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Thursday, May 22, 2014

Galician octopus in Santiago de Compostela, Spain

Pulpo Gallego Galician octopus in Santiago de Compostela, Spain

That first taste of Galician octopus will change your life. Forget about any previous experiences you'd had with chewy rubberiness. Galician octopus is prepared how it should be: simply, slowly and with utmost respect so each mouthful is nothing but bliss.

You'll see these giant cephalopods across Galicia in every restaurant and tavern window. They're giant, purple-y crimson in hue, and fascinating with their distinctive suction cups on each tentacle.

After my two nights in A Coruña last year (yes, I'm slowly catching up on my backlog!), I caught the local train to Santiago de Compostela, the capital of Galicia and the final destination of thousands of Christian pilgrims every year.

Pilgrim on the Way of St James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain\
Pilgrim in Santiago de Compostela

My train trip was an easy thirty minutes but for many pilgrims, it takes weeks or months to reach their destination: the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela where the remains of St James are said to have been buried.

Pilgrims must walk at least 100km or cycle at least 200km to earn a compostela or official certificate that confirms they have completed the Way of St James. In 2013 there were 215,880 who completed the journey. Numbers typically peak in holy years. In the most recent holy year of 2010, there were more than 270,000 pilgrims. The next holy year will be 2021.

Tourists at the rear of Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, Spain
Tourists at the rear of Santiago de Compostela Cathedral

There are pilgrims everywhere in Santiago de Compostela, all carrying walking sticks and loaded up with backpacks. It's an inspiring sight, and there seems to be a great sense of community spirit and camaraderie between them all.

Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, Spain
Santiago de Compostela Cathedral

A pilgrim's mass is each every day at noon in Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, announcing each pilgrim's country of origin and their starting point. The building is dramatically impressive, Romanesque in structure with Gothic and Baroque modifications. The cathedral was completed in 1211 and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.

It's extraordinarily beautiful inside too.

Mercado de Abastos farmers market

Mercado de Abastos farmers market in Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Mercado de Abastos farmers market

It may have been wet and drizzly when I arrived, but that didn't stop me from heading straight to the Mercado de Abastos farmers market. Stalls have been setting up here since the late 1800s. The granite hallway buildings were only added in 1941.

Shops inside Mercado de Abastos farmers market in Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Shops inside the market

A combination of the weather and arriving post-noon meant that there were only a few shoppers around, with several stalls already packed up for the day. Most of the shops close for the day at around 2pm.

Seafood stalls at Mercado de Abastos farmers market in Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Seafood stalls

There's still plenty to look at though. The number of seafood stalls is impressive, each proudly displaying the best catches of the day.

Fishmonger with curved machete at Mercado de Abastos farmers market in Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Fishmonger with distinctive curved machete

I was fascinated with the curved machetes that Spanish fishmongers use, a large blade with a curved edge.

Razor clams at Mercado de Abastos farmers market in Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Razor clams

I couldn't wait to eat more razor clams either.

Seafood stall and shoppers at Mercado de Abastos farmers market in Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Everybody's buying fish today

Tetilla cheese at Mercado de Abastos farmers market in Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Tetilla cheese - yes it's supposed to look like that. 

And it was hard not to giggle when I spied the tetilla cheese. It's supposed to look like a breast (tetilla is Spanish for small breast) and there's a reason. The story goes that an artist sculpted an extremely curvaceous female for the cathedral. When a strict bishop ordered that the statue's assets be reduced to a more modest size, locals protested by making tetilla-shaped cheese which suddenly appeared everywhere.

Tetilla cheese is now a local specialty, with much of the milk sourced from Fresian cows. You can buy the cheese in wedges and I was instantly enamoured with its rich and smooth creaminess. The cheese itself is almost pliable in the fingers, and there's a lovely buttery taste in each mouthful.

Bacalhau salted cod fillets at Mercado de Abastos farmers market in Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Bacalhau salted cod fillets

Fruit and vegetable stall at Mercado de Abastos farmers market in Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Fruit and vegetable stall

Spice shop at Mercado de Abastos farmers market in Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Spice stall

Pulpo a Gallega Galician octopus at Mercado de Abastos farmers market in Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Pulpo a Gallega or Galician octopus

Food stalls at markets are always a drawcard, especially when you can see plumes of steam rising from a pot while you huddle under your umbrella. You could smell the sea from the cauldron filled with quietly simmering octopus. And how could you not stare at those tentacles, curled up on itself.

Pulpo a Gallega Galician octopus at Mercado de Abastos farmers market in Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Adding salt, paprika and olive oil to the chopped octopus

There's a fantastic sense of ceremony as you watch the octopus being sliced with scissors and then piled in circles on a wooden board. A sprinkle of salt, a generous shake of smoked paprika and several glugs of Spanish olive oil complete the dish.

Plate of Pulpo a Gallega Galician octopus at Mercado de Abastos farmers market in Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Pulpo a Gallega €8 (AU$11.80)

And that first mouthful. Wow. How can octopus be so amazingly tender? It's soft and yielding with just enough springiness to every bite. The salt, paprika and olive oil are all the seasoning it needs, enhancing the flavour without over-riding.

This dish is most commonly eaten at taverns as a tapas plate, but I'm so much happier I ate it standing in the drizzle of rain, fresh from the pot as shoppers milled around me.

Leche frita Spanish fried milk at Mercado de Abastos farmers market in Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Leche frita or Spanish fried milk

And for dessert I hoed into my purchase from a bakery stall, leche frita or Spanish fried milk. Traditionally it's a homemade sweet for kids, made from a custard that's cooked down until it forms a dough. Piece of dough are dipped in egg and flour and deep-fried.

It's a bit like eating a deep-fried vanilla slice without the icing and pastry, warm and comforting with its heavy dusting of cinnamon.

Casa Elisa Restaurante

Casa Elisa Restaurant in Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Casa Elisa Restaurante

Dinner that night was at Casa Elisa Restaurante on Rua do Franco, one of the main eating streets of Santiago de Compostela that's lined with tapas bars. I liked that it looked a little old-skool, with small tables that would suit a solo diner.

Primat bottle of red wine holding 27 litres at Casa Elisa Restaurant in Santiago de Compostela, Spain
A primat bottle of red wine. That's 27 litres!

I resist the giant bottle of red wine and stick with Estrella beer.

Caldo Gallega Galician soup at Casa Elisa Restaurant in Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Caldo Gallego €3.95 (AU$5.80) 
Galician soup 
with bread €1.1 (AU$1.60) and Estrella beer €2.50 (AU$3.70)

Galician soup is another must-do around here. I'm ticking off Galician specialities like nobody's business. It's a white bean soup that's packed with chunks of potato, cabbage and pork. The broth itself is aromatic and flavourful too, the kind of tasty goodness that comes from ham or bacon. I love rustic soups like these, the kind of soups your mum or Grandma would make on a cold winter's day.

Navajas razor clams at Casa Elisa Restaurant in Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Navajas €8.50 (AU$12.60)
Razor clams

The razor clams take a while to come out but they're worth the wait. Half a dozen clams have been grilled until lightly caramelised and then dressed simply with olive oil, garlic and finely chopped parsley. The clams are tender and succulent. I could have eaten a dozen more.

Chipirones frite fried baby squid at Casa Elisa Restaurant in Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Chipirones frites €6.15 (AU$9)
Fried baby squid 

And then there was my new Spanish obsession with fried baby squid. I ate these everywhere and was rewarded with crunchy deliciousness every time. Young baby squid, crunchy batter and a squeeze of fresh lemon will leave you smiling with happiness every time.

> Read the next Spain post: Five foods you need to eat in Madrid, Spain
<< Read the first Spain post: Where to eat in Barcelona, Spain

Restaurante Casa Elisa
Rua do Franco, 36-38, Santiago de Compostela, 15702, Galicia, Spain
Tel: +34 (981) 583 112

Opening hours:
Monday to Friday 10am - 5pm and 7.30pm - 1am
Saturday and Sunday 12pm - 4.45pm and 7.30am - 12.30am

Mercadeo de Abastos de Santiago (Santiago Farmers Market)
Rua Ameas S/N, Santiago de Compostela 15704, Galicia, Spain
Tel: +34 (981) 583 438

Opening hours:
Monday to Saturday 8am - 2pm

Related Grab Your Fork posts:
Spain - A Coruna: goosefoot barnacles and Galician seafood adventures
Spain - Barcelona: Where to eat
Spain - Madrid: Five foods you need to eat

Bulgaria - Dairy farms and yoghurt factories across Sofia and Plovdiv
Malaysia - Food tour with Australian Masterchef winner Adam Liaw
Philippines - Ice cream with cheese, turtle stew and sizzling pigs head
Singapore - Marina Bay Sands to hawker markets in 140 photos
USA - The great donut, fried chicken and bbq tour
20 comments - Add some comment love

posted by Helen (Grab Your Fork) on 5/22/2014 02:19:00 am


  • At 5/22/2014 3:07 am, Anonymous Padaek said…

    What a great post! Such an alluring city and the food looks amazing. Wow, that plate of Pulpo a Gallega sure looks delicious! Hehe - I thought the Titilla cheese looked like fancy coconuts. :D

  • At 5/22/2014 8:37 am, Anonymous john | heneedsfood said…

    I'm smiling with happiness right now just looking at these photos. I absolutely adore Spain. The culture, those incredible buildings, markets and food.

  • At 5/22/2014 10:48 am, Blogger Jacq said…

    I wish we had more food markets like that here in Sydney! That tetilla cheese made me chuckle hehe

  • At 5/22/2014 10:55 am, Anonymous Rachel said…

    Helen, you take me back! Heaps of my husband's family live in La Coruna!! They're English but his brothers both teach English there and their partners are Spanish. LOVE that city.
    Whenever I go there for a visit my mouth is always watering for weeks after I leave, craving chiparones (small flash-fried squids), pimientos (like barbequed jalapenos) and of course all the yummy jamon and manchego cheese. Mmmmm getting hungry...

  • At 5/22/2014 11:22 am, Anonymous Gourmet Getaways said…

    What an enjoyable and gastronomic historical experience! I feel like I was there, too, the whole time I was reading your story. The octopus didn't look scrumptious at first, but the photo with the paprika and olive oil made all the difference. Thanks for taking us to Spain!

    Gourmet Getaways

  • At 5/22/2014 12:51 pm, Anonymous Katinka Day said…

    Helen, this post is amazing! Santiago is so beautiful and I am kicking myself because my boyfriend lived there for 6 months and I never visited him. Looks like I missed out on same incredible food. I'll just have to ask him to take me there and show me around :)

    Have fun on your travels!

  • At 5/22/2014 4:20 pm, Anonymous Eha said…

    Have not been to the north of Spain and look at these photos and experiences quite enviously! Thank you for posting!! And, yes please, a large helping of the octopus today and some of these razor clams also!! Shall be back tomorrow :) !

  • At 5/22/2014 6:15 pm, Anonymous Lee Tran Lam said…

    Thanks for this lovely excursion into Spain! I've never been, but your vibrant post seems to do it real justice – and is definitely inspiring some travel plans!

  • At 5/22/2014 9:44 pm, Anonymous angela@mykikicake said…

    I love to visit the farmers markets when I go travelling. It's so exciting to see the different food on offer. That octopus looks incredible. Would love to try it right about now.

  • At 5/23/2014 3:00 pm, Blogger Milktea Eats said…

    Tetilla cheese ahahah! they can look so wrong! the razor clams look really good tho!

  • At 5/23/2014 3:21 pm, Blogger The Food Mentalist said…

    Wow what an amazing experience and that octopus sounds and looks amazing. Spain is definitely on my list of places to visit!

  • At 5/24/2014 7:43 am, Anonymous Cindy (a foodie's joy) said…

    The octopus looked amazing. Great pics btw. I can't wait to visit Spain, hopefully next year!

  • At 5/24/2014 3:56 pm, Anonymous Sara | Belly Rumbles said…

    Is it just me, or do others also suffer from farmers' market envy when they see the gorgeous ones over seas?

  • At 5/26/2014 10:00 am, Anonymous Amanda @lambsearsandhoney said…

    That looks like the perfect way to spend a rainy afternoon, and the food looks wonderful. I can't wait to see more of Spain. My little taste at the beginning of the year wasn't nearly enough. Have you read "Everything But the Squeal" about a year in Galicia eating all of the pig? I think it might be just your kind of book Helen!

  • At 5/26/2014 11:44 am, Anonymous Martine @ Chompchomp said…

    OH yes, it definitely changed my life too. The texture, the flavour. We just cannot recreate it in Aus. Then again, there wasn't a single bit of food that I didn't love in Barcelona...got so fat!

  • At 5/26/2014 5:52 pm, Blogger CQUEK said…

    Now I’m craving for that Pulpo a Gallega.

  • At 5/26/2014 9:16 pm, Blogger Sarah said…

    Such beautiful photos - the architecture, the markets, the food! Makes me wanna travel!!!

  • At 5/27/2014 9:43 am, Anonymous JJ - 84thand3rd said…

    Oh the octopus and cheese and all that olive oil! I loved Spain but only made it up the East Coast... another one for the list :)

  • At 5/28/2014 11:31 pm, Anonymous Alice said…

    Lol, I'm probably not meant to say this, but that Cheese must be the "breast!"

    Looks good and I'm in awe of your tasty adventures as always!`

  • At 6/17/2014 11:11 am, Anonymous Amanda @ Gourmanda said…

    I love the look of these markets, and it's getting me very excited for our big European trip next year! Can't wait to eat food like this everyday!


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