Thursday, December 11, 2014

What to Eat in Galicia: 10 Dishes to Try

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I’m gonna go out on a limb here and argue that the region of Galicia in the northwest part of Spain churns out the best food in the entire country. Give me some Galician food any day over expensive Basque pintxos, snobby Catalan cuisine, or the famine food of the central meseta. I realize I probably offended just about everybody out there, but exaggerations aside, I believe Galicia occupies a particularly special place on the peninsula that has allowed a rich cuisine to develop over the centuries: a rugged coast from which bountiful seafood arrives inland, a fertile, rain-blessed interior to grow anything from corn to peppers to greens in, and a climate friendly to raising dairy cows.

There’s a lot to see and do in this fascinating corner of the country, from Romanesque cathedrals and Roman ruins to glorious beaches and thermal baths, but enjoying quality home cooking ranks pretty high up there on the list. If you don’t know what to order when visiting Galicia, try any (or all!) of the dishes I’m about to talk about below.

1) Polbo á feira (octopus)

Pulpo á feira
A plate at Lugo’s San Froilán festival
“Fair-style octopus” refers to a dish that consists of common octopus caught off the Atlantic shores of Galicia, which is then boiled in a copper pot for up to an hour until nice and tender, then snipped into medallions and garnished with olive oil and pimentón or smoked paprika. Often served with cachelos or boiled potatoes, pulpo a la gallega (as it’s called in Spanish) is the most emblematic of Galician food and endless wooden platters of the stuff are served up during any of the region’s countless festivals and fairs (hence the á feira in the name). Although you can find quality pulpo anywhere in Galicia, head inland to places like Lugo or Ourense to get the crème de la crème. And don’t worry—the suckers don’t stick to your mouth!

2) Pementos de Padrón (fried peppers from Padrón)

Pimientos de Padrón
(Source: Jessica Spengler)
Spaniards are not known for their spicy food, and I’ve even been told black pepper is spicy. So that makes the normally mild peppers from Padrón all the more exciting to eat as they flame up only once in a blue moon. As the Galician saying goes, “os pementos de Padrón: uns pican e outros non”—“peppers from Padrón: some are spicy and others aren’t.” The vast majority of these tiny green peppers won’t set your mouth on fire like a jalapeño will, though, so it’s safe to order whole platters of these guys and get to chompin’ on their delightful veggie freshness.

3) Queixo (cheese)

queso tetilla
Tetilla cheese
If sheep dominate Spain’s meseta or central plateau, then dairy cows take their place along the country’s northern coast. Galicia is no exception to this rule, so it’s no surprise that cows’ milk cheeses are produced here. The most widespread cheese is tetilla, named for its resemblance in shape to a woman’s breast. Pale yellow with a natural rind and a mild flavor, “titty cheese” goes great paired with some membrillo or sugary quince paste. Cheese from Arzúa is very similar but is softer and butterier, almost spreadable. And San Simón da Costa, made in Lugo province, is similar to tetilla but is firmer and has a nice smoky flavor to it.

4) Empanada (meat pie)

empanada de atún
(Source: Predicador Malvado)
Empanada is my go-to pastry of choice when I go to the bakery on an empty stomach and don’t feel like cooking, but it also makes a great first course if it’s available on a Galician menú del día or fixed-price meal deal. Between two layers of flaky pie crust hide scrumptious fillings that include onions, bell peppers, and a little tomato and meat ranging from tuna, sardines, or cod (with or without raisins) to pork loin or cockles. These pastries are perfect for a snack on the train or as part of a larger spread for a picnic in the park on a (rare) sunny day.

5) Caldo galego (Galician stew)

caldo gallego
(Source: Stanley Fong)
The word caldo in Galician literally means “broth,” but this recipe is about as far a cry from the watery stock that word might bring to your mind. Small Galician potatoes boil together with chunky white beans, grelos or vitamin-rich greens, unto or creamy pork fat, and usually chorizo, ribs, and other cuts of pork to create a warm, fortifying stew. You’ll have to sop up the last drops with bread, it’s just that good!

6) Mariscos (seafood)

cigalas
Cigalas, or Norway lobsters
Octopus aside, the Galician coasts provide an abundance of seafood of all shapes and sizes, which are most often simply boiled or steamed and served with lemon. You can typically find the following shellfish and crustaceans on a restaurant menu here: clams, cockles, razor clams, mussels, oysters, scallops, Norway lobsters, shrimp, lobster, velvet crab, spider crab, brown crab, and percebes or goose-neck barnacles. If you can’t decide on just one, you can always order a mariscada or huge seafood platter. They’re expensive, but definitely worth it.

7) Pan (bread)

(Source: amaianos)
It might not seem like bread would be anything too special to merit a spot on this list, but once you try pan galego (Galician bread), you’ll soon agree that it’s some of the nicest in the country. Made with brown Galician wheat instead of the bleached trigo castellano, Galician bread is much softer, moister, and a little bit more rustic than the bread you’ll receive at restaurants elsewhere in Spain.

8) Tarta de Santiago (Santiago almond cake)

Tarta de Santiago
(Source: Dale Calder)
Nothing too crazy, tarta de Santiago is simply ground almonds, sugar, and eggs baked together and then sprinkled with powdered sugar over a reverse stencil of the Cross of St. James. As in many typical Spanish sweets, the fragrant flavor of the almonds combines nicely with sugar to create a subtle but delightful dessert. Many convents sell tarta de Santiago to the public, among other goodies, and the San Paio de Antealtares convent behind the cathedral in Santiago even provides cakes to the King of Spain!

9) Lacón con grelos (pork shoulder with greens)

lacón con grelos
(Source: Frabisa)
Lacón con grelos has a little bit of everything that makes Galicia go round: lacón or salted pork shoulder, grelos or local greens, chorizo, Galician potatoes, and sometimes chickpeas. It’s a really hearty dish and a great overview of Galician cuisine.

10) Churrasco (barbecue)

Churrasco mixto at Parrillada Don Paquito, Boiro
Galicia has traditionally been a region of emigrants due to lack of jobs and historical poverty. Things are looking up as of the past few decades, however, and many Galicians who left for places like New York, Switzerland, or Argentina have come back home. It’s not uncommon at all even today for many people to have a cousin or relative living on the other side of the Atlantic, and I’ve met my fair share of Argentines while in Galicia.

Because of this recent reverse emigration, los argentinos have brought to Galicia their famous tradition of roasted meat, asado. While beef might be more popular in Buenos Aires, it’s easy here to find a quality churrasco or barbecue cookout of pork ribs, veal steak, and criollo sausage, sometimes served with a tomato-and-vinegar sauce.

Have you tried anything on this list before? What sounds most appealing (or least!)? Tell me in the comments section below!
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