We had arrived at Spain’s Santiago de Compostela, the destination for thousands of religious pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, and I was ready to crawl on my hands and knees. “Please,” I begged, “can’t we go before we check into the apartment?” Like so many believers since the early Middle Ages, I was finding it hard to control my fervor. Yet the cathedral, however lovely, held little interest for me. It was the central de abastos, the food market, one of the finest I’ve seen in Spain, of which I’d been dreaming since my first visit, many years before, to this whitewashed Galician mecca. Spain’s culinary culture has become trendy: Regional Spanish cooking is all the rage in chefs’ circles. The hype has sent many travelers to marquee gastronomic areas such as Catalunya and the Basque country, elevated by Ferrán Adrià and Juan Mari Arzak, but few visit the northwest: Asturias, Cantabria and Galicia. Pity, because there are great things to eat everywhere on the Iberian continent.
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The market at Santiago is housed in four attractive stone naves built in 1941. Open at both ends, they are modern but reminiscent of the gothic buildings that surround them. They go well with the surrounding cobblestoned streets and whitewashed houses. The long halls, lined with permanent stalls, are divided into the local food categories: fish, meat, vegetables and sundries. Outside, elderly vendors trek in from surrounding country towns to sell fresh cheeses, grelos (a green similar to kale), potatoes or flowers. The market area is also home to food stalls where anything purchased will be cooked for a small fee. Vendors proffer local delicacies such as pulpo a la gallega (octopus), and there are a few upscale dining and shopping options too. The meat nave features rows of carnicerías selling vibrant crimson slabs of pork, beef and lamb. One vendor offers preformed “gourmet” hamburgers, shrink-wrapped to go. Inside the seafood building, which smells as fresh as a day at the beach, fish glisten and gleam like the baubles at Tiffany. Spotted red mero compete with maragota; silvery merluza and shiny metallic sardines shimmer. The hideous monkfish, in Gallego, the regional language, is known as peixe sapo (toad fish); it’s common and goes for a third of its price at Paris markets. Navajas (razor clams) emerge from their shells, peering this way and that, and then retreat, seemingly frightened by the thought of the olive oil and garlic in which they will soon be bathed. Large centollo crabs stretch their legs lazily. A heavyset, ruddy-cheeked fishmonger named Rosa, her hands rough from decades of saltwater and scales, doles out a kilo of precious percebes (barnacles), whose sweet, oyster-like meat, quickly boiled and pried out of its shaft, is a much-appreciated delicacy.
The market is a perfect blend of old and new, both practical and luxurious. But little by little it loses customers. In the market’s central plaza, Miguel Otero runs O Viñateca do Mercado, a small bar and shop specializing in local wines. “We get a lot of tourists nowadays,” Otero says as he pours glasses of crisp, fruity Albariño to accompany the plate of pulpo a Dutch couple has purchased. “But locals tend to be older — young people are gravitating toward the supermarket down the street. We’re hoping my type of business, catering to a more sophisticated crowd, will bring them back.” All of Santiago’s vendors sell the best in their categories. The market is an inspiration to anyone who loves to cook and eat. I leave with a half kilo of odiferous clam-like berberechos, a quarter of those pricey percebes, some fillets of monkfish, a bag of deep green Padrón peppers, a couple of sundry chorizos, a gorgeous rustic bread made with cornmeal, a tetilla cheese, a generic bottle of Albariño and a bag of potatoes with the earth of Galicia still on them. A magnificent supper soon follows, a great memory to fill my dreams of this nearly perfect market until I return. Main photo: Santiago de Compostela food market. Credit: Nicholas Gilman