Driving through central Galicia in north western Spain was wonderfuly reminiscent of rural Ireland 20 years ago. The climate is similar so the countryside is green and well-wooded. Small mixed farms, dairy, tillage, all have a vegetable patch, a few fruit and nut trees, some hens and an air of self-sufficiency. Some older men still wear the black beret and many women still wear cross-over aprons, similar to those I remember so well from my childhood. Men and women work side by side in the fields together.
There were few young people, most work in the towns and cities. Grannies dressed in black sat under the shade of an apple or fig tree outside their stone houses with heavy slate roofs, sorting onions or shelling beans, often helped by grandchildren. There were few tractors in evidence, but there was a real sense of a community, farmers and country people in touch with nature and the land in a way that is fast disappearing in Ireland. Wednesday is market day in the little village of Castro di Rivera, 10 kilometres from Lugo.
Suddenly the otherwise sleepy village comes to life, 25-30 stalls set up around the central square selling fruit and vegetables, local honey, cured meats including the famous jamon, morcilla blood sausages, pancetta, chorizo, salted ribs, pigsâ€™ heads, ears and tails. Some stalls sell shoes and clothes, and knicknacks, others offer CDâ€™s of lively Spanish music. Yet another sells hand-made knives and scales, pots and pans and tools.
An old man stood shyly beside his beautifully made baskets and timber trugs and a traditional timber chest which is still used for making bread in many country farmhouses. In the centre of the square under the oak trees, a family set up an open air Pulperia (octopus stall). Huge big cauldrons of octopus bubbled away. There were two stalls, one appeared much more popular than the other. We joined the longer queue deciding that the locals probably knew best. Queing can be boring and frustrating but on this occasion it was absolutely fascinating. We watched the entire operation. The raw prepared octopus seemed to be soaking in â€“ was it brine? It was then transferred into a huge vat of boiling water, the size of a half tar barrel, where it plumped up and changed to a winey orange colour. Six people worked flat out, one of the women fished out cooked octopus as needed with a hook, she then snipped off the tentacles with a scissors and cut each one into rounds directly onto a small, medium or large timber plate to fill the orders. It was passed onto her partner who drained off the excess moisture in one deft movement, sprinkled the octopus with crunchy coarse salt, dredged it with pimento and then drizzled the plate with olive oil and added a few cocktail sticks. This cost Euro 5 per person. We joined the locals at long formica topped tables in the open-sided shelter the town council had provided for gatherings. The tables were laid for 10 with paper napkins and down turned glasses. Long gaily painted bright blue benches at either side.
We sat at an empty table and were immediately dragooned by a feisty young woman who gesticulated amidst a babble of Gallego that we were to join another table rather than start a new one. We asked for â€˜panâ€™, one of my few Spanish words. She returned in seconds clutching a long loaf of bread and a bottle of unlabeled local wine, (vin de mesa. We tucked into the octopus, it was intensely sweet and juicy. When we had almost finished our spirited friend slapped half a Manchego cheese and a knife on the table. We understood that we were to eat what we needed and then pass it on â€“ the bread, wine and cheese cost a further Euro 5. Hundreds, perhaps a thousand people were fed in this way over a period of 4 or 5 hours. Jovial, inexpensive, a brilliant feat of organisation, an age old tradition. As we sat there enjoying what was a veritable feast we wondered how long it would be before the bureaucrats in Brussels decided it was unhygienic and the price of insurance eliminated yet another traditional food culture. I personally, am more than happy to eat this kind of food, cooked and served in the time honoured way, I am happy to take the responsibility on myself â€“ I strongly believe we have the right to choose â€“ those who would rather eat in the local cafÃ© can do so, long may we have the choice.
Spicy Boiled Octopus (Pulpo a Feira)
(From Tapas: The Little Dishes of Spain by Penelope Casas) This simple yet delicious octopus dish is called a feira (fiesta style)
because it is boiled outdoors in water-filled metal drums during local festivals in Galicia. The classic way to serve this pulpo is on wooden
dishes – a most attractive presentation.
1 lb (450g) octopus, preferably small
1 medium potato
4 teasp. fruity olive oil
Â½ teasp. paprika, preferably Spanish style
dash of cayenne pepper
12 cups water
2 tablesp. oil
1 bay leaf
Â½ onion, peeled
2 sprigs parsley
Tenderize the octopus by throwing it forcefully about ten times into your kitchen sink. To make the cooking liquid, combine the water with the oil, bay leaf, onion, peppercorns, parsley and salt in a large pot. Bring to a boil. Dip the octopus in and out of the liquid three times quickly (this also helps to tenderise or â€˜scareâ€™ it, as they say in Galicia), return to the liquid, cover, and simmer for about 1 hour. (The cooking time can vary greatly
depending on whether the octopus has been frozen. After an hour, taste a small piece: if it is not tender, continue cooking.) Turn off the heat and
leave the octopus in the cooking liquid until ready. (May be prepared ahead.) Place the potato in the salted water to cover and boil until just tender.
Turn off the heat and leave the potato in the water until ready to use. Reheat the octopus and remove all loose skin (you may remove all the skin if
you prefer) and cut the tentacles with scissors into 1inch pieces. Peel and slice the potato one eighth inch thick. Arrange on a serving dish,
preferably wooden , and place the octopus on top. Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with the coarse salt, paprika and cayenne and serve immediately.
Galician-style Fish Steaks (Merluza al la Gallega)
The wonderful fresh fish in the northwestern region of Galicia makes this a favourite preparation for hake, because it adds character to the fish
without masking its freshness.
Â¾ lb (350g) potatoes, preferably red, in Â¼ inch slices
4 thin slices onion
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 sprigs parsley
Â¼ teasp. thyme
1 bay leaf
7 tablesp. Olive oil
1 teasp. red wine vinegar
2 hake or fresh cod steaks, about 1 inch thick
Â½ teasp. paprika, preferably Spanish style
In a shallow casserole large enough to hold the fish in one layer, place the potatoes, onion, 2 cloves of the minced garlic, parsley, thyme, bay leaf, 1
tablespoon of the oil, Â½ teaspoon of the vinegar, and water to barely cover. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer for 10 minutes, or until the potatoes are half cooked. Place the fish steaks over the potato mixture and add some more water to barely cover the fish. Sprinkle the fish with salt, cover, and cook for another 10 minutes, or until the potatoes and fish are done. Pour off all the liquid from the casserole. Remove the skin and bones from the fish carefully, leaving 4 fillets. In a small pan heat the remaining 6