Eating Like a Pilgrim on El Camino de Santiago
Along the nearly 900-kilometer trail through Spain, I crossed nine wine regions that all have their own food specialties. It’s hard—and stupid—to resist.
The heat is almost unbearable. No shades, the track is hilly, my bag is way too heavy. Why did I pack that extra pair of shorts again? And then, suddenly, a little café appears at the bottom of the road, offering café con leche, fresh bocadillos (sandwiches), juices, fruits, nuts, beer, and wine. Hard to choose. It's past noon, so having a beer seems just about right: a big, cold Estrella that usually comes with a plate of juicy green olives or a few slices of Manchego cheese.
I could write a book about the culinary experiences I've had along my trip on the El Camino de Santiago Francés. Because it's not only about the road and the sweat and tears we shed during the almost 900-kilometer trail from over the Pyrenees in French Basque Country through the Northern region of Spain, reaching Santiago de Compostela. It's also about new friends, laughter and, of course, food and drinks. We are crossing nine different wine regions that all have their own food specialties, too. It's hard—and stupid, honestly—to resist.
The Francés is the most popular of the 12 main El Camino de Santiago routes, with more than 260,000 people walking or biking the trail just last year. That also means that there's always somebody with whom to share your meal. The tiny villages and small towns along the way depend on the pilgrims, offering accommodation and food in all price ranges. Most restaurants do three-course "pilgrim menus," rich in protein and carbohydrates, for between 8 and 15 euros (with bread and wine, too). One can usually choose from different dishes; sometimes it's a real treat, and sometimes it's just a very filling meal that doesn't leave a trace in your memory. I've had my share of both.
Many of the pilgrim hostels (albergues) offer food, too. Dining is usually communal at these places, so you get the chance to actually talk to the people you see ten times a day, passing each other by on the trail. That's how I got to cook a meal with many others in Grañon, had a very traditional, juicy paella made by two monks in Bercianos del Real Camino, and had the best Spanish omelet in the bar/hostel of the tiny village of Villambistia.
For snacks, it's good to stock up on bananas and avocados, because their high potassium content can help decrease the chance of muscle cramps. A can of tuna, hard-boiled eggs, and fresh pan (bread) can allow you to dine anywhere. But never too much, because you have to carry it—a rule I kept forgetting.
Every once in awhile, I got lucky enough to meet someone who'd walked the Camino Francés already and could offer plenty of suggestions. That's how I found Case de comidas Begona y Antonio in Navarette, where I had the most beautiful stuffed peppers in squid sauce and a good Navarra red. That's how I found Casa Tía Dolores in Pedrouzo, with their locally brewed lavender beer, the Peregriña, and a rich caldo Gallego, a Galician cabbage-potato soup. And that's how I found Finisterra, the El Puerto restaurant with its famous pulpo (octopus) in a smoked paprika sauce and fresh fish with a fruity white wine from the region. The list could go on and on.
Of course, many make the pilgrimage in a more ascetic way: spending the nights under the stars, buying only the most necessary supplies, cooking for themselves with as many local ingredients as possible. And honestly, that's not very difficult. The climate of Spain allows many fruits and vegetables to grow, so you can easily find fresh produce and herbs growing along the routes. In fact, Tomer Kilchevsky and Courtney Jean Perry created a guidebook with exactly that purpose. The duo walked the Camino Francés for seven months, observing and studying the plants, herbs, and mushrooms in spring, summer, and autumn. The Edible Camino - A Field Guide of Wild Edibles Along the Camino de Santiago turned out to be a very beautiful and helpful book.
Not every stop was perfect. Arriving to Santiago de Compostela, I had all these visions of a medieval town, offering amazing food and beautiful wine. Instead, it was crowded, touristy, and overpriced. So I ended up leaving right away for the End of the World: Cape Finisterre, a.k.a. Fisterra, a harbor town at the Atlantic Ocean. There I found excellent restaurants, friendly people, and a beautiful fish market that only opens twice a day for an hour or two, when the fishermen return with the fresh catch.
That night, I made fresh pasta with mussels, shrimp, and fish, and had a bottle of local white wine, which our group of pilgrims finished as the sun set below the rocks reaching over the Atlantic Ocean—staring into nothingness, feeling very happy, thankful, and, of course, full.