The Spain You’ve Never Met: Exploring GALICIA
Photos and article by Virginia Miller
Windswept, green hills rolling to the ocean. Grey skies. Celtic statues and artwork. Vibrant seafood. Sounds more like Ireland than Spain, right? The northernmost Western reaches of Spain – with Ireland just across the sea – reminded me more of the Emerald Isle than it did of previous travels in Barcelona and down the coast to the south of Spain.
The region of Galicia is comprised of A Coruña, Lugo, Ourense and Pontevedra provinces, with Portugal just to the south, influencing the Galician language native. Celtic roots and Roman influences: it’s a fascinating section of Spain unlike any other. It was chilly and blustery in November in A Coruña with biting winds and intermittent rain. But the sun shone brightly in the stunning wine region of Ribeira Sacra and the city of Santiago de Compostela, its Old Town a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I had the privilege of taking a November trip with Estrella Galicia, the region’s leading beer and one of the most popular in the country, found almost everywhere in Galicia and in restaurants and bars around the world, including Bask at home in San Francisco. I joined a group of distributors and importers exploring Estrella beer, wine, cider and spirits – and, of course – the food of Galicia.
One aspect I appreciated about this trip was the thoughtful education and immersion we received in local culture. Typically, on food and drink press trips, the focus is, as it needs to be, on food and drink. Anything off that path can easily be information overload and a waste of time for writers who need to stay focused on relevant material to write about. The last thing needed in an already over-scheduled trip is unnecessary events. But on this trip, the Estrella team holistically weaved local history and culture into every appointment. Besides history tours, and walking a portion of the famed Way of St. James, we went to an intimate concert at the cool Sala Capitol venue featuring one of Spain’s biggest pop/rock musicians, Vega. As the whole crowd sang along to every word, it was true, engaging immersion in Spanish culture.
1. Among the best seafood I’ve had in the world
Pulpo (octopus), razor clams, barnacles, ox, and, of course, jamón ibérico – just a few regional Galician specialties I couldn’t get enough of. Though I get plenty of excellent octopus at home, I’ve never had razor clams like the ones in Galicia: milky, pure, almost like fresh crab meat in a tube shape, with a bit funk in the middle where their organs are. Unadorned, you eat them as is with no embellishments needed. Likewise, the famed (and expensive, due to the difficulty of climbing out on rocks to scrape them off) barnacles are fascinating local treasures.
I’ve wandered impressive meat markets from Italy to Mexico (though am still dying to visit Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji Fish Market) lined with animal heads and organs. But I’ve never been so impressed with a seafood section of a market – in this case, rows and rows of stalls – as I was in Santiago de Compostela’s main market, conveniently just outside my room at Hotel Pazo de Altamira. Think giant eels hanging ceiling to floor. Little old women holding a raw octopus in each hand, trying to decide which one to buy. The cleanest eyes and freshest looking fish. Pristine oysters, clams and barnacles. Live shrimps with roe (eggs) still attached and hanging off their bellies. It’s one eye-popping delight after another. It was a bit tragic not to have a kitchen.
2. A stunning wine region of tiered vineyards on a river
Ribeira Sacra (“Sacred Shore”)… this wine region (a Spanish Denominación de Origen – DO) is truly magical. Under blue skies, steep hills covered in terraced vineyards roll down to meandering rivers Miño and Sil. This fall, sun sparkled on the river, glowing and illuminating fall colors on the vines. It’s a place that feels touched by God.
Three types of varietals are typically produced in the up-and-coming region, which is still working to attain the quality of the some of the famed regions nearby (Rioja, for one): red Mencía, white Albariño and white Godello. I particularly enjoyed Godello with seafood during my trip, while in the countryside of Lugo, A Cantina was a memorable restaurant showcasing the farms and wines of the region. Over rounds of manchego cheese, Spanish chorizo, and tortilla Española (a thick egg and potato “omelette” fried in olive oil), we savored local wines.
I visited Ponte da Boga, an elegant stone winery producing a lovely Godello, a range of traditional Spanish liqueurs, and special limited edition reds like the complex berry of 2012 Expresion Gotica Cosecha red wine (a blend of mencia, merenazao, souson and brancellao grapes).
3. Santiago’s striking architecture and spiritual history
Santiago de Compostela’s shining glory is its gorgeous cathedral, a prime example of Spanish architecture and the supposed site of the remains of Saint James, the impetus for the Way of St. James, a Catholic pilgrimage route originating in the 9th century. The Way of St. James, or The Way (which inspired a recent movie of the same name), is a spiritual pilgrimage through France and Spain, ending in Santiago at the cathedral, the shining finale to a journey that takes weeks or months for many to complete.
I had the privilege of walking along portions of the Way from Monte Do Gozo, a small mount outside of the city, into the city, culminating with a church service in the massive cathedral dating back to 1211. There are striking churches and monuments all throughout Santiago’s meandering, cobblestoned Old Town streets, but it’s the grand cathedral, from any angle, that takes your breath away.
4. Drink culture
Beer, cider, wine, spirits… I explored it all in Galicia. And each of these brands is imported to the US.
Estrella de Galicia Pub in downtown A Coruna, lined with beer tanks and a locals-heavy crowd, was the ideal place in which to try their entire beer line (I tried six different beers). Hijos de Rivera Brewery, which produces Estrella, is a fascinating tour, including the most impressive bottling line I’ve ever seen. Walking around a glassed-in, elevated walkway to view the bottling machines was like overseeing a miniature city with packed roadways and constant movement.
Maeloc hard cider (sidra) is my favorite packaging/label with its playful, mannish Grandma drawing. I particularly like their dry cider, a fine pairing with seafood due to its crisp acidity. There are plenty of fruit and sweet ciders for those who like it sweeter in flavors like pear or strawberry. I particularly loved an extra dry, funky cider we enjoyed on premises at the brewery.
Getting schooled on Galician aguardiente (which is nothing like Mexican aguardiente, aka firewater, but rather their term for all local spirits), I learned typical Spanish spirits range from coffee liqueurs to bitter/sweet herbias (herbs) liqueurs, often thick, yellow, sweet and bitter/herbaceous.
I particularly appreciate grappa-esque orujo, an unaged (clear) brandy made from the pomace of grapes, stems, skins, etc. Often called aguardiente de oruj (pomace firewater), or sometimes caña, it’s typically distilled in small pot stills, giving it character and depth.
The aguardiente stills I saw for Hijos da Rivera were unique to any I’ve seen in distilleries the world over. As you can see from the photo (right), they look like tall pots with arms between them, lids placed on top.
5. Exploring regional foods
Besides the aforementioned countryside restaurant, A Cantina, in the Ribeira Sacra wine region, the standout restaurant in A Coruña was one Michelin-starred La Alborada. Avant-garde and fresh, the gastronomico menu doesn’t exactly push boundaries but it’s fine dining execution of classics like beef tartare, Iberian pork, ravioli, or grilled octopus laced with paprika and cabbage.
In Santiago, Restaurante San Jaime‘s sunny, upstairs room is an idyllic lunch respite for paella, Spanish chorizo, meat and cheese platters, grilled fish dishes. Abastos 2.0 was my favorite Santiago restaurant. Modern, clean lines and a Spanish gin and vermouth menu charmed. Here is where I had those unreal, perfect razor clams. And a damn fantastic burger oozing with cheese and butter. Crudo/sashimi-style dishes wowed with white wines or Spanish cider.