Spain's Emerald Coast
Author: leo schofield
Photography: julian kingma
The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain, right? Wrong. It falls mainly in the north-west provinces of Galicia and Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque mountain region. It rains here for about 170 days a year, sometimes 200 days, propelling the growth of everything from trees to turnips, hence the common reference to the region as 'Green Spain'.
That this part of Spain fronts the Atlantic Ocean and is subject to its weather systems (the climate has been compared to that of Brittany - some Spaniards call Brittany 'French Galicia' while the Bretons refer to Galicia as 'le petit Bretagne') may account for the abnormal rainfall but, whatever the reason, the result is verdancy and abundance.
Vast quantities of fish, sufficient to supply most of Spain, are fished here. There exists a theory that fish plucked from rough waters are tastier than that from calm, and that particular claim would seem to be borne out by the amount of red mullet, octopus, tuna, cod, whiting, sardines, anchovies, bream, dories and mackerel on offer in any of the hundreds of seafood restaurants in these parts.
Then there are the remarkable molluscs, the navajas or razor clams, so named for their resemblance to old-time cut-throat razors, of the type favoured by Sweeney Todd Esq. When steamed, they open to reveal, not a blade, but a rather chewy creature shaped like a compressed question mark. Even more curious are percebes, strange-looking barnacles that have been compared to goose necks and witches' fingernails. Beneath their leathery black skin, terminating in menacing talons, lurks a delicious meat not dissimilar to crab. To retrieve these arthropods, fishermen, whose livelihoods are as risky as those of our own abalone divers, dangle from ropes off the sheer cliffs of the Atlantic coast to snatch them from the rocks in-between the surges of giant waves.
In Galicia's calmer waters, in the river estuaries that meander for kilometres through fiords that could almost persuade you that you were in Norway, you'll find superb oysters and three-quarters of all the mussels consumed in Spain being farmed.
The Spanish have a love affair with seafood. And it would seem to have been ever thus, for in a small square in Santiago de Compostela one can still see the form of a fish chiselled into stone, indicating it was, for centuries, the site of a produce market.
But it's the vegetables and vines that generated the 'green' epithet. Such vegetables! As they progressively colonised much of South America, the Spaniards sent home seeds for many vegetables that subsequently became universally cultivated: beans, maize from Mexico, the potato from Peru, pumpkins, tomatoes, squash and all manner of peppers including the celebrated pimientos de Padrón. Initially grown only in Padrón, where a Fiesta del Pimiento is held annually, they remain the basis of a signature Galician dish.
Imagine an emerald-green pepper, roughly the size of your thumb. Picked when the bush is just under a metre high, they are not your average tongue-numbing hot variety, although one can encounter the odd fiery one in a bowlful. The peppers are simply tossed for a minute or two in hot virgin olive oil. Allowed to shrivel slightly, they are drained, sprinkled with coarse salt and served either as an entrée or a component of a tapas selection. Be warned, they are seasonal (summer only) and addictive.
The point of chronicling the gastronomic delights of this
less-visited corner of Spain is to entice you to sample the other
attractions of the region; for to eat, you must travel. Fresh
seafood is best enjoyed by the sea, and the coast is rimmed with
charming restaurants, waterfront cafés and bistros. At Cudillero, a
tiny fishing village, you climb a hill that would challenge a
mountain goat, wending your way through narrow labyrinthine streets
for a view of the neat little harbour and the magnificent coastline
beyond, then clamber down for a lunch of seafood so fresh that the
nets that hauled it from the sea that morning are still hanging in
the sun, not yet dry.
And in another small Galician fishing village, Combarro, you'll tuck into an empanada made with maize and stuffed with seafood or a local specialty, boiled octopus served with oil and paprika.
Also worth a visit is the island of La Toja, 'Toxa' in the Gallego language. To get there, one drives along a meandering coast, sometimes flanked by fields of vegetables growing by the sea, and passes a beach called A Lanzada. Here, on the last Sunday in August, a festival, one of seeming thousands of such celebrations throughout Spain, culminates in the Bath of the Nine Waves, which involves young women making nine excursions into the surf to ensure pregnancy. At the end of this road, one crosses an elevated causeway to arrive at the tiny island of La Toja.
Well-heeled Gallegos often choose this as their holiday destination. The island's landmarks include a curious church encrusted with seashells and less attractive graffiti, as well as a showroom of soaps and cosmetics. The toiletries are all made from the mineral salts of local springs, the most famous of which is a unique glycerine and lanolin-laden black soap.
In Oviedo, the ancient capital of the principality of Asturias, you'll be charmed not only by the elegant streetscapes but also by the grand houses of the Indianos, the Spanish settlers who sailed to the New World - 50,000 of them to South America, 20,000 to Cuba - and returned fabulously rich, building showy houses to prove it. At the heart of the old town sits the imposing Cathedral of San Salvador, a splendid Gothic building with a single, lavishly crocketed tower. Inside, the interior is muted but there is a blazing gilded 16th-century altarpiece, its tumult of decoration matched only by the sumptuous retablos in the cathedrals of Toledo and Seville.
As befits a capital, there is also a fine opera house, the Teatro Campoamor, and a fantastic new lunar-looking civic building, the Palacio de Congresos Princesa Letizia, designed by the most famous of Spain's contemporary architects, Santiago Calatrava, and named in honour of the city's most famous daughter, wife of the Crown Prince of Spain who, conveniently, has the additional title of Prince of Asturias.
Just three kilometres from Oviedo lies Santa María del Naranco, an Asturian pre-Romanesque church dating in part from 850AD, both a national treasure and a World Heritage site. It's an astonishing survivor, once part of a grand palace complex but now perched in splendid isolation on a grassy hill from which one can enjoy a fine view of Oviedo.
The Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa once wrote that, "Asturias is known the world over for its mountains, for its coal mines, for its fabada and its cider". You'll be taken by the curious traditional local method of pouring the latter. Your waiter or waitress will position his or her body at a slight angle to you. With the bottle held high overhead, they will pour the contents, in a thin, metre-long arc, into a glass held somewhere about knee height. The passage of the otherwise flat liquid through space helps to aerate it. One must drink it immediately as it loses its fizz in seconds. And one must also finish the bottle. Not for nothing is it known as 'Spanish Viagra'.
As for the fabada, it's a cousin to the cassoulet, a rich stew of chorizo sausage, black pudding, pork shoulder, bacon and the indispensable haricot bean. Use any other type of bean, and it is not an authentic fabada. When accompanied with cider, this is vulgarly said to produce enough gas to power a small car.
Impressed by all the order and cleanliness of Oviedo, one is informed by a proud inhabitant that it's deemed one of the tidiest cities in Europe. Sixty-five per cent of the city streets are pedestrianised and there's a $52,000 fine for any building co-op that puts rubbish out for collection at any time other than between the appointed hours of 8am and 10.30am.
In Avilés, at the centre of the Asturian coastline, you can be part of the daily bustle of the main square of the old town, packed with charming buildings and, mercifully, vehicle-free. The 17th-century Ferrera Palace, now a luxury hotel, backs on to what was once a private garden and is now a glorious public park, the air in summer heavy with the scent of magnolia blossoms. On a warm summer's evening, walk to the Calle de Galiana, nab a table and watch the local parade. This is the nub and heart of the old town, so full all day that one wonders if anyone works here and, if so, when. The outskirts of Avilés are not pretty, an industrial horror show, but the old town has atmosphere and style in spades. Just off the square, dozens of bars keep the action going well after the clocks have struck midnight.
The large, somewhat brutal, industrial town of Gijón comes as something of a shock after the charms of Avilés and the spruce prosperity of Oviedo. As one guidebook tactfully puts it, the city "retains few monuments of interest" but it does boast an extraordinary restaurant called Gallery Art and Food which, so the proprietor proudly informs us, is inspired by Sex and the City. The décor is somewhat bizarre, an agglomeration of contemporary designer furniture and art in a series of spacious rooms. The food owes something to the conceits of Ferran Adrià at El Bulli but with considerable creative input from the flamboyant Michelin-starred chef, Alejandro Urrutia.
His 'hamburger' consists of a teaspoon of steak tartare between two potato wafers with tiny tubes of mustard and ketchup on the side. His 'fish and chips' features a miniaturised version of the standard French fries takeaway container holding half a dozen mini-fries about the size of cotton buds. Then there's the Bloody Mary ice-cream, with frozen vodka and tomato juice, served with matchsticks of celery. But perhaps Urrutia's wildest creation is his 'white sherbet'. He serves it as a line of white powder down the centre of a black triangular plate, with a black straw to suck it up, and a fake gold American Express card (including his self-portrait in the oval where the centurion usually appears). Much of this might seem like frippery but the flavours are exceptional.
The wine Urrutia served at our lunch, a 2004 Pezas da Portela, came from Valdeorass in Galicia, a region where most of the wines of Green Spain are produced. Most of the Galician wines are made from a grape known as albariño, first cousin to riesling, hence 'alba' for 'white' and 'riño', a corruption of 'Rhine'. But this particular one was created from a sibling variety known as godello, which has been described by one American wine writer as, "the greatest white-wine grape in all of Spain".
Wine tasting opportunities provide the traveller with a further excuse to explore Green Spain and a fine place to start is the pretty little coastal town of Pontevedra in Galicia. In Bodegas del Fefiñanes, a converted palace, Galician whites, best drunk when young, are produced and sold but there are dozens of other outlets where albariño tastings are on offer. The grapes are traditionally grown in trellis fashion and the area is agog with vineyards, large and small, greening the gently undulating landscape.
Another of Green Spain's spectacular attractions are its beaches. Ah, you say, but what about the rain? Well, in summer, the coast of Galicia and Asturias can turn on weather like that of the sunnier south and beaches abound, some sandy, some with rocks. Indeed El Aguilar, in Asturias, has a coastline not dissimilar to that of Belle-Ile in Brittany where Monet and others, including the Australian Impressionist John Peter Russell, painted the dramatic rocky coastline. El Aguilar is but one of a hundred beaches, most of them sandy, strung out along the dramatic coastline, just another one of the pleasant surprises awaiting the visitor of Green Spain.