Octopus and Bagpipes – Oh, Galicia!!

IMGP4466

Did you ever think of bagpipes when you thought of Spain?

I never did.

I thought of vineyards and museums. I thought of bullfights and oranges. I thought of the architecture of Barcelona and of paintings of Toledo.

I never, ever thought of bagpipes.

But, there they were. And I was loving every minute.

I had walked into town to find the “Ezequiel” restaurant, which is known for its octopus. Octopus – pulpo – is the regional specialty,  cooked, seasoned and cut into bite-size pieces.

Are you feeling squeamish, Dear Reader? My upbringing is Hispanic and eating octopus is not a new thing for me.

Plus, my Dad was an adventurous eater. Frogs legs? Check. Snails? Check. On those very rare occasions when Dad purchased those weird, almost unheard of foods (in Flushing in the 50’s), he could always count on me to tuck in my napkin and enjoy.

Chances were nil that I was going to pass up this regional specialty in its heartland.

I walked around in the sunshine, soaking up Melide, saying a rosary in the nearby grand Church, and searching for a grocery store to pick up a snack or two for the next day’s journey, which promised to take me through few towns.

I found a grocery and who should I see wandering the aisles but Christina.

She had settled into another albergue earlier and was also preparing for the next day. I told her about how I had tried to save her a bed at the Xunta and about my big mistake.

I would have to be on my very best behavior at the albergue that night to restore the honor of my country (no sneezing, snoring, coughing, getting in late, dropping things on the floor, taking up too much floorspace with my pack/poles/boots/clothes, etc.)

We laughed about what a strange and unexpected journey the Camino had turned out to be. It was still providing adventures and keeping us humble even though we were so very close to the end.

I told Christina that I was going to try to find the octopus restaurant and we decided to go together.

After a few wrong turns, we found the place, simple, unassuming, very local. It was relatively empty and the evening light reflected off the polished picnic tables and benches. It looked like a big BBQ shack, not a touted restaurant.

There was a big screen T.V. hung up on the wall with the news/weather/sports playing on the local channel. All this information had become irrelevant to me as a pilgrim.

We looked at the menu. Poor Christina. She immediately knew that she did not want octopus but the other choices were slim. She settled for salad. I admit it looked really good, especially on a greenery-deprived journey like the Camino.

I, however, dove in. I asked the waiter what the specialty was and ordered it, along with a nice cold beer. I didn’t know what to expect and was not completely ready for the plate put in front of me within minutes.

IMGP4454

It was a pile of one-inch long pieces of octopus legs. Olive oil and a reddish seasoning were sprinkled all over. These were big octopus legs, not the small ones I was used to in the luscious black rice dishes of my family

These octopuses (Octopi? Nope, dictionary says octopi is very incorrect, so octopuses it is) were big suckers with big suckers. They looked like they could be doing tricks on a late night talk show. They could be twisting caps off jars. They could be unlocking their own cages. They could be scaring the bejeezes out of little kids in an aquarium.

And I had a plate full in front of me.

Well, millions of Spaniards had eaten these before me and raved, so I dug in.

I couldn’t say “tastes like chicken” because it had the rubbery texture of squid (Oh, come on, now you’re going to tell me you’ve never eaten calamari???). But the flavor was fantastic. The olive oil and seasoning was really good.

I polished off the plate very quickly, then ordered another. And ate it quickly, also.

Christina looked on pityingly. How crude to enjoy such disgusting food.  Then, we both laughed. Ah, Camino!!

Meanwhile, the restaurant had filled up. A rowdy group sat at the table in front of us and spilled over onto our table. We were all in a great mood. Suddenly, someone started singing. And playing. Playing what?

The traditional Galician instrument called the gaita. It looks and sounds like a bagpipe. I was told that the person at the table next to us, who was playing, had made this one himself and was carrying it on the Camino. I have no reason to doubt it.

The groups were as joyous as any I had met on my trip. Their happiness spread throughout the front section of the restaurant and I would have joined in if I had known the song  and spoken the language.

IMGP4463

The restaurant manager encouraged the music and the songs continued.

Eventually, a bottle of homemade Spanish ‘grappa” appeared from the back of a shelf and we were asked if we would like a glass. How could we say no?

IMGP4461

Excellent, burning heat slipped smoothly down my throat.

The meal, the music, the drink. One of the memorable meals on the Camino.

By the way, are you wondering how to cook pulpo? Get coolers full from the fish monger. Put them in boiling water. And, then . . .

Advertisements

Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt – Day 25 – El Burgo Ranero to Mansilla

IMGP3793

Profound and human messages on the ceiling.

As I gazed up at the rafters of the restaurant/cafe/bar, I closed my eyes and slipped into a sensual appreciation of all that was happening at the moment.

The coolness of the air on my sweaty clothes and skin.

The notes of rock and roll drifting into my ears.

The aroma of food cooking in a back room.

The sight of every flat surface, except for the countertop and the seats, covered with colorful notes, drawings, quotes, and messages.

And, especially, the amazing assault on my tongue as I sampled the most perfect food I had  yet tasted on the Camino.

IMGP3802

The town government has set up a gathering place in town.

I was still traveling along a flat, dry and mostly treeless section of the Camino. The few buildings were whitewashed and the Camino  was dry stone, so the light reflected made sunglasses a necessity. I didn’t trust my intuition that my wet Camino was finally coming to an end and so I still had not unzipped my pant legs down to shorts.

My decision two days earlier to not take the recommended route meant that it would be about 18 kilometers to the next albergue. Nevertheless, it was shorter than the other route and I was happy with my choice.

As usual, I had been among the last to leave the albergue, although there had been people still eating breakfast when I left. I had decided to leave the sandwiches given to me at the convent for the next hungry and penniless pilgrim .

IMGP3785

The marsh becomes more silent every year.

Andres and Carlos had been in the albergue with me the night before, so we were all heading in the same direction. I asked what a “Burgo Ranero”  – the name of the village – was and they explained. “Burgo” was basically just a word for village, hamlet.

“Ranero,” however, was the name of the tiny little frog that we had been hearing all along our walk as we passed the canals and causeways. They were becoming rarer and the marshy lands were becoming quieter. I remembered the sounds that had enchanted me as I had walked along the canal on the way to Fromista and realized I had been hearing these tiny native frogs.

The boys (Carlos and Andres) caught up with me kilometers later as I walked into the village of Reliegos. They had fallen in with one of their friends, a college student named Lizzie, and they were carrying on a conversation in Spanish about the conquest of South America.

Carlos suddenly stopped our little troop and insisted that we zig where we had planned to zag. He wanted to take us to a bar he remembered. The town looked dead to me, no people, no dogs, no cars, no nothing except white heat, but I was game for his suggestion.

We turned a corner and WOW! Who had the vision to put this . . . vision . . . in the middle of this town? Not graffiti, this place had been planned like this. A personal statement of the owner’s take on life, family, humanity, it was there for all to see. Of course, it was an irresistible invitation to enter. I didn’t know it, but the best was awaiting me inside.

IMGP3800

Too late and too sweaty for coffee, my breakfast that day would be ice-cold beer and a croissant. But Carlos suggested I try a piece of Sinin’s tortilla, instead.

Tortilla had become my go-to lunch. Tasty, cheap and always present, it had become a no brainer.

For those “NorteAmericanos” who may not be familiar with the difference between a Spanish tortilla and a Mexican tortilla, let me explain. They are as different as chocolate cake is from meatballs. The only thing they have in common is that they are round.

A Mexican tortilla is a type of flatbread made from water and flour (basically), flattened, baked or pan-fried, and then used like a piece of bread to hold tacos, tostados,  etc.

A Spanish tortilla is like an omlette. If you have ever made a Bisquik impossible pie (do I need a copyright symbol?) you have the idea. It’s simple ingredients are potatoes, onions, and eggs. It is cooked in a skillet on the stove and flipped when it is done on one side.

IMGP3796

Sinin and a tortilla fresh from the back room.

I wasn’t crazy about getting as huge a piece of  Sinin’s tortilla as Carlos had gotten for himself, but my stomach drove me to try a bite as he insisted.

That’s when I had the out-of-body experience.

I went through the forkful I had of Carlos’ tortilla, then another. I ate, trying to decipher what the secret technique or ingredient was that made this tortilla far above all I had eaten  on the Camino. Lizzie and Andres joined Carlos and myself in trying to break down what we were enjoying and we came up with many ideas but none that stood the test of time.

I ordered my own piece of tortilla.

I was like an alcoholic at a wine tasting.

IMGP3792I gazed around the room. There were messages in many languages on the walls, the ceiling, behind the counter. The rafters – how did the writers get up there? All with different dates, handwriting, pens. It was surprising how profound people were, especially when seen through the lens of someone just coming off the road after days of journeying. There were flags from many countries. Had people thought of bringing flags with them? Who? Why? The music on the radio changed from Elvis rock-a-billy to Mexican Mariachi.

IMGP3790

Stills from the movie, The Way, posted on the wall in a place of honor.

This place, the Bar La Torre, is proud that it was used in the movie, The Way, and Sinin cheerfully displays photos from the scenes it is in. But nowhere does he mention that he makes the finest  tortilla on the Camino.

Did he add cheese? Was he shredding the potato? What was giving the tortilla height without making it heavy like a doorstop?

I couldn’t answer these questions as I devoured the food and drank the cold beer, and still cannot. But this tortilla became my gold standard. It became the tortilla to which all other tortillas would forever be measured against. And my quest to discover the secret ingredient or technique would begin that day.

My family will have to endure many tortillas in the coming days, months, maybe years, until I discover Sinan’s secret. I am a woman obsessed.

I will not rest until I have cracked the code.

And lots of eggs.

IMGP3798

Brunch?