Flying to Spain overnight is too short to get a good night’s sleep, but that was not enough to keep myself and everyone else on our tour of northern Spain from hitting the ground running. This was my first trip as a tour leader and I was excited to meet up with those trusting my choices. Perhaps not unexpected, but gratifying, the majority of our travelers[i] were personal friends known to me either actually or virtually for years. I was excited to be able to show them a wonderful part of a country that has come to be my favorite travel destination over the years. My co-leader of the trip and the man who could make it all happen like no other was my good friend, Gerry Dawes, aka “Mr. Spain,” who has spent decades learning the nuances of this beautiful and delicious country. Gerry is a writer, photographer and Spanish wine importer with vast experience taking people to visit his second home country. It was during our personal trip across Spain last winter that we felt the need to spend a bit more time in certain places and that it would be fun to share it with a small group. I have come, throughout my lifetime so far, to learn more about Spain and its cuisine than probably all but a few Americans. For Gerry, that statement can be extended to all but a few Spaniards.
Our trip would start in Galicia, the greenest part of the country, located in the northwestern part of the Iberian peninsula, directly to the north of Portugal. Galicia is green because they receive a fair amount of rain. We did experience light rain upon our arrival by air in Vigo. Though we would be only nine passengers including Gerry and myself, we were met by a spacious and comfortable 24 passenger bus with its skilled and affable driver, Antonio.
Luggage secured, we headed north to Pontevedra and its small, but gorgeous food market. It was lovely introduction to the glories of Spanish markets with an interior balcony overlooking the main market space. The fish and seafood were pristine as would be expected in a fishing city perched along one of Galicia’s justly famous, seafood rich rias, which, like Scandinavian fjords, are fingers of the ocean extending well into the fabric of the land. These are not river deltas mixing fresh water with saline. The deep ocean crevices contain nutrient-rich ocean waters and the products that come from them are amongst the very finest of their kinds in the entire world.
A wide assortment of gorgeously displayed fish and shellfish covered a huge part of the space, but the sea was augmented by products from the land, including some that I hadn’t previously seen, such as flayed open pig faces cured like hams. I would notice them in other Galician markets as well.
Four of our group had arrived and along with Gerry and our driver, Antonio, we walked over to a nearby restaurant where Gerry had arranged lunch. Eirado da Leña, under chef Iñaki Bretal, was a lovely, small restaurant with attentive staff and fine cooking of excellent local product. Though tradition oriented, the dishes were prepared with a contemporary bent and an eye for attractive plating.
The opening course of our tasting menu got us all off on the right foot. The first real bite we had after a long overnight flight and typically lousy airline food was just what we needed. An egg custard with potato, bread and chorizo was perfectly warm, comforting and delicious.
To show that they had a bit of a creative streak, the kitchen next sent out one of the area’s prime products, navajas or razor clams, but dressed them with a vinaigrette of citrus and passionfruit. It worked and rather well.
Ravioli of boletus pinicola were well made and tasty, but slightly marred by the unnecessary use of truffle oil.
The next dish was a personal favorite, combining fresh local beans from Lourenza with a cross-sectional slice of lobster tail. The beans were firm with a nice give and flavorful, making a surprisingly good, earthy base for the tasty crustacean.
Like we would have throughout much of the trip, these dishes were washed down with wines from the Spanish Artisan Wine and Spirits Group, who import the wines into the United States. It was no coincidence that the founder and head of that company as well as the selector of the wines for import was the same person who chose them throughout our trip and who also happened to be my co-leader and principal organizer, none other than Gerry Dawes. I had previously tasted and enjoyed all of the wines in the portfolio, but it was now fun to start seeing others get turned on to “Gerry’s wines,” the hallmark of which is distinctive flavor profiles, natural yeasts, low alcohol and little to no (preferably for Gerry) wood. The first ones on our docket, would be some that we would continue to get to know well over the next few days – fabulous albariños from the area, which in wine circles is known as Rias Baixas. These wines were made naturally with minimal intervention by grape farmers, leaving the wine making details, especially the wild yeasts, largely to mother nature. To a one, they are all distinctive and delicious!
The lunch continued with a lovely piece of lubina (sea bass) over a pumpkin cream sauce. The accompaniment did not detract from the fish, which truly needed no accompaniment, but it knew well enough to remain a background component. We enjoyed a few more courses before returning to the bus and then our hotel, Casa Rosita, a clean and comfortable spot in the seaside town of Cambados. The remainder of the afternoon was left for a quick clean-up and nap before dinner.
Too tired to wander far, we stayed in the hotel for a superb dinner built primarily around the local seafood. Our group was completed then as the final four members had arrived and joined us in the dining room. The meal was primarily composed of a variety of seafood with such delights as salpicon de mariscos (Spanish seafood salad), steamed local shrimp, pulpo a la galega, clams and beans. The highlight, though was the platter of percebes, or goose barnacles, a major specialty and delicacy of the region. The percebes are steamed. At the table, one picks them up with the hands, twists and pulls off the outer sleeve, then bites off the succulent, briny meat and takes in the juices for a pure communion with the sea. These were delightfully plump and tender. For most of our party this was their first experience with odd-looking and oddly beautiful delights from the shallow, but very dangerous rocky coastal rias.
The following morning we awoke essentially refreshed to find the rain gone and skies beginning to clear. After a light breakfast, we left our hotel to explore the beautiful and charming maritime community of Cambados. The tide was going out, which proved fortuitous. First, a good portion of the fishing fleet remained conveniently and gorgeously docked and visible for our viewing pleasure.
Secondly and perhaps more impressively, we were well positioned time wise to see the workers, mostly, but not all, women, emerge from the town to go out to the tidal flats to find and dig up the shellfish that the area is so justifiably famous for.
One man was collecting seaweed to be used as fertilizer for potatoes, while the diggers streamed around him to head out to their seabed plots. The scene seemed out of another era and was fascinating and beautiful to observe.
From watching workers select shellfish from the tidal flats, we proceeded to visit another form of shellfish harvesting. We took a ride on a tourist boat out to the bateas on the ria.. Bateas are rafts from which ropes inoculated with various forms of shellfish descend into the depths. These are ideal vehicles for shellfish aquaculture.
One of the boatmen got onto the batea as we eased up to it and proceeded to pull up ropes one at a time. Some had oysters, others mussels and others scallops.. We could also see through a glass bottom of the boat the ropes descending into the murky, plankton-rich depths.
Once back on board, the boatman treated us to a generous, all-we-could-eat sampling of some of the finest steamed mussels that I have ever eaten. These had been steamed in a large pot in a special, small kitchen within the boat.
After we had had our fill, we decided to share some with the seagulls that had begun to gather around he boat. Each of us would loosen a mussel from the shell to leave it protruding. Holding the mussel aloft and gripping the back of the shell, we would wait for the gulls to descend and pluck the meat from our hands. At first they seemed shy, but once underway, they wasted no time. They impressed with their deftness and swift accuracy as they managed to grab the small morsels without disturbing the holders one bit. At first the passengers were reluctant to join in, but once everyone realized the fun of it, the remainder of the leftover mussels were cleaned up rapidly.
We did not wish to eat too much on board, because we would follow that adventure with a visit to one of the restaurants I was most excited about returning to – d’Berto, in nearby O Grove, another small fishing village. I had been there with Gerry and some local winemakers this past January and we had an extraordinary meal. You can read about it here. Now for lunch, the food was just as sensational, the only thing missing from my previous visit was spider-crab, which was on hold awaiting the beginnings of a local festival in its honor in a few short weeks. Regardless, the navajas (razor clams), berberechos (cockles), almejas (clams) and zamburiñas (special, black-shelled bay scallops) were every bit as wonderful and perfect as I had remembered. It was a brilliant lunch heightened by the presence in the same dining room of a Barcelona men’s dining club that had flown to Galicia with the express purpose of eating at d’Berto.
One dish served to our group that we hadn’t had on my previous visit was squid with onions. It is a combination that is not unusual in Spain, though it was my first time experiencing it. The combination of the pristine, tender, grilled squid and the sweet onions was dynamite, only further enhancing the memory of this stupendous shellfish restaurant in my mind.
Following lunch we visited the nearby building where the fishermen bring their catch for distribution.. We arrived toward the end of the process, but still in time to see containers filled with octopus, sepia, squid and a variety of shellfish.
The evening would prove to be interesting, fun and rather tasty. We went to the small Albariño winery, Adega Cabaleiro Do Val, owned by the farmer/winemaker Paco Dovalo. There, Paco and a number of wine-maker friends from a group of artisan producers prepared a wonderful feast of seafood empanadas, tortilla, clams, pulpo and honking chuletons seared on a plancha, then sliced to be individually finished on table-top planchas lubricated with lard.
All of this was washed down with plenty of bottles of each of their fabulous albariños. All of the wines had incredible minerality, varied nuances, bright acidity and low alcohol.
The alcohol did not end with the wine though. Being the night before Halloween, it seemed particularly appropriate that they put together a quiemada for us. Quiemada is an ancient Galician tradition of mixing orujo (aguardiente or grappa) with sugar, oranges and coffee within a hollowed pumpkin. With the lights off, the potion is alit and mixed with a ladle while incantations are chanted.
The wonderful evening concluded with the singing of old Galician songs by our hosts. The quiemada wasn’t the only thing that was magical!
Santiago de Compostela would be the first on our trek as we uprooted from Casa Rosita to continue our expedition across the north of Spain. It was Halloween and we would be visiting one of the major churches of all Catholicism. We arrived in Santiago during the off-season, but the number of pilgrims remained impressive. The Cathedral itself towered over the plaza and retained an aura of gravitas heightened by the arrivals of the rapturous peregrinators.
The inside of the Cathedral was as ornate and beautiful as one would expect from such a significant site with plenty of gold, stained glass and elaborate carvings to humble the many passing within. A statue of Saint James occupied a special site for the devout to file up to and then embrace the venerated object.
From the Cathedral, we high-tailed it over to the wonderful, indoor-outdoor Abastos Market, where one could find anything from wild game to local vegetables to all manner of seafood.
We lunched at the Abastos answer to Barcelona’s Boqueria dining institutions, Bar Pinotxo and Quim de la Boqueria, Abastos 2.0. Like its Catalan counterparts, Abastos 2.0 occupied a relatively small footprint, but that area was enhanced by plenty of space for dining en plein aire. By this time, the day had become spectacularly sunny and delightfully warm, perfect for tasting some wines and sampling some tapas.
While we only had a light lunch with a few different items, what we had was quite good, starting with house-made potato chips, mussels en escabeche over guacamole, and soy marinated mackerel with wasabi.
These dishes were all excellent with the mackerel being particularly addictive, but the real standout was pulpo a la plancha. The octopus was tender with a delicious smoky char. In addition, it lacked the gelatinous coating that can be found on just boiled versions. We had a fair amount of octopus on the trip and this proved to be one of the very best.
Prior to leaving, Gerry picked up a few cheeses, some bread and embutidos for a later destination, but as we had stopped to explore a bastion of Christianity, we proceeded to the small city of Ribadavia to discover the ancient Jewish quarter that had flourished prior to the Spanish Inquisition. Spain is filled with such neighborhoods and had a thriving Jewish population, which is only recently beginning to return to its previous glories.
Our journey continued to the Miño River in the Ribeira Sacra wine region within Galicia’s mountain range. The Miño as well as the Rio Sil have cut chasms in the mountains from which steep, terraced vineyards, growing primarily Mencia and Godello grapes, plunge down towards the water. We wound our way down to the shore, where Luisa Rubines, a lovely young woman, took us on a tour of the river in her zodiac raft. The water was placid with levels markedly below high water marks. We could see old vineyards and structures that had been swallowed by the river after the river had been dammed years earlier.
At one point, we came across a burro lolling about amongst vineyards along the river edge. The need for work animals like this has dwindled over the years, but here, they still had utility.
Luisa guided us to her spot on the river, where we disembarked for a small picnic featuring the cheeses and embutidos[ii] that Gerry had picked up in the Abastos market along with wines from the area. A cool night with tasty food and drink, marvelous views of a beautiful river and a setting sun was a magical elixir of relaxation and pleasure.
With dusk descending upon us, we headed to our hotel, the old, beautiful and majestic Parador de Monforte de Lemos, a converted medieval monastery perched atop the hill overlooking Monforte de Lemos. We would stay two nights here.
The first night, after settling into the Parador, we took taxis to a local restaurant, most notable for our first GinTonics of the trip. The Spanish have taken this cocktail and embraced it look no other and nowhere else. Offering a wide selection of gins and tonics from Spain and elsewhere, we were each able to sample each others’ to get a sense in real time as to how different this cocktail can be just by altering a few variables. The barman created the cocktails with a flourish, altering the garnishes based upon the character of the drink’s aromatics. As fine as the gintonics were, the food was the most mediocre of the trip and the only meal that was not particularly memorable.
The following morning rose with a clear sky overlooking a sea of fog below us. Slowly, the fog cleared to reveal an abundance of sunshine as we drove north to the walled city of Lugo.
Lugo possesses a true treasure in the walls that completely surround the old city. It is the only completely Roman wall that still exists in its complete state. Walking the complete length of the ramparts proved an excellent way to fashion a good bit of needed exercise in this culinary adventure.
This would prove to be our most wine-centric day of the trip, most appropriate for a Sunday. We returned to the Ribeira Sacra region to stop in at the winemaking facilities of oenologist Roberto Regál, who makes a number of wines, each with its own character for variety of local growers. His own label is Toalde, with great examples of the local white grapes, as well as from the primary local red, Mencia.
After the visit to his production facility, Regál took us to a nearby agroturismo for a lunch along with another local winemaker, Primitivo “Primi” Lareu, who also happens to be an artist. The place, called Casa do Romualdo in Galician, is a lovely, rural farmhouse, that also serves room and board with six rooms and a dining room that offers very good regional food.
We were warmly greeted and entered the farmhouse to be welcomed by a typical rural Galician repast, starting with some superb octopus filled empanadas. These savory pastries are ubiquitous throughout northwestern Spain with a wide variety of fillings. Octopus is a popular one and this one was the real deal with a crisp, flaky crust and just enough filling to give it body and depth.
Pumpkin soup with mashed potatoes and chorizo oil was both colorful and satisfying and a dish that would seem to be relatively easy to approximate at home.
A stew with veal osso bucco as the primary ingredient rounded out the savory portion of the meal. The veal was tender with deep flavor augmented by the flavor contributions of the rest of the ingredients. The dishes were served family style and it was difficult to not gorge to excess on this lovely meal. Both Roberto and Primi served us their delicious wines, which proved to be outstanding accompaniments to the food.
Dessert and a superb house-made licor were taken in another room, where we were regaled with song by the blind proprietor.
The afternoon was memorable.
Our return trip to the hotel took us to the spectacular Sil River Valley in the Ribeira Sacra region. The sides of the valley are even steeper and the scenery even more dramatic then elsewhere in the region and we were able to enjoy the vistas in the dying afternoon light and appreciate the brutally hard work necessary for producing wines in the gorgeously rugged region.
The steepness of these spectacular vineyards is such that it is quite difficult to remove the hand-picked grapes from all but the vineyards closest to the roads and the river. Over the years a system developed using rails to either haul the grapes up to the road or down to the river to be carried by river barge. Our last stop prior to returning to the Parador was a quick visit to the rock-strewn, ancient farm-house winery of Jorge Carneros, who produces Viña Cazoga from his Mencia vines that dive down the slopes of the Amandi sub-region of the Rio Sil. Carneros makes and bottles some of my favorite Spanish reds, reminiscent of top-flight Grand Cru Burgundies.
We gathered for dinner later with Carneros and several other local wine-makers including the head of the D.O., José Manuel Rodríguez, at O Grelo, a fine restaurant in Monforte de Lemos, where we were happy to sip their wines to wash down the tasty local fare that consisted of roasted vegetables, crisp and creamy croquetas, jamón Ibérico and Caldo Gallego, a local hearty soup with vegetables and boiled meats.
This caldo consisted of pork and chorizo cooked with garbanzos, potatoes and grelos, Galician green reminiscent of collards. Typically, this comes with a broth, but on this night, we just had the solid contents.
We left the Parador the next morning amidst more fog and sun to begin a trek north and out of Galicia. Our first stop was Córgomo, an alpine like village, where the modern winery, D’Berna lies. There, we sampled the Godello and Mencia based wines of the proprietor, Berna Guitián, as well as the fabulous home-made embutidos of Berna’s wife, Elena Blanco.
At d’Berna, we wandered through vineyards bedecked in autumn splendor. Though the harvest had occurred in mid-September (by all accounts, a great one for the entire wine-making region of Galicia), there were still some grapes, both Godello and Mencia, on vines, from which we were able to sample.
Our final stop in Galicia was the Bar El Dorado in O Barco de Valdeorras to sample the best pulpo a la Galega that I’ve had, along with some superb empanadas and the delicious wines made by the proprietors under the label Hacienda Ucediños. The tavern is own by two brothers, Eladio and Marcos Santalla Freile, and the pulpo is prepared by their mother, Ana Freile, and served on the traditional wooden plates required by the dish to soak up the excess water released by the boiled cephalopod.
The octopus is cooked to the perfect temperature then sprinkled with olive oil and a generous dose of pimentón picante, to give it a pleasant spice. Cut up into small pieces, none of us could help returning for more and more, quickly devouring each morsel as if we hadn’t been eating at all during this trip.
Stay tuned for much more as we head to Asturias, Bilbao and beyond!
[i] To respect the privacy of my travelers, I will not be posting photos of them here nor refer to anyone other than Gerry and the professionals we met along the way, by name.
[ii] The cheeses and embutidos were all from Galicia and included a smoky San Simon, a conical Tetilla and a creamy Arzua-Ulloa as well as a couple of types of chorizo. All of this was augmented with bread, membrillo, tomatoes and dried apricots.