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vserna

Best of both worlds

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A few days of rest in the balmy Galician rías - southern Europe's response to the Norwegian fjords, these are long, deep estuaries of rivers along an abrupt, indented, mountainous stretch of Atlantic coast just north of Portugal. The rías are Europe's greatest shellfish refuge, and also the land of the ubiquitous albariño grape, grown on 6-foot-7-high granite pergolas (to protect them from humidity), which provide both lush grapes for making white wine and nice shades for people and even cars (there are wonderful, improvised car parks under those arbors near beaches - 2 euros for the whole day.)

We didn't know, last Saturday, if we'd have bad traffic jams out of Madrid as Spaniards hit the road for the August vacations, that revered European institution. But, lo and behold, all's clear at 9 AM on the A-6 motorway to northwest Spain and it takes us just five hours to cover the 400 miles to Sanxenxo, on the northern coast of the Pontevedra ría, and at 2 PM we are there - still on time for lunch. We try booking at Rotilio, with its Michelin star, but it's full. So the second choice is Pepe Vieira. No Michelin star here, and just three tables are taken in the small, minimalist, pale green/yellow/orange dining room with the wide bays on the ría with its sailboats and its mussel-laden platforms. Well, this experience will teach us that those who've preferred the well-established Rotilio are missing something special. A more adventurous, more creative approach than anything we've tasted near here, and proof of just what deep inroads modern cuisine is making in Galicia - Spain's most conservative region, culinarily and perhaps otherwise too.

Xosé Torres Cannas AKA Pepe Vieira is a young cook with a lot of ideas and (thank goodness) fine technique and a feel for combinations of taste and texture that work. His brother Xoan, the sommelier, just won Spain's coveted 'golden nose' award for 2004 - a difficult wine tasting contest in which the tasters are blindfolded and can only smell the wines they have to identify. Xoan has an interesting wine list which includes all of Galicia's best wines; we choose a hard-to-find Do Ferreiro Cepas Vellas 2002 albariño, made by local grower Gerardo Méndez, an old friend: total production, 250 cases, from pre-phylloxeric, 200-year-old vines that sport tree-sized trunks.

After an appetizer of 'summer salad' with smoked San Simón cheese and white grapes, we had a dish of creamy seafood rice with 'metedura de gamba' (a play on the Spanish expression meaning 'acting clumsily', the 'gamba' was a perfectly cooked 'camarón' shrimp); the innocuous-sounding poached egg with codfish, green peas and parmentier-style potato purée (actually a beautifully presented dish, with the poached free range egg shaped so it can stand on its own, and the tiny peas, the lightly hot-smoked cod and the thick dollop of parmentier providing visual, textural and taste contrasts); a firm and juicy monkfish steak with a powerful version of 'ajada', the Galician garlic-pimentón-and-olive oil sauce that traditionally accompanies many types of boiled fish, in this case enhanced with tiny morsels of crisp panceta (our style of bacon/pancetta) and with tiny white kidney beans; and a delicate, rod-caught (not netted - this is a coastal fish) hake with an emulsion of olives, potatoes (Xosé loves the soft Galician potato, the 'cachelo'!) and carrots. The contrast between the powerful monkfish and the subtle hake perfectly illustrates the wide-ranging variety that is feasible when cooking seafood.

My fish-hating youngest daughter, who's with us, has two perfectly grilled morsels of Galician beef sirloin, cooked very rare, with three, count'em, three (huge) french fries that are crisp and golden outside, redolent of virgin olive oil, and (of course) creamy inside. Just a reminder that the cook doesn't ignore foods from terra firma and doesn't treat a 13 year-old's very basic tastes boringly.

As another reminder, this one to those who doubt the new-found quality of modern Spanish desserts, two terrific ones:a roast red plum with 'lemon' thyme, an apricot 'coulis' and mango ice cream, and a creamy Galician hazelnut 'praliné' with cinnamon 'crackling' and cinnamon ice.

Why no Michelin stars (yet)? Well, it's par for the course for the intrepid Spanish inspectors of the French guide.

The next day, change of scenery. There's thick fog over the ría, and going to the beach doesn't seem too appetizing. But we decide on lunch at Lapamán beach anyway, on the south side of the ría opposite Sanxenxo, after meeting our local friends in Pontevedra, the small, beautiful provincial capital at the end of the fjord.

Lapamán is just 300 yards of fine white sand on the ría's calm waters, framed in a steep hill covered with lush vegetation: the pine and poplar trees, even the small corn fields, go down to the very edge of the sand, and also right at the edge there are a few villas and a ramshackle white building with no name - the nameless Lapamán bar and grill, with its vine-covered terrace on the sea. We sit down for lunch on hard plastic-covered chairs, paper napkins in hand, on a paper-covered metal table. It's Sunday and there isn't much fish and shellfish left on the black board at the bar, but still enough for a feast of steamed mussels, tiny fried Padrón peppers ('unos pican y outros non': some are hot and some are not), golden rings of very fresh, deep-fried calamari rings (which my daughter wolfs down - first time in her life), perfect tomato-lettuce-and-onion salad from the orchards right next to the beach (they're bringing in the romaine lettuces in a basket as we sit down) and grilled 'rapantes', the ría's small elongated plaice-type fish, that is tastier than even a Dover sole - with, of course, french fries (using very decent olive oil). Add the best albariño I can muster and some industrial ice cream (from Frigo, the Spanish company, which makes commendable things), it adds up to a perfect 15-euro lunch. Not to mention that during our first course the fog finally lifts, a golden sun appears and in the ideal conditions (78º F, and the water at 76º F...) we follow coffee with a dip in the ría and a prudent bit of sunbathing.

What was best, Pepe Vieira or the nameless Lapamán bar? I won't choose. As long as Galicia continues to offer its basic primitive charms next to modern sophistication, it will remain one of Spain's greatest gastronomic destinations.


Edited by vserna (log)

Victor de la Serna

elmundovino

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Wonderful description. Graciñas, Victor!

I wonder how many worlds/cylinders I have here, living in Portugal, only an hour or so's drive from San Xenxo and Lapamán :biggrin: :biggrin:

Chloe

Ponte de Lima

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Well, you have your own nice worlds, mostly full of bacalhau. I just sampled some, and several excellent alvarinhos to boot, during a rainy day at Valença do Minho...


Victor de la Serna

elmundovino

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Yet another area of Spain I need to explore! Thanks Victor for the wonderful report. Sometimes the best things in life are the simplest.


John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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Victor, thank you so much for this report. When reading, I felt for 10 minutes on vacation.


Make it as simple as possible, but not simpler.

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Victor, thank you so much for this report.  When reading, I felt for 10 minutes on vacation.

For ten minutes, my awarenenss of being in a rather hot and sweltering NYC was heightened. :laugh: This coming weekend I expect to be by the fjordless shores of Lake Michigan. I do not expect to be attracted to the local restaurants, which I suppose will be just as well as we will convene with three children ranging from eight months to four years of age. But I enjoyed the post nonetheless. :biggrin:


Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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all's clear at 9 AM on the A-6 motorway to northwest Spain and it takes us just five hours to cover the 400 miles to Sanxenxo

FIVE HOURS!!!! Your wife must have had the emergency brake on :laugh:


WorldTable • Our recently reactivated web page. Now interactive and updated regularly.

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Victor

You scared me off the board for a while but now I have some idea of what Catalan cuisine is all about and have regained the courage to write again :smile: Plus I just got an ADSL line and a weeks vacation.

With some of your discussions about the Madrid seafood connection, i.e. Combarro, O'Pazo and Casa de Troya, and now your vacation to Galicia, to which btw Santi will be going on the 8th, I am curious to learn about some of the delicacies Galicia has to offer. Some must be very seasonal and at their peak now while others not. For example, last fall, I remember serving and for that matter seeing percebes for the first time. Also around that time we were serving a canaloni de navajas which were still moving on the plate when served. It seems most of the most spectacular mariscos came in and around that time, like the incredible ostras and almejas (with bright red tips). Now, we are just serving some rather mundane mariscos like mussels. Obviously, not all our seafood comes from Galicia, in fact I know little about where our seafood invariably comes from.

So without taking too much time from your vacation, what are you finding and what are you missing because of the season? And are most of the mariscos farmed or can locals still scavenge for themselves. This might seem to be a stupid question, but are all the shellfish indigenous to the area? I heard that a some time back in Brittany, the oysters died off and they transplanted a Japanese species in their place.

Thoroughly fascinated by this post,

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Great questions, Simon. I, too, am looking forward to Victor's replies to these.


John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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You're asking for a complete refresher course on seafood in Galicia, and I'm on vacation! (Plus, I'm not much of a specialist.)

BTW: sorry to miss Santi, but tomorrow it's on to Cantabria. Another decent fish and shellfish place.

Just a few notes. The western Galician rías are huge, natural, well-protected sea farms. Most species have been 'planted' (i.e., millions of juveniles are bred and then released) for many years (some for two centuries), some of them are practically only available if farmed (oysters), some of them are often caught in the wild then kept in aquariums or cages in the sea (most large shellfish - lobsters, spiny lobsters, spider crabs, and the smaller shellfish some of you will know as langoustines, some as Dublin Bay prawns and some as crayfish). The exceptional plancton contents, cool but not cold temperature of the water and lack of pollution (unless a Russian tanker has recently gone under... :sad:) allow for the mollusks and crustaceans to grow fast and spectacularly in the rías.

Re oysters: both in Brittany and Galicia, at the beginning probably to respond to some shortage or some illness in the European (flat) oyster population (Ostrea edulis), the Japanese oyster known in the U.S. as Pacific king oyster (Crassostrea gigans), quite different because it's crumpled, not flat, was introduced and still is bred today. It remains a minority product. In Galicia it's seldom found because it's sold elsewhere since it doesn't have a great local reputation.

The main products of the rías are mollusks, crustaceans and a number of larger or smaller members of the octopus family (squid, calamari, cuttlefish - you name it, it's here), which thrive on crustaceans.

Mollusks: vieira (large scallop, or 'sea' scallop), zamburiña (the tiny 'bay' scallop called 'pétoncle' by the French), ostra (oyster), mejillón (mussel), almeja (European fine clam, Tapes decussatus), berberecho (cockle), navaja (razor clam, and its cousin the longueirón, the grooved razor clam), centolla (spider crab), buey de mar (the large round sea crab, Cancer pagurus), nécora (velvet swimmer crab), santiaguiño ('slipper lobster', a small long sea crab with a curious cross design on its back).

Crustaceans: lubrigante (lobster; in Castilian Spanish, this is 'bogavante'), langosta (spiny lobster), cigala (crayfish), a few camarones (the small Atlantic shrimp called 'bouquets' by the French; mostly they come from outside the rías).

I don't exactly know in which category to place the percebe (goose barnacle), one of the treasures of Galicia...

They all have their 'best' seasons, but this is of course relative and variable...

Spring: Cigala, almeja, ostra.

Summer: Mejillón, almeja, lubrigante, langosta, percebe.

Fall:Berberecho, lubrigante, langosta, vieira, zamburiña, santiaguiño, camarón.

Winter: Centolla, buey, nécoras, camarón, vieira, almeja, santiaguiño.

That said, Spain wolfs down shellfish in huge amounts - we import 140,000 tons per year. But these days the European Union demands pretty clear identification, so you should be able to know when it's from the rías and when it comes from some Scottish isle. (Very good stuff, usually!)


Victor de la Serna

elmundovino

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Great post! Thanks, Victor. I'll be looking forward to some fine Spanish shellfish this fall in Catalunya and San Sebastien.


John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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Awesome, I will definately make Galicia a tour stop, probably in the fall or early winter. Thanks a bundle Victor and enjoy your time in Cantabria. And if its not too inconvenient, please keep posting on all your findings.

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We have found an excellent culinary level, although usually much more traditional than at Pepe Vieira during our stay in Galicia. The raw materials they work with are often mindboggling.

We did go to Rotilio, of course. This is the one place you have to check out to finally understand why Spaniards have this atavistic and rather incomprehensible fixation with what seems like such a bland fish - hake, or merluza. Way back when 25-pound hakes caught with a hook (not netted) in coastal waters were frequent and not the exception as they are now in this overfished world, those huge adult fish had a wonderfully consistent meat that was, at the same time, flaky, nuttily tasty and very fine-grained. The much smaller and younger hakes we find today, often from subtropical waters off Africa or South America, are a lot more insipid.

Well, at Rotilio the (woman) chef, Manicha Bermúdez, still manages to get the real thing from the Sanxenxo fishing harbor, then quickly boils a couple of large steaks of it and serves it with the wonderful Galician boiled potatoes and the classic ajada sauce made with virgin olive oil, pimentón and fried garlic. What a difference! We oldsters feel transported back to the 60s. It's an amazing treat. One of the great fish experiences around.

More in the same vein, this time at Casa Bóveda in the lovely fishing port of Carril, deep at the bottom of the Arousa ría. The owner, Ramón Bóveda, is the brother of Lola Bóveda whose eponymous Loliña - exactly next door, on the pier - has been locally famous for more than three decades. Casa Bóveda is at least as good as Loliña, but Loliña (here we go again!) gets the Michelin star.

Caldoso rice dishes (the one with lobster - of course the native blue one - is the star) are a mainstay at Casa Bóveda, but the other day we were tempted by a guiso de rodaballo, a stew of (wild) turbot chunks with potatoes, made in a large metal pot with potatoes, fresh green peas, fish stock, some parsley and the turbot's own gelatin as the only 'thickening' agent. Wow! Sensational traditional stuff, simultaneously silky and chunky as good turbot will be, after a first course of big local goose barnacles and (for me) a huge scallop, covered (still in its shell) with a little tomato sauce and some bread crumbs, then gratinéed - the traditional Galician way. BTW, my youngest daughter, as ever the fish hater, got (for a song) a great dish: two fried free-range eggs, sunny side up, made with good olive oil, and served with a heaping mound of hot home-made (in the same olive oil, naturally) thick french fries. (Fried eggs, often with a couple of slices of sautéed serrano ham, are a traditional Spanish lunch, not breakfast, dish.)

I'll report on western Cantabria later. A couple of family-style, no-frills restaurants are the best there right now. On our way over from Galicia we stopped for lunch at possibly the most 'creative' restaurant of the booming Asturias scene, one which got its first Michelin star this year. Mixed results, as I'll explain...


Edited by vserna (log)

Victor de la Serna

elmundovino

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This is the one place you have to check out to finally understand why Spaniards have this atavistic and rather incomprehensible  fixation with what seems like such a bland fish - hake, or merluza.
That's something I have to do. Everytime I don't order merluza when it's offered, I fear I'm not making an effort to really understand Spanish food or calibrate my palate. Every time I do order merluza, I tend to regret it, however. I appreciate your information on how it became such a national favorite.
(Fried eggs, often with a couple of slices of sautéed serrano ham, are a traditional Spanish lunch, not breakfast, dish.)

If the eggs are good, I'm not above having fried eggs for supper. If the ham is really good, I'd never take ham and eggs as deprivation food.

I don't know how soon we'll get back to Galicia, but I sincerely appreciate these posts for the understanding they bring about the food of Galicia in particular and Spain in general.


Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Briefly, the promised notes on western Cantabria, where no 'modern' restaurants or very luxurious ones are to be found. The number of touristy places has increased lamentably, but a few good ones remain, including these two:

Joseín, in Comillas (one of northern Spain's most beautiful villages, combining 16th-century mansions with works by Gaudí and other Catalan modernist architects), is a hotel-restaurant that literally hangs above the beach, with a striking view from the dining room. The family used to run the much-remembered Fonda Colasa, which in the 1970s and 80s was western Cantabria's lone Michelin-starred restaurant (there have been none since it closed 15 years ago). Traditional local stuff: risotto-like 'arroz marinero' (rice with clams and shrimp), sautéed baby broad beans with serrano ham, the best plate of tiny cuttlefish smothered in onions to be found in Spain, fried hake, beef fillet in a 'picón' blue cheese sauce, terrific home-made cheese cake and lemon pie... Good wines, for a change in the region - including the red Valtuille from the up-and-coming Bierzo region and the excellent Terras Gauda white from Rías Baixas.

Hostería Calvo, in Puente San Miguel outside Torrelavega, is one of those irreplaceable, immutable family-run rural restaurants that make Europe a place with a special culinary and lifestyle charm, even when one stays outside the circuit of ballyhooed 'gastronomic' places. Two basic, tight, unadorned dining rooms (actually, here as at Joseín, some decent modern art hangs from the walls - there's good taste in Cantabria!) Great 'rabas' (the local name for fried calamari rings, a religion in Santander, and always made with very tender, very fresh calamari). Ham 'croquetas' are terrific, as are a simple soup of puréed leeks and cream; a tasty oven-baked 'jargo' (the local name of Diplodus sargus, the white seabream) with potatoes, tomatoes and onions; a juicy luxurious steak of 'mero' (grouper) done a la plancha', some (tiny) baby lamb cutlets served with a julienne of smartly fried, varied vegetables. Their version of cheese cake (Cantabria is a big dairy region with some delightful farm cheeses) is also pretty nice. The usual array of Roja and Ribera del Duero wines with some unexpected gems (2001 Hécula by Castaño in southeastern Spain - a heady mourvèdre).

Oh - and the average cost per person is still under 40 euros in these places.


Victor de la Serna

elmundovino

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