It's just outside the boundaries of the old town, but the place is as traditional as it gets, complete with wood panelling, cured pig legs hanging from the ceiling, and plumes of cigarette smoke thickening the air.

We order a racione of Extremadura de Bellota and some Manchego. In terms of tapas combinations, it's the dream team. We both tuck in, revelling in the amount of fat that's clinging to the rich, almost translucent slivers of meat. This is acorn fed, grade A - the best there is. It doesn't come cheap, but neither does caviar, gold or uranium, and I know which one I'd prefer on my plate.

“I fancy some dessert” John says... My heart sinks a little, assuming that must signal the end of our culinary tour of Santiago. Having said that, we have been eating for the last four hours, and John does have a wife and kid to go home to. Chestnut tart serves it's purpose, but the real star of our postres is some very mature goats cheese. It's the kind of cheese that's so strong it makes your eyes water. My taste buds are still ringing as we put our coats on and head down the road for post-lunch beverage.

We step into a smart-looking bar that's just off the main thorough fares of the old town. John tells me he often takes people here in summertime, as they have a fabulous courtyard, where you feel like you've escaped from the world. Well, it isn't summertime. It's the end of February. And it's raining. Hard. Apparently Galicia gets 150 days of rain a year. I've been in the region a week and a bit, and it feels like we've had 150 days worth of rain already. Still, the other good thing about this bar is the beer. We order a couple of bottles of Estrella Galicia Especial (“it tastes good, and it'll get yer pissed”, nods John, slipping into his native West Yorkshire accent), sit back and watch the rain fall down.

“So what do you reckon about dinner then?”, he says. “We could go to Casa Marcelo, if you like?” Casa Marcelo is regarded as being one of the best restaurants in Galicia, and Head Chef, Marcelo Tejedor, who trained with Juan Mari Arzak, is certainly a player in Spain's culinary A-League... And to think I thought our eating was done for the day!

With a table booked for a quarter to ten, we have more than enough time for a couple of apertifs. And one must-see drinking spot in Santiago is O Gato Negro - The Black Cat. We arrive just before the evening rush, and bag a spot at the bar.

O Gato Negro was immortalised in John's book in a chapter dedicated to the Galician delicacy of Chiccarones – pork that's been slow cooked in it's own fat, until it literally disintegrates into a kind of stringy-looking paté. Which I reckon sounds pretty good. The other thing that the Black Cat is known for is it's empanades – large, flat, savoury pies, although everything that the little old lady in the kitchen is knocking looks pretty good to me. But we're going for dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant in an hour, and those slices of pie could comfortably feed two hungry pilgrims, fresh off the Camino. For once, will power reigns supreme over gluttony, and I decide to stick to the vino.

From here, it's down to Dakar, the end of the student booze run, and our last stop before dinner. Dakar is a funny little place... There's a sense of faded grandeur from the big mirrors, alabaster fittings, and gilded sign writing on the walls, but in reality, it's just a bit scuzzy. I've come across a few of these places now on my tour of Northern Spain, particularly in Galicia... A place can look as classy as a prince's palace, but there's no hiding that lingering smell of boiled octopus and stale cigarette smoke. When our drinks arrive, the waiter also brings some complimentary orejo - boiled pigs ear. It's by far and away the worst thing we've eaten all day, but it seems to suit our surroundings. We sip our beers, eat our pigs ear, and watch the cross-eyed students roll in, as the clock ticks ever closer towards dinner.

Casa Marcelo is tucked away in a behind a modest doorway on Rua Hortas, a quaint, higgledy piggledy street that leads down the hill away from the cathedral. The dining room is understated, drawing the eye towards the large open kitchen that takes up easily two thirds of the room. It somehow manages to be both formal and homely, with the sense that you can saunter up the steps and lean against the work surfaces for a chat. Which is exactly what I did.

Everyday, Marcelo prepares a new menu degustacion, based on what's in season and what he feels like cooking. The cuisine could be described as modern Galician... There's a sense of experimentation, but nothing that would put off the conservative palettes of the Galego diners. We start with a 'Mojito' of frozen rhubarb, served on ice in a take away container. It's a nice bit of theatre, and great for opening up the taste buds, as from there on in, the meal incorporates a delicate range of subtle flavours.

Highlights were undoubtedly melt-in-the mouth mackerel in a smoky pimenton sauce, and signature dish pil-pil de limón – steamed hake with the subtlest flavours of lemon zest and green pepper. Both epitomised the house style of simple cuisine, executed with creative flare. In fact every one of the ten courses demonstrated the high level of technical expertise that Marcelo commands in his kitchen.

Desserts included a piña colada, served with a plume of what looked like liquid nitrogen 'smoke', followed by another orejo. This one had nothing to do with a pig, however; It was in fact the pastry variety. Galician's may not actually go as far as to eat pig's head for afters, but they do name their desserts after them.

We stumble out of the restaurant and make our way up the street. With twelve hours worth of food and drink in my belly, I feel as wobbly on my feet as those pilgrims who've walked half way across Europe, and almost as wobbly as some of those students. I may not have come for the holy spirit, but I'm definitely a convert to the joys of this city. That was Santiago, for those that love to eat.

Everything but the Squeal, by John Barlow, is available from all good book shops. If you are remotely interested in pigs, Spain, or the slightly bizarre escapades of an émigré Northerner, then it comes highly recommended.

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