THE HANDPRINT OF GOD
When God finished creating the world, he relaxed on the seventh day, resting his hand upon the top north-west of Spain, leaving five indentations for the sea to fill. Thus the Rías Baixas – the lower estuaries of Galicia – were established, or the “Handprint of God” according to Galician legend.
While visiting Galicia early on in my time in Spain, it immediately became my favourite place on Earth and years later nowhere has managed to topple it from its throne. Its primeval landscapes wrapped in mists and legends make up Spain’s greenest, wettest and most undiscovered region. Weaving your way along the highway that follows the wide river Minho bordering Spain and Portugal, you pass through acres of terraced mountain vineyards lining the two sides of the river, the vines draping over granite beams. Heavy black clouds and damp odours mingle thickly with threads of smoke wafting from stone chimneys and dripping slate roofs. Everywhere there is the rhythmic run of water. It sounds like something out of a gothic novel though the mystery is more akin to a medieval fairy tale than the haunt of vampires.
This timeless region, tucked up in the corner of the country is distinctly different from anywhere else in Spain and boasts a cuisine that is unrivalled in the world. Heading west towards the edge of Spain, the mists thin and the skies clear over a coastline that climbs through the bustling fishing ports and pueblos of the Rías Baixas to the wild Atlantic seas of A Costa da Morte (Death Coast) till smoothing out with the quiet, white beaches that curl around the Rías Altas (Higher Estuaries) and the Cantabrian Sea.
Thousands of food and wine lovers converge each year to these rías to join in the rituals and celebrations of summer, the long pilgrimages to hermitages of bizarre legend, folkloric festivals worshipping pagan customs and the fairs that extol the abundant variety of seafood for which Galicia is particularly famous. Spain consumes a hell of a lot of seafood and the ports of Galicia contribute numerous tonnes each day to the largest seafood wholesaler in Europe - Madrid’s landlocked Mercamadrid.
Hang around these ports anytime of the day and you get caught up in the buzz of activity – the moans of fishing boats coming in to unload their catch at the end of the evening, the shouts and cries of vendors and auctioneers lined up on the piers calling the best price for the day. Fresh shellfish, still alive and crawling around in crates are set up in the stalls, piles of octopus and squid with slimy flesh and glassy eyes that follow you as you marvel at the strange, exotic shapes and colours. Spider crabs, giant lobsters, clams and the prized barnacle looking like the feet of some small, prehistoric reptile, all disappear quickly to restaurants, bars and private homes.
Journeying up from the little finger estuary of Baiona to the thumbprint of Fisterra is a gastronomical delight. There is no shortage of excellent restaurants but some of the best edible surprises are found in out-of-the-way bars concealed down back streets where you can happily find a perfectly cooked ración of baby squid in a light batter or in their ink or a slab of cockle empanada (a kind of flat pie), the pastry delicate and delicious. The owners will always make sure your glass of the local wine is kept topped up to the halfway mark and be more than willing to impart cooking tips, especially when it comes to the highly skilled art of preparing octopus.
The octopus, sitting on every bar top like a small, pink, invited alien, rises above all the weird and exotic sea creatures as the region’s culinary symbol. Its more usual preparation is the popular traditional dish known nationwide as pulpo a feira or pulpo a la gallega (octopus the Galician way); soft and succulent when cooked properly, a rubber disaster when entrusted to inexperienced hands. The octopus is cut with scissors onto a small, round, wooden board, sprinkled with rock salt, spicy paprika and given a healthy dribble of olive oil.
The tradition is to serve the deep burgundy Ribeiro wines with octopus; thick and acidic, it must be drunk from small white porcelain bowls. The wine leaves a red stain in the cup and a tongue-curling taste in the mouth but is surprisingly pleasant.
Ribeiro wines are a favourite among the Galicians. The vineyards envelope the lands of Orense, Ribadavia and Leiro around the River Avia, and the product is best bought cheaply from the source, from the many small bodegas (wine cellars) around the province. The Ribeiro wine festival is celebrated at the end of April in Ribadavia, an historic city famed for its castle and Jewish Quarters where you can also find exceptional Jewish biscuits with Hebrew names such as Ma’amoul with date paste and rose water – a light shortbread that melts in the mouth.
Another favourite wine and now enjoying the international recognition they deserve are the white Albariño wines of the Rías Baixas. Described as the Golden Prince of Wines, young and fruity, Albariño is the perfect accompaniment to the flavours of the rías and its festival is celebrated in Cambados the first weekend of August.
From the Ría de Vigo, we get a first glimpse of the hundreds of bateas (mussel farms) out on the waters - large, wooden, floating structures characteristic of the lower estuaries. Long ropes hang down into the water where the bivalves are attached and grow. Historically it was considered the poor cousin of the shellfish family because they’re cheap and plentiful. When the region’s economy depended almost entirely on the production of the sea, it was not ascribed the status it is now. Old fishing folk still remember it said, “Imagine being so poor you could only eat seafood”.
But now tourism has created a demand for quality produce, and you can find excellent mussel dishes anywhere you go in Galicia, especially in the countless bars in O Grove on the Ría de Arousa, a shellfish paradise that celebrates The Festa do Marisco (shellfish fair) during the long weekend in October. The parrilladas assembled along O Grove’s esplanades are restaurants that specialize in grilled seafood platters. The value is outstanding and the food hot, fresh, sweet and delectable. If you get there around 9.30pm in the summer which is the usual time for dinner, you can watch the sun set between the boats in the ports. I also recommend taking a glass-bottomed boat tour to the mussel farms where you are literally shown the ropes and treated to a generous helping of prawns, mussels and as much wine as you can drink.
If you time your visit for the festive day of the patron saint of the sea and seamen, the Virgin Saint Carmen on the 16th July, you will be rewarded with countless celebrations all along the rías in her honour. There are maritime processions, folkloric dances and sardiñadas - sardines roasted over an open fire, an essential part of any outdoor feast and easy to stumble upon on almost every beachfront. I’d never been a fan of sardines, but these huge, gutted ones are blackened, slightly salty, served with the dark bread of Galicia and delicious. The parties continue into the chilly night and everybody comes out from the surrounding pueblos to join in the celebration of the Virgin.
The protected waters of the Rías Baixas close with Cabo Fisterra (above), the most westerly point in Spain which was thought of as the end of the world till Columbus happened upon America. Here the Atlantic Ocean beats its choppy seas against the rocks and is part of the Death Coast that washes up fishing boats and occasionally the bodies of percebeiros (barnacle fishermen) who dangerously hang from the windswept cliff faces to reach the highly valued barnacle clinging to their crevices.
When you’ve tired of all the eating and sea air, there are always the inland verdant mountains to visit, the lost stone villages of sleepy dogs, fermenting hay and grazing cows, and of course the vibrant and interesting cities with their incredible architecture and history. When it comes to the cuisine, Galician food does not end at the coastline - every corner of this amazing region has something new to offer. But that’s for another post.