Eating Our Way Across Spain

If eating along the Via Podiensis (the Camino path from Le Puy to St. Jean Pied de Port) was all about big, family-style dinners and outdoor picnics, eating along the Camino Frances (the Camino path in Spain from SJPP to Santiago) was all about the mid-day cafes and coffee breaks along the way.

The Camino path through Spain passes through a lot of villages, which are usually only 5-10 kilometers apart. Every village, no matter how small, has at least one—and usually several—bars and cafes that exist for the thousands of pilgrims that pass through. So you’re never far from food.

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You’re never far from food on the Camino Frances

This was our daily rhythm in Spain: we’d leave the albergue (which rarely served breakfast) at dawn—about 7am in June—and walk to the next town for desayuno. Then we’d walk another 10 kilometers or so to another town and stop for desaydos. (I don’t think we ever had a day that required a desaytres, but the opportunity was there.)

The options in every town were about the same:

  • Cafe con leche: espresso and whole milk. Energy and comfort in a cup. (For the lactose intolerant there’s cafe solo.)
  • Cerveza: at any hour; you’ll see pilgrims and locals alike kicking back with frosty mugs of beer at 9am. We generally refrained from dipping into the wine or sangria until at least noon.
  • Tortilla de patata/tortilla espanola: a pan-baked egg and potato dish. Tortillas sometimes are also available as just egg, or with vegetables, or with chorizo. Never, ironically, are they served with what most Americans would consider a tortilla.
  • Bocadillo: When you take a tortilla espanola and put it on thick, crusty baguettes, the result is the ubiquitous bocadillo of the Camino. Many places would also offer sandwiches with chorizo and/or cheese (queso)
  • Empanada: Unlike the bite-sized empanadas I knew from home, Spanish cafes bake empanadas the size of a full pie, typically filled with tuna, and sell them by the slice.
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Tortilla patata

Once we arrived at our daily destination and got settled, we’d usually scout out the options for dinner. Unlike France, albergues rarely offer their guests a meal (to be fair, Spanish albergues were often housing 50-100 people, which is a hard crowd to fit around the family table), and I found that there was more of “every person for yourself” attitude among pilgrims.

The options were varied—in the big cities like Pamplona or Burgos there were restaurants everywhere. In tiny towns, there was often only one bar. Most places served a fixed-price pilgrim menu dinner starting at 6 or 7pm—hours before the locals would eat, but pilgrim life is an early-to-bed, early-to-rise experience.

Like in France, dinner was typically three courses, but unlike France, where the menus were different every day and seemed to be completely left to our host’s creativity, almost every Spanish kitchen for 800 kilometers seemed to be working off the same menu del dia:

  • first course: salad (usually with hardboiled egg and tuna), or pasta (usually spaghetti in red sauce), or maybe soup.
  • second course: chicken or fish or sometimes pork. Always, always, ALWAYS with patatas fritas (fries) on the side.
  • dessert: flan, helado (ice cream), sweetened yogurt. In Galicia we discovered tarta de Santiago—a dense almond cake with powdered sugar.

Usually the meal was served with wine or water (you choose, but don’t expect both).

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The salads were good, as long as you like tuna.

The type of food available to pilgrims in Spain was predictable to the point of being redundant. And yet the quality and experience of the food swung wildly.

In a shabby bar in Najera, I ordered the 10-Euro pilgrim menu. I got a wilted salad drenched in salty dressing, a piece of frozen fish (still cold in the middle) covered in some sickly-sweet pepper sauce that was utterly inedible, and a tiny carafe of cheap wine. The only redeeming feature was the pre-packaged ice cream cup (because there was no way for them to mess it up). The man who served it was abrupt and impatient.

A few days later, in Castrojeriz—a town that was smaller, less affluent, and more remote—I walked into a bar and ordered the 10-Euro pilgrim menu. My expectations were not high. But this time I was offered a huge bowl of perfectly-seasoned soup made from fresh vegetables; a crispy, whole grilled trout (head to tail, scales intact) with herb-covered, oven-roasted potatoes; a whole bottle of good red wine; and a giant slice of homemade cake for dessert. The man who brought the food was warm and funny. It was quite possibly the best dinner I had in all of Spain.

It’s those surprises that most stand out to me now—the moments when what could have been predictable suddenly became extraordinary, like that dinner in Castrojeriz….Or the day we walked into Rabanal in the pouring rain, and the tiny stone bar across the street had a seafood stew that warmed my grumpy, damp spirits…Or the night in Leon when we splurged on pulpo — and the waiter brought out an ENTIRE OCTOPUS on a plate…Or the one night that our albergue did serve a communal dinner, and Eric and I somehow ended up trying to explain ObamaCare to an older French couple who didn’t speak any English. (I still don’t know if they were horrified by something I inadvertently said or that Americans have to pay to see a doctor.)

And then Finnesterre, the end of the world, where we sat in outdoor cafes just across the plaza from the fish market and ate seafood stews and calamari until we could burst.

So if you’re thinking about walking the Camino Frances, don’t expect a culinary smorgasbord. But if you think you know what to expect, be prepared to be surprised.

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