When I wrote about the things I missed while walking the camino, I mentioned missing vegetables and a kitchen. I wasn’t alone in this – you’d be surprised how many people talk about missing vegetables when they’re out there walking the trail for weeks on end. Fruit is pretty easy to find but somehow the veg was a bit trickier to locate – I guess it takes a bit more effort to provide plates of roasted squash or broccoli.
Oh man, I don’t think I even saw broccoli on my camino journey, never mind ate it!
Green vegetables were sorely lacking.
People talk about the food being basic and repetitive on camino. Breakfast was much the same every day, like a coffee with some toasted baguette or a croissant (tough life, I know!):
Spanish omelette in the background, chocolate croissant in the foreground!
A big breakfast: baguette with ham, chocolate croissant, and coffee
Even if I wanted a bowl of oatmeal or muesli, they were nowhere to be found. Suddenly, my not-so-fancy choices in “real life” seemed stupidly, ridiculously indulgent in rural Spain.
Still, this is a first-world problem and you’ll notice, I didn’t die of starvation at any point! 🙂
With more than 150,000 people on the route in 2013, feeding people was surely an exercise in efficiency – time efficiency as well as economic efficiency. Carbohydrates are cheap and easy to prepare. Protein is guaranteed to sell – after all, people are walking many miles and need high-energy foods to sustain them, so sandwiches usually consisted of dry baguette with either Spanish ham, chorizo, or Spanish tortilla. No additional lettuce or tomato or whatever other sandwich-like fillings you usually have – it was bread and meat – no more, no less. I learned afterwards that you can ask for sachets of mayonnaise separately so I’ll pass on that nugget of wisdom to those of you who’ll walk the way soon! I ate chorizo, ham, or some other pork product every day – and often 2-3 times a day.
By the end, I thought I’d had my fill of chorizo and would never touch the stuff again.
But surprisingly, a month or so after I returned home, I took an unexpected craving for the stuff and I threw it into every dish for about a week, delighting on the spicy, oily, meatiness. Lovely Husband was entertained by my change of heart, and watched with quiet bemusement.
Spanish tortillas (omelettes made with potato and onion) are available everywhere. With the exception of “Banana Man in a Van” in the middle of the Pyrenees, I don’t know that I saw eggs prepared any way other than in the tortilla/omelette. Boiled, scrambled, poached, with bacon and hash browns? Forget it all – it was omelette or nothing!
Lunch and dinner menus were interchangeable. Availing of the “pilgrim menu” was a cheap way to eat, as it meant getting a 3-course meal, served with baguette and wine, for just 10 Euro. I told friends about this when I came home and they swooned at the sound of it.
A 3-course meal – with wine and bread – for only TEN EURO, they cried!
Sign us up!
When I talk about bread, I mean a basket of freshly cut baguette.
When I say wine, I mean a whole bottle of wine – per person!
A bargain, for sure.
And with the exception of one glass (incidentally, pictured below), the wine was always delicious!
A glass of house wine “vino tinto” usually set me back something in the region of €1-1.50. I bought whole bottles with the price tag of just €5 but yet, I met pilgrims who bought locally-produced wine for as little as €2 per bottle. So when you crunch the numbers on that you realize that €1 per glass is a nice profit for the bar owner. Still, I was more than happy to get such a bargain, and happily handed over my Euro to drink smooth red wines from the Rioja region all the way across northern Spain.
There was no chance I’d get wine so cheaply at home so between you and me, I should have drank more of it – waaay more!
But back to the 3-course meal…
In case you’re imagining fine dining with candlelight and fancy creamy sauces – forget it. Quite a lot, I ate chicken fillets that were quickly fried in a hot pan and dripping with hot oil. Nothing wrong with them, but there wasn’t always a lot of love in the cooking. Like I say, it was largely about efficiency.
Get ’em in, get ’em fed, get ’em out again!
And in case you’re imagining decadent deserts – maybe homebaked pies or creamy Black Forest Gateau – forget it. Often, dessert was a pot of yogurt (without the fruity compote at the top/bottom) so it wasn’t luxurious. I was glad of the extra sugar though, and have no complaints. And really, a 3-course meal with bread and wine for €10 – I’m surprised they offered a dessert at all!
The pilgrim menu didn’t vary much across the 800km. Over and over, I was handed a piece of paper like this one, with details of the menu printed in four languages. The first course offered more variety than the second course, and I learned that the mixed salad was a great way to get fresh vegetables into my system.
When I ordered the salad pictured below, the woman behind the bar took my order and wrote the details down in a notepad.
She then came out from behind the bar, walked away from me out the front door, and crossed the quiet country road.
Confused, I watched as she gently hopped over a low wall, and proceeded to cut two heads of lettuce – fresh from the garden!
When the leaves landed up on my plate minutes later, I thought it the most magical salad I had ever seen – and it gave me a new appreciation into just how much work goes into feeding thousands of hungry pilgrims!
Egg, Tomato, Tuna, Onion, Olive, and White Asparagus
The quality of, and variety of, main courses varied from place to place. I didn’t see paella listed on the pilgrim menu that often – unfortunately. I’d have happily eaten it far more often than just 4-5 times. Some of the restaurants also had a “Menu del dia”, which listed their daily specials. If you wanted a break from the repetitive pilgrim menu, and were happy to pay a bit more, you’d get a better meal – generally.
One of the best meals I had was in a place called Mansilla de las Mulas, where my fish was battered in golden crumb and fried to perfection – it was a joy to my palate! I took a doggy bag away with me and ate it the next day for lunch, under a shady tree. The chef was delighted. He told me that too often, they have to throw food in the bin and no-one thinks to take leftovers on to the trail the next day. I was thrilled to have good food two days in a row!
One of my worst meals was in the town called Hospital de Órbigo, where I ate alone one evening. I wandered around looking for somewhere to eat at 7pm. This was way too early, as most Spaniards themselves don’t eat until well after 9pm, and many pilgrim meals don’t start until 8. I ordered a “fresh homemade” Hawaiian pizza but 20 minutes later, was presented with a rather bad frozen pizza-like-thing. The base was hard and dry, like cardboard. The sauce tasted like cheap ketchup with too much vinegar. I ate about 1/4 but eventually left it on my plate in search of something else.
First world problems, right? (eye roll at myself!)
Anyway, back to the 3 course meal…
You’ll see in the menu that they list “chicken”, “pork”, and “fish”. One day, I asked “What kind of fish?”. I’m not sure what I expected them to say, exactly, but when they rolled their eyes in return I realized I might have been asking a bit too much! I told myself to just eat it, be grateful, and shut up!
That said, the Spanish love their fish. Walking through some of the larger towns and cities, I passed supermarkets dedicated entirely to freezers full of fish – of all kinds! They sold nothing else but frozen fish – imagine!
In regular supermarkets, I passed entire aisles full of tinned fish, like the one below. I checked the labels here – there were no tins of beans, hotdogs, or sweetcorn – this was all fish!
Some days, dinner was heavy on the carb and light on nutrition!
If you’ve a sensitivity or allergy to gluten or to wheat, I think it’s tough going on camino. Baguette was served with every meal. Quite often, it was the main component of the meal – especially for breakfast. I met only one coeliac on my travels and she bought rice cakes in the bigger towns and cities, and carried them with her. At least they were light but she had to plan ahead in a way that most people don’t. She learned enough Spanish to be able to explain her condition to bar owners and restaurant staff, and while the rest of us munched on pastries and sandwiches, she asked for a plate of cheese or ham which she then spread on her rice cakes. She probably couldn’t eat the ubiquitous chorizo either, now that I think about it, but she seemed to find a way of managing her needs quite well.
The trick to walking the camino with special dietary needs? Learn lots of Spanish. Really.
I think vegetarians might get away okay but anything more unusual than that will require language skills. Staff are accommodating and often do everything they can to help, but they don’t always have the English (or German, Korean, etc.) to understand those needs. If you’ve got special requests, you’re better to have the language skills to articulate them.
As I progressed westwards into the province of Galicia, the food changed quite a bit. I started noticing stews and broths a lot more – and I found myself wanting them too. The northwest of Spain is said to be like the west of Ireland with stone walls, small green fields, and a chilly dampness to the air. Of course, it was early October by then so the autumn weather had an impact on things too.
I found myself desperately craving cups of hot tea, bowls of hot broth, and hearty, meaty dishes. This was such a contrast from the previous weeks, where the sun had been beating down on us every day and heavy, hearty meals were sometimes too much for my system.
Not so in Galicia though – I gorged on meat and soups as often as I could.
By the end of camino I was eating 5-6 meals a day and was still *always* ravenous – I guess walking all those miles had burned off a few calories after all!
Also in Galicia, I noticed more and more donation stations along the route. The last 100km or so are the busiest along Camino Francés. Thousands of pilgrims start their camino at Sarria, just over 100km from Santiago. This is the minimum distance you’d have to walk if you want to be issued with a certificate (compostela) for completing Camino.
Thankfully, the coffee shops are plentiful along this stretch. In between, some of the locals leave out flasks of tea and coffee, with snacks and treats of all sorts, on the side of the trail. The idea is that you take refreshment if you need it – and you pay a donation into the box provided.
Some of the donation tables were a bit “rustic” and held more wild flowers and coloured pebbles than they did *actual food*. Ordinarily, I love my wild flowers and coloured pebbles but I couldn’t eat them, so I’d sometimes take the coffee and quickly move on. The flowers were lovely but they didn’t satisfy my empty belly!
This table was very impressive to me, though. It screamed of cleanliness and organization. I liked that the mugs were turned downwards, and not filled with dust or insects. I also loved that they’d thought to offer paper towel – what a novelty! I loved finding these little tables along the way and I spent the last 100km of Camino sampling my way through all of the hot coffee and home-baked pastries I could find! 🙂
At different points along the way, I ate wild food and free food, too. Sometimes the local farmers generously hand out fruit from the side of their orchards and vines – so I saw pilgrims coming away beaming with glee at the handfuls of fresh tomatoes and grapes they’d been given. Very cute! Other times, I passed trees and bushes that were heavy with fruit – like the fig tree that this beauty came from:
Imagine the decadence! I don’t think I’d ever had sun-ripened fresh figs before and I swear, they were a highlight in what-was-otherwise a very tough day! I can still taste the juicy sweetness – wow!
There’s one particular town in Galicia that’s famous for its “pulpo” or octopus. I heard it was delicious but I didn’t dare try it – I’ve got too vivid an imagination and I’ve watched too many low quality science fiction movies in my youth – the image of those creatures lurking in the deep has me ruined. Interestingly though, the town itself is not beside the sea. It’s not even close to the sea – so I would love to know how on earth it became famous for its octopus when the nearest coastline is more than 100km away!
By the time I arrived in Galicia it was early October and the autumn fruits were heaving from the trees. I took a shortcut from my hostel one evening in Vega de Valcarce and came upon this bounty of windfall apples – of course, I stopped to eat a few – deliciously sweet!
Eventually, I came home with a renewed awe for my body. Not only was it strong enough to cross Spain the old-fashioned way (on foot!) but it did so on a very limited diet. All the knowledge and training I’ve had on nutrition went out the window in Spain. The food was basic and it was generally good, but there wasn’t a whole lot of variety.
I was amazed that my body rose to the greatest physical challenge I had ever presented it with – and on such a basic diet.
Every day, I eat food that is of better quality and higher nutritional value than I did on Camino – only to sit in an office and work on a computer!
On Camino, I carried my body and all my belongings across a country!
I climbed mountains.
I walked in the rain, the cold, the sweltering sun.
I walked for hours at a time, day after day after day.
I burned calories by the bucket load and my body needed rapid repair to cope with the physical exertion.
That’s when I needed the high-grade nutrition but I survived on copious amounts of baguette, coffee, and chorizo – AMAZING!
I came home thrilled and buoyant, and surprised that I didn’t have a cold, a flu, or some sort of low-grade malnutrition. I thought my body was truly outstanding for working so hard with such little nutritional support. It made me realize just how little I need to survive – not just in terms of physical possessions but in terms of food intake, too. Our bodies are designed to glean nutrition from the most humble food, and somehow mine had walked an outstanding 500 miles and thrived.
I came home to kitchen cupboards full of food – so much variety! I gasped at the sight of breakfast cereals and muesli, casually sitting on the counter top, waiting to be eaten. I marvelled at the generosity of a fresh pineapple – so much sweetness and I didn’t have to worry about the weight of carrying it! I came home and gazed at the contents of my fridge in baffled wonder – so much food – what would I do with it all?
Why, eat it, of course! 🙂
What were your food & drink experiences on your travels, whether camino or otherwise?
What did you love to eat?
What did you groan at the sight of?
And if you had any special dietary needs, how did you manage them?