Polpo Pilgrims: An Oceanic Odyssey in Galicia

Polpo Pilgrims: An Oceanic Odyssey in Galicia

When you eat octopus from Galicia you’ll think it’s the best you’ve ever tasted. It’s just everything about it: the way it’s cooked, the wooden plate it’s served on, the way they cut it with the scissors.

claims Nieves with an excitd grin as we wait to board our
too-early flight. It might be known as a rather rainy, rugged
region lacking the modish sex appeal of its northern Spanish
San Sebastián
, but if you like seafood Galicia should be top of your
travel hit list. The boiled octopus dish of which Nieves speaks
(“pulpo a feira”) is world-famous and underpins a proud regional
food culture that hinges on the ocean. Over the next few days we’ll
find this out, sampling many plates of the meaty, paprika and olive
oil doused local octopus, along with the juiciest clams, mussels,
scallops, velvet crabs (“necoras”) and fish, all packed with
flavour thanks to the plankton-saturated, nutrient-rich waters of
the crashing Atlantic.

The purpose of our trip is research. Nieves Barragán, previously
the acclaimed executive chef at Barrafina, has just opened her
restaurant Sabor (Spanish for “flavour”) in the
heart of London‘s
West End. The opening strives to bring authentic flavours of
Spain’s regional cuisine to life. I feel incredibly lucky to have
bagged a spot on one of the chef’s exploration trips, which she
undertakes every few months for inspiration. “I’m from Bilbao but I
love Galicia,” she says. “The cuisine is incredible. It’s so simple
but so delicious – I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about the

While the seafood might be goosebump inducing enough to warrant
a culinary pilgrimage, Galicia’s capital – the UNESCO heritage town
of Santiago de Compostela – is the final point of the legendary
Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, a network of pathways established in
the 9th century and walked by more than 300,000 people each year.
Upon landing, we head to the old town to explore its famous
cathedral, home to the shrine of St James the Great. Built between
1075 and 1122, it’s all ornate carvings and gilded rooms with walls
painted with scallop shells – a symbol used to guide pilgrims along
the way.

A feast of market produce

Scallop shells planted firmly in our minds, we head to Abastos
food market, where locals proudly display a wealth of fresh
produce. Gnarly, fragrant tomatoes and bunches of vivid green
brassicas known as “grelos” particularly excite Nieves; “these make
the most delicious stew with pork and chickpeas, we have it on the
menu at Sabor!” Inside the covered market, amid glass butcher
cabinets filled with heavily salted pigs ears, snouts, and all
kinds of cured meats, Sabor’s energetic head chef Gisela Fernandez
Moles buys us slices of warm Galician “empanada gallega”. It’s a
sort of flat, filled bread pie made with a rich olive-oil dough
stuffed with tuna, salt cod or octopus and a sweet mixture of
onions and peppers. It’s utterly moreish, greasy with olive oil,
the fruity peppers and onions wonderfully offsetting the saline

Window shopping has got us ravenous so we head to much-lauded
restaurant just outside the market, Abastos 2.0, where chef Marcos Cerqueiro is
making modern tapas with this feast of local ingredients. His
cooking has impressed the likes of Rick Stein and – tasting dishes
like sweet, creamy mussels with a kick of habanero chilli or
sea-bass ceviche with crunchy sea salt and red onion – it’s easy to
understand why.

Over lunch, Nieves explains the mystical Galician ritual of
cooking octopus in a copper pot – something she does at Sabor. “The
copper changes flavour of octopus; it tastes more of octopus and it
tenderises the meat.” She swears by using frozen octopus that has
been defrosted, cooking it for 20 minutes per kilo with one onion
and a bay leaf, dipping it three times into the pot to curl the
tentacles before fully immersing it.

Just as we’re about to leave, Nieves disappears inside a
deserted restaurant opposite only to reappear and hurriedly pull me
inside, where I find chefs preparing a staff lunch of her beloved
grelos. Recognising a fellow chef when they see one, they invite us
into the kitchen where a huge metal tray is bubbling with
chickpeas, pork knuckles and green brassicas. We stand around it
and dip forks in; the chickpeas are creamy and comforting, the pork
flavour-infusing the stew and the grelos lending a bitterness and
bite that’s utterly addictive. I can see why Nieves is so obsessed
with this dish.

O Grove – a taste of local waters

The following day we head to the coastal town of O Grove to meet
Nieves’ friend Berto Domíngues, the restaurateur behind legendary
seafood restaurant D’Berto. First, we’re to follow the trail of
the ingredient so inherent to this region to its origin, with
Nieves trying her hand at catching her first octopus.

It’s a misty, rainy day with dramatic swathes of cloud sending
pearlescent streaks across the darkened sky, but the clam-picking
women of O Grove are out on the flat sands in force, collecting
clams by the bucketload (some varieties fetch as much as 80 euros a
kilo). Berto describes the four different types, bearing witness to
the incredible biodiversity of the area. “This is the best, best,
best,” says Nieves excitedly, pointing at a “fina” clam. “It tastes
like butter.”

Once aboard the boat we share freshly baked tuna empanadas and a
platter of the plumpest, richest mussels, sipping ice-cold Estrella
completely unbothered by the fact it may be a little early. We stop
at some mussel ropes to marvel at the layers of shimmering
blue-black shells, each rope holding over 300kg of mussels, and are
met by a fisherman who pulls up beside us in his little boat. He
looks the part in his yellow macintosh. “His name is Felix,” says
Berto, “he’s the best fisherman for velvet crab and octopus. His
father was amazing, but he is better.”

Nieves needs no encouragement to jump on board with Felix, and
soon they are hoisting a glistening, undulating octopus out of its
trap. “It’s so heavy and strong it’s pulling me down!” yells
Nieves, taken aback by the agility of this muscular creature. For a
moment our attention is grabbed away from the drama of the fishing
boat as a school of dolphins leap from the waters beside us,
pulling out the stops with their flamboyant aquatics. “Such
exhibitionists” says Berto with an eye roll and a smile.

Meanwhile, Felix dispatches the octopus with expert efficiency
and it changes colour from deep reddish-purple to white and then to
grey as the life visibly fades from it. It’s a confronting moment
for us all and the respect is palpable among everyone on the

A haven for seafood lovers

Our lunch at D’Berto is the most epic seafood feast. It’s one of
those restaurants where the smell grabs you first – the heady scent
of universally good cooking; garlic gently infusing into warm oil;
nutty shellfish changing colour on a hot grill – followed by the
sight of tanks of hulking lobsters and langoustines as long as your
arm. We sit around a large table in a light-filled room and settle
in for the long haul as platters and plates of seafood emerge in a
steady stream.

In the kitchen is Berto’s sister Marisol, whose knack for
cooking seafood is nothing short of remarkable. She treats each
ingredient simply, respecting its freshness yet coaxing out the
best flavour, often interfering no more than a light brush of olive
oil, mild grilling and sprinkle of sea salt.

We gorge on mineral-rich oysters and raw clams, followed by
revelatory black-queen scallops or “zanburinas” that have flesh
like saline brown butter. We are incredibly lucky to taste these,
Nieves explains: “Only 1000kg of these are caught each year, and
Berto gets most of them – you only find them in four or five
restaurants in Spain.”

Tender razor clams come completely unadorned having been simply
steamed a la plancha – and they’re all the better for it. Next we
taste the celebrated “fina” clams we’d seen earlier, swimming in
olive oil and scattered with fresh pepper. Then it’s time for the
main event: the resplendent red palometer, a meaty, red fish with a
bulging eyes that is sliced table-side and served with bowls of
chips made from Galician potatoes. The flesh is creamy, meaty and
gelatinous – reminiscent of dover sole – and we suck the bones

It’s one of those lunches that lasts through until evening, and
while we might feel like eating again would recreate the
“wafer-thin mint” scene from Monty Python, it’s not long before we
are winding our way to Xurxo, a family-run winery in the hills.
Berto’s friends give us glasses of buttery, sulphite-free Albariño
fresh from the barrel, and in the kitchen, two stately women prep
potatoes for tortillas with a dexterity that speaks of a lifetime’s
muscle memory.

Honing in on heritage

Galicia’s pale, earthy potatoes are almost as prized as its
seafood. They are slowly confit in olive oil before being folded
into broken eggs with salt and cooked so the middle of the tortilla
still oozes with golden yolk. Such is the traditional way, and how
Nieves serves it at Sabor. What noble alchemy there is in taking
three such simple ingredients and turning them into something so
utterly pleasurable.

Meanwhile, another octopus boils in a copper pot. Once again we
find ourselves gathered around a table, as glass after glass of
local wine is poured and another banquet is offered up. A local
Galician band plays bagpipes, a nod to Galicia’s celtic heritage.
Felix joins us (it’s his octopus in the pot) and reports that
another octopus he caught today escaped. “It’s the most complicated
creature in the sea”, he explains us with an exasperated shrug.

A steaming platter of boiled potatoes topped with the octopus,
sweet caramelised onions, paprika oil and big crispy chunks of salt
is set down on the table. “I never eat octopus with water, only
wine as it helps break it down,” Felix proffers. We’re certainly in
the right place to observe that rule, but wine is not our sole
beverage tonight. As we eat, Lis, the elderly proprietor of the
eatery, stands in front of a flaming pot, this time filled with
“orujo gallego”, a proof-strength spirit that is distilled from
wine and mixed with sugar, lemon peel and herbs before being set on
fire. It’s a traditional, spiritual Galician ritual called
“Queimada”, said to purge the body and soul, banishing

Lis strings a scallop shell around his neck and carefully ladles
the elixir into ceramic cups. It’s deeply herbal and sharply cut
with lemon. Although it’s been dancing with a green flame all
night, the alcohol has certainly not all boiled off. Soon we are on
our feet, dancing to the bagpipes, Berto spinning Nieves around as
corks from the winery’s natural fizz pop around us.

“I’m Basque, but I have no doubt that Galicia is special”,
Nieves yells at me above the music. “There is no point denying it –
it’s just a fact. That’s the beauty.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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