Go on a food pilgrimage to Galicia
At the end of the Camino de Santiago in Spain is Galicia. It's the last stop of the famed religious pilgrimage but also draws visitors for its incredible seafood
Every year, hundreds of thousands arrive in Santiago de Compostela, the capital city of Galicia in the north-western part of Spain.
They are likely to be dusty, hungry and sore from their long journey on the Camino de Santiago, which has led them to the place housing the shrine of Saint James the Great, and where the apostle's holy remains are said to lie.
By the time they reach the city, the weary travellers would have walked 20 to 35km a day for a month.
But what drew this traveller here was more prosaic: Food.
With 1,500km of the Atlantic sea as its coastline, Galicia is one of the top seafood destinations in the world, with fish and shellfish thriving in nutrient-rich waters.
Galicia's famous rugged coast has a dramatically dark nickname - Coast of Death - for the treacherous waters have claimed the lives of many over the centuries.
But here, the mussels and razor clams are plump, the sea urchins are the sweetest you can find in southern Europe, and the mullet, cod and whiting are succulent and flavourful.
In Galicia, you can also find the Jurassic-looking percebes. Also known as goose barnacles, these crustaceans are plucked from areas between rocky cliffs amid strong currents and battering waves.
One way to savour Galicia's offerings is on a road trip, since the waterways along the coast are all known for different seafood.
Go south of Santiago to Carril for clams. Drive further south to the Rias Baixas for mussels. If it is lobsters and percebes you like, head north.
I elected to stay in Santiago to sup on what the pilgrims would find at the end of their walk.
Plaza del Obradoiro, the main square in the old town, is the entry point to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where the faithful visit the crypt of Saint James and line up to kiss the feet of his effigy.
Next to the cathedral is the luxury hotel Parador de Santiago, which first opened in the 15th century as a hostel for pilgrims.
Located on the first floor is Enxebre, a restaurant that specialises in Galician classics and is known for mussels. While the atmosphere is casual, the dishes are served with pride. Have the mussels steamed, baked or canned in a spicy tomato sauce.
The empanada gallega - a pie made with a thin layer of shortcrust pastry and stuffed with fish and peppers in a rich tomato sauce - is another must-try.
To the left of the square are winding streets with white buildings. Among these you will find Casa Marcelo, a small restaurant that serves innovative Spanish tapas with a twist on the omakase format.
You tell the staff how many courses you want, and what you want to eat. Make mention of personal preferences or allergies, and they will accommodate you.
Head chef Martin Vazquez rolls out beautifully plated courses that are a surprise, especially for the Asian diner.
Would you expect to eat steamed mussels with XO sauce or rabbit siew mai in Spain? You might if you dine here. The menu changes daily and reservations are a must as this is one of the hottest tables in town.
Those with a sweet tooth would do well to hang around the old town, where you will find many shops offering free tastings of tarta de santiago, a sweet cake made from almond meal, containing dulce de leche, and decorated with the cross of Saint James stencilled in icing sugar.
RING THE BELL
If you develop a taste for it, drop by San Pelayo de Antealtares monastery, where the Benedictine nuns are known for their version of the tarta. Ring the bell by the heavy oak doors. In exchange for $16, one of the nuns of this silent order will push a cake out through a wooden shutter, where you will collect it.
A visit to the fish market should also be on your itinerary.
About 10 minutes away from the square on foot is the Mercado de Abastos. There are rows of stalls of every seafood imaginable, alongside fresh fruits and vegetables, meat and cheese. Sea urchins are shucked on the spot for you when they are in season in winter, and there are stalls selling local tapas.
A must-have is the pulpo a la gallega, tender and delicious boiled octopus tentacles cut into medallions and served drenched in olive oil with powdery potato slices, topped with a generous sprinkle of paprika and salt.
Beside the market is Abastos 2.0, a tapas kiosk opened in 2009 by a group of young chefs, that has attracted a cult following.
Order the steamed razor clams (sweet and juicy in their natural juices) and the incredible moreish padron peppers (fried until their skin is blistered and sprinkled with sea salt).
For my next trip, I vowed to spend more time in this area, eating my way down the coastline.