Santiago de Compostela

You are currently browsing the archive for the Santiago de Compostela category.

The Pazo Baion, now a winery, was once owned by a Spanish druglord.

Every once in awhile while driving through the Galician countryside, you see some enormous stone mansion that looks like something out of Downton Abbey. They are called pazos in the Galician language (yes, they have their own language up here) and were built as country manors by ostentatious Spaniards who made a fortune in the New World and then came home to show off their wealth. We visited one, called Pazo Baión, that is now a winery and event center.

Pazo Baión was built by Adolph Fojo, an emigrant who made his wealth in the U.S., back in the 1920s. It was then purchased in the 80s by the notorious drug dealer, Oubiña Laureano, and his wife, Esther Lago, before being seized by the Spanish government in 1995. After that, the 287 acres of prime Albariño vineyards were leased by Vionta which is owned by the massive Spanish winemaker Freixenet. After years of legal wrangling (when Spain tried to sell the property in 2007, the daughters of Oubiña Laureano claimed that the palace was part of their inheritance following the death of their mother, who died in a car crash), the pazo and the vineyards were sold to Condes de Albarei, a wine collective, in June, 2008 for a little over 15 million euros.

Originally, Freixenet was determined to continue producing Vionta wines from the estate, but the new owners have decided that the entire property needs to go into rehab to cleanse itself of its drug connection. The pazo is now the centerpiece of an effort to increase wine tourism in the Rias Baixas region.

Tags: ,

Artisan foods at shop in Santiago de Compostela. Photo by David Lansing.

San Simón is a Gallego mountain cheese and until recently was hard to find in restaurants and shops. This slightly smoked cheese is beautiful to look at, with the appearance of a polished brass knob. It looks like an artifact. Slice it horizontally, so it won’t dry out, and you find an interior that is dense and yellow with a creamy texture.

Cabrales is named for the Asturian town where it is produced. It is a blue cheese, cured in the cool, damp caves found in the nearby Picos de Europa mountains.

It is wrapped in maple leaves, giving its rind a slight ochre tint, which contrasts beautifully with the blue penicillium mold. Cabrales is very creamy, salty, and assertive. It coats the mouth when you eat it, giving you plenty of reason to drink more cider to prepare your palate for the next bite, and more cider. It is widely available in better restaurants all over the country.

Afuega’l Pitu is from the Asturian town of Oviedo. This is a valley cheese, and is salted. Sometimes the makers add a bit of paprika to it for variety. Before you buy you should ask first if it had paprika. At the very least, ask for a taste because it will be gladly given. For an Atlanctic cheese it’s a bit on the dry side, with a granular quality, and it sticks to the roof of your mouth. It has a nutty flavor and a long finish. This is a cheese you can really linger over.

Tetilla (literally, nipple) from Galicia is so named because of its distinctive shape. One wonders if the original was in any way a representation of that of its maker. It is a quickly ripening cheese, full fat, and with a mild and sweet, not a salty, taste, Tetilla has a very creamy texture. It melts easily, which makes it good for cooking, if the Spanish were given to cooking with cheese. Perhaps they will be some day.

Ahumado de Aliva is from the area around Liebana in Cantabria and was originally made by shepherds during their stays in the highland pastures. This cheese is smoked over juniper wood, giving it a unique aroma. It reminds us of gin. Its taste is like butter, rather mild except for the smoke. A very good cheese with beer or white wine.

Tags: , ,

Maluca Duran preparing centollas at Posta do Sol. Photo by David Lansing.

Driving around yesterday afternoon, I was starving. Was it the dewy green hills dotted with spring lambs and baby calves that made me so ravenous? Or the rivers and estuaries with their perfumed air of salt and seaweed? Or maybe it was Eva describing in minute detail how her grandmother would prepare Galicia’s signature dish, pulpo a la gallega.

“As a little girl, I would watch her dip it in the hot water, take it out, dip it in again, take it out. On and on. You see, it’s all about cooking the octopus at the right temperature for the right amount of time.”

And then she would tell me about some of her other favorite Galician dishes: the sweet berberechos (cockles) and the tiny, much-prized goose barnacles known as percebes, “Which look like your fingernails, oh, and the centollas! Oh my god how I loved centollas!”

Centollas, she told me, were “something like spider crabs, only bigger and sweeter.” And she knew just where to get them: at a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Cambados where the ria de Arousa, one of the five rivers that make up the Rias Baixas, flows into the Atlantic Ocean.

It took us awhile but after stopping and asking for directions a couple of times, Eva found the restaurant she was looking for: Posta do Sol. It was still early (not yet two) so we got a good table, close to the open kitchen where we could see (and hear) an old woman smacking giant crab claws with a large cleaver. “You see?” said Eva excitedly, “Centollas!”

This is how you eat the spider crabs at Posta do Sol. Photo by David Lansing.

The old woman smacking crabs was named Maluca Duran. She wiped her hands on an apron that looked more like a surgical outfit, covering her from neck to feet, and chatted with us. The restaurant, which she started with her husband, had been there for 45 years, she said. “No,” said her daughter who had joined us. “More than that.”

Maluca shrugged and smiled. “Who can remember?” she said.

It was still a family-run restaurant, said Maluca, who told me her real name was Amalia, “But people call me Maluca,” and who admitted to being closer to 80 than to 70. Her daughter, Masu, waited tables and helped cook. Her son-in-law, Manolo, was the bartender and also helped bring food to the table.

“Go sit!” said Maluca. Without us ordering, food suddenly began to appear at our table. First a plate of bright orange shrimp, their heads and tails still on, and then bowls of tasty mussels and the famous goose barnacles, and finally platters of the local centollas which were every bit as sweet and juicy as Eva had promised, all washed down with a couple of bottles of local Albariño. A meal fit for a king. All I wanted to do afterwards was take a nap. But Eva had other plans for us.

Tags: ,

Horreos in Galicia. Photo by Aprendiz de Amelie.

We are driving through the Galician countryside to visit a winery in Rias Baixas, about an hour and a half outside of Santiago de Compostela. The terrain is green and rolling, the valleys cloaked in fog. Every once in awhile the road climbs, we get above the fog line, the sun is suddenly intense, and there sitting on the rocky hillside is a barn on stilts. A hórreo, the singular symbol of northern Spain. Some are made of wood; others of stone. They are square or rectangular or even round. Their roofs are thatched or tiled, pitched or double pitched. In other words, there is no singular architectural image of what constitutes an hórreo. Except that they are all built on stilts, usually stone pillars known as pegollos.

Photo by Javier Pais.

They say the hórreo was brought to Spain from the Roman Empire. Originally they were used as granaries, their elevation above the ground necessary in this the wettest part of Spain. Every once in awhile we come across a hórreo still being used to store corn or hay, but more often they hold firewood or chickens or even bikes and gardening equipment. Some have been turned into country houses; others look abandoned and sit listing on the side of a grassy hill, charming monuments to the days when the Roman Empire passed this way.

Photo by

Tags: , ,

The giant Botafumeiro in the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela.

I had to go to mass today. Not because of all the nasty things I said about people who believe the fairytale about St. James’s body being discovered by a crazy religious nut back in 813 (769 years after he was beheaded in Jerusalem), but because they were going to bring out La Alcachofa Grande—The Big Artichoke.

The Big Artichoke is a thurible. A thurible is a censer—one of those things you put incense in and swing around in church to make everybody get all mystical. I was an altar boy when I was a kid and I loved being the guy that got to swing the censer around. It was like being Merlin.

Anyway, the thurible at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela is so honkin’ big that its nickname is The Big Artichoke (but it’s officially known as the Botafumeiro). The Botafumeiro weighs over 175 lbs. and is over five feet tall. The eight guys that swing it, called tirabeleiros, use shovels to fill it with 80 pounds of charcoal and incense. You have to see this thing in action to really get an idea of what I’d talking about (see the YouTube clip below and watch what happens to the tiraboleiro at the end when he catches the Botafumeiro to stop it from swinging).

They started using this giant censer back in the Middle Ages when all these stinky pilgrims were arriving from all over Europe after making their pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela. Of course the first thing they’d want to do was attend mass in the Catedral del Apóstol. But they smelled like dead goats and many had various diseases (see my earlier blog about the hospital that was built for these buggers which is now a luxury hotel), which didn’t make it real pleasant for the locals.

So what to do?

Build a gigantic thurible and swing it from the roof of the church over the unwashed masses. It wouldn’t clean them up but at least it would mask the stink in the church. Besides, it was thought at the time that the incense smoke had a prophylactic effect against things like the plague (which wiped out something like 30-60 percent of Europe’s population in the 14th century). So swing away!

Tags: , ,

« Older entries