Razor clams are a local specialty in Galicia, Spain.
Razor clams are a local specialty in Galicia, Spain. Peter Calder/NZ Herald

Galicia a gastronomic journey

THE rain in Spain stays mainly in Galicia.

Tucked in the country's extreme northwestern corner, on the Atlantic coast, it lacks the buffer against the moist airstreams off the ocean that Portugal provides to much of Spain's sunburned south.

The most striking evidence of the climate is to be seen in almost every backyard.

Elevated storehouses, called horreos, made of stone or, less often, wood, litter the landscape, the rat-proof caps on their mushroom-shaped legs recalling Maori pataka.

Most are crowned with a cross asking the Almighty's blessing on the harvests whose bounty is protected from damp and rot by the air circulating through the ventilating slits in the sides.

In the age of the supermarket, the horreos are more likely to be used as sheds, but they are a reminder that the Gallegos, as Galicians call themselves, have a proud, distinctive gastronomic tradition.

This is not the sunny Spain of tourist cliche. That's Celtic blood flowing in those veins: the buskers' music will put you more in mind of Riverdance than flamenco.

But at mealtimes it's apparent that you're on the right side of the English Channel. Spain may not be as known for its gastronomy as France and Italy, but visitors to Galicia soon learn that they've landed in gastronomic heaven.

They're a proud lot in Galicia. The ferocity with which they assert their cultural distinctiveness might not approach that of the Basques or the Catalans but I saw more than one restaurant that had its menu in English and Galician (similar to Portuguese) but not in Spanish.

They're proud of their food, too. Access to the deep and chill waters of the ocean makes the place a Mecca for fish and seafood lovers.

In a week of serious eating, of the tapas they give you with every drink or sampling the degustation menus of some pretty high-end restaurants, I was offered scarcely a single dish that was not either vegetarian or from the sea.

Here I met gooseneck barnacles. They're possibly the most hideous-looking things I've ever eaten - they resemble the poorly pedicured feet of tiny dinosaurs - but the Galicians call them percebes and regard them as a delicacy. Once you yank the gnarled and scaly "toe" off, you can suck out the small core of delicious flesh.

Even nicer, and certainly more substantial, is the navalla or razor clam - aptly named, for it looks just like a barber's cut-throat razor - the best shellfish I've had apart from the Bluff oyster.

Sardines - grilled fresh or from the can as tapas - are a local speciality. And the local version of fish stew (peppers, saffron, paprika), more piquant than the Provencal or Catalan, makes for the kind of lunch that will leave you skipping dinner.

That may not be such a bad idea.

They eat late here - lunch starts at 2pm and ends, if it ends at all, no earlier than 5pm; evening meals start at 10 or 11.

Offices and shops mostly close in the afternoon to suit. It's less the classical siesta - it's hardly ever hot enough for that - than an indication of how seriously they take the matter of eating.

In Santiago de Compostela, a town more famous for the slender and abstemious walkers whose pilgrimage ends at the cathedral door, I ate a 12-course degustation menu at the coolest of tapas bars called Abastos 2.0. Abastos, the Spanish word for "provisions", reflects its mission statement which is, loosely translated, "fridge-free cooking": it's literally at the door of the city's food markets and chef Marcos Cerqueiro likes to shop first and design the menu afterward.

The 2.0, borrowing from the nomencature of software versions, hints at the sleek modernism both of its interior design and cuisine: the "espresso cockles" are steamed with the coffee machine's milk frother; red mullet is served on black noodles; the octopus comes with mango foam and guacamole; and a PowerPoint presentation on an overhead screen lets you know what you're eating.

French President Charles de Gaulle famously lamented the impossibility of governing a country that has 246 different kinds of cheese. In terms of variety and number, Spain doesn't really compete with its northern neighbour: only the hard sheep's cheese manchego has made a mark on menus here.

But the milk of the blond cattle grazed on the lush pastures of Galicia yields excellent cheese, notably the wickedly buttery tetilla.

To wash it down, the best local drops are white wines (albarino and godello varieties dominate) or red wines (mencia).

But Galicia is also known for its aguardiente - the rocket fuel made from the pomace (skins and pips) left after the vintage.

At more than 42 proof it lives up to its name - aguardiente means "burning water". The clear orujo is the local classic, though a flavoured variety with hints of bitter orange, chamomile and coriander is also popular.

The sun sets late in Galicia. Eating at 10pm and sleeping in till 10am has never seemed so sensible. That, it is a pleasure to report, is the Galician way.

Peter Calder travelled to Spain and explored Galicia as a guest of the Spanish Institute of Foreign Trade.

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