A culinary pilgrimage along the Way of St James
The coastal road west from Asturias takes me to the Galician town of Santiago de Compostela. The main town is prosperous and conservative, like many cities where the principal business is religion. Even today, many thousands of Christian pilgrims flock here from all corners of the world, and the town has been shaped as if in expectation of their arrival. Its monasteries – of which there are many – were built with extra dormitories to accommodate the annual influx of worshippers at the shrine of St James. Several have now been converted into modern, anything-but-monastic hotels. There are still statues, smaller shrines and waymarkers at many of the street corners, arranged almost like signposts pointing the way to the stillvenerated tomb of St James himself.
The shops are tailored to matronly Catholic tastes, selling pretty porcelain tea sets and acres of lace. At O Dezaseis, a traditional Galician restaurant with wood-beamed ceilings and exposed plaster walls, they cook scallops in tribute to St James, whose time-honoured symbol is the scallop shell. No-one knows for sure why this is so; the sceptical 16th-century humanist Erasmus believed it was simply because the nearby sea teemed with scallops, making their shells cheap and cheerful souvenirs of a visit to the town. Whatever the origin of the custom, once upon a time, every pilgrim to Santiago de Compostela would leave with a scallop shell affixed, like a badge of honour, to his or her hat. Scallops are still found everywhere in Santiago: modelled in the local jetstone, they are sold as pendants in tourist shops across the city; they even decorate the city’s drain covers and fire hydrants. They are almost as ubiquitous as the famous tarta de Santiago – a formidably sweet almond tart, with a cross dusted on it in icing sugar.
On the outskirts of town is the Fogar do Santiso. It’s not so much a restaurant as a sequence of shacks and yards, with tables and chairs laid out in haphazard fashion on a patch of stony ground. The food emerges from the humming den of the kitchen almost as soon as it has been ordered. I eat fat rings of crisp deep-fried squid and griddled circles of octopus tentacles – rings of soft white meat fringed by the dark purple bumps of the creature’s suckers – anointed by good oil, tart lemon juice and thick crystals of coarse sea salt. Next comes a mound of spare ribs, drizzled with honey, and a plate with a rainbow of fresh, grilled vegetables, grown in the organic kitchen gardens that tumble improbably down the suburban hillside on which the whole place is so implausibly perched.
The meal cost next to nothing. The thought occurs that if St James were to come back to Earth with the rest of the apostles – poor men, after all – this is probably the kind of inn they would seek out. This humble and unpretentious meal seems like a distillation of my whole journey through Asturias and Galicia. It strikes me that this is a corner of Spain where, at its best, the land and food exist in harmony with one another – a place where the simplest pleasures are always the best.