Food and Drink on the Camino de Santiago

Paella....yuuummm

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!):

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Spanish omelette in the background, chocolate croissant in the foreground!

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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!

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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.

Menu

(Photo credit)

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!

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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!

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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!

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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! 🙂

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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:

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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!

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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.

Love it!

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?

 

Walking in Spain: From Villambistia to Atapuerca

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Distance walked: 23.6km

Elevation Gain: Approx. 300m

After breakfast in Epinosa del Camino, I pottered off into the early morning darkness. One of the sweet things about walking Camino is that the sun came up at my back every morning while I walked westwards. So, even though I may have started walking in darkness, the light gradually and gently changed as the morning wore on. Because I wasn’t facing into the sun, the change was beautifully subtle. And I developed a great tan on the backs of my legs from the sun behind me! I’m not a morning person at the best of times, but I came to relish the birdsong and changing light at the beginning of each day.

Somewhere along the way, I’d heard that there were packs of vicious wild dogs outside a town called Villafranca. The rumour had travelled backwards along the trail, and I had heard it days before – from a woman I walked with on the way to Los Arcos. She gave me 2 pieces of advice:

1. Before entering the town, grab a fistful of gravel from the ground and use it to throw at the dogs, if necessary.

and

2. Don’t walk into town alone. Walk in a group of 3 people, or more.

I love dogs but I thought both pieces of advice sounded reasonable, all things considered.

Thing is, there are two towns called Villafranca along the Camino route in northern Spain. I didn’t know which one she referred to. I looked at my map that morning and discovered that I would pass through Villafranca No.1, and I didn’t know whether to expect a pack of wild, vicious dogs.

I imagined a gang of them, with foaming mouths and matted hair. I imagined them covered in lice and ticks, half-starved and desperate to gorge on my innocent pilgrim blood. I’ve known my share of wicked dogs in life and they don’t generally scare me, but still, this was different. I was quite alone on the trail that morning, and my legs were very, very bare in just a pair of summer shorts. Depending on how vicious and angry they were, I thought my chances of coming away unharmed were somewhat slim. I psyched myself for the worst.

And at the same time, I wondered how a gang of vicious wild dogs were allowed patrol the camino like that, given the volume of people passing through each week. It just didn’t add up.

That morning, I passed through Villafranca Montes de Oca without major incident. Contrary to the rumours, there were no packs of wild dogs awaiting my arrival into town, or on my exit either. The highlight was the cup of coffee I stopped for, before embarking on the climb up through the mountains. There was nowhere else to stop for the next 12.4km and I needed all the sustenance I could get. I hoped to buy a takeaway sandwich (the daily infusion of baguette with chorizo) but there was no joy on that front. Even though the café bar had just received a delivery of 24 fresh, metre-long baguettes (and I should know, I saw the guy from the bakery drop them off), they declined to make me a sandwich. They explained politely, but very firmly, that sandwiches were for lunch and it was too early to serve lunch. So, they would not serve me a sandwich, even though I was one of the only customers there, and they had all the ingredients to hand. There was no way I was getting any lunch food until it was definitely lunch time.

Bureaucracy lives on!

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Looking at the photo above, I still remember the heady smell of pine trees and heather, as I walked through the morning fog. After the vineyards of Rioja and the open farmyard of previous days, the mountainy, woodland smells stood out as something different. I was somewhere new. The fog was cloying and damp, but I remained dry despite my summer shorts and bare legs. I could smell the dirt. I could hear the satisfying crunch of the gravel underfoot. I climbed slowly and steadily. Compared to previous mornings of bright sunshine and light, this particular morning felt like autumn. The weather and the smells were altogether different.

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Remembering this day brings up a mixture of memories. While I still walked through the 12km of woodland, I came across a Spanish family who walked camino together. They had the appearance of people on a day hike – small backpacks, or none at all. Tank tops and jeans. Running shoes. A mixture of ages – parents, aunts, teenage children, smaller children. They were quite a gang. They chatted loudly and their squeals broke the silence of the morning. I heard them long before I saw them.

By then, I was on my 12th day of walking and the initial sheen was starting to wear off. By then, the people who walked for only one week had already gone home. By then, the remaining pilgrims had divided between the people who walked fast, and the slower ones – like me. I sometimes felt that camino was like Darwin’s survival of the fittest. After all, the people who were strong or could walk quickly, often had their choice of hostels each day, while others got stuck for a place to sleep. Physical strength and financial resources created an unequal playing field, at times. I’d already met people who had their bags carried by bus, or who booked private accommodation days in advance. I wasn’t entirely sure that their behaviour was fair. I was in it for the long haul but it seemed to me there were certain inequalities on the trail. So, the sudden appearance of loud day-trippers hit a nerve.

I was still tetchy from the previous evening at Villambistia, and I wanted to walk alone. I wanted to walk in quiet solitude. The loud, boisterous antics of the family ahead of me was the antithesis of what I wanted. Their vibe jarred with my mood but I reasoned:

How nice: this family are spending quality time together in nature, this Sunday morning.

They could be staring at TV, or buying things they don’t need in the nearest shopping mall. Instead, they’re out here, doing this, together.

I could get on board with that.

But still, they made quite a din.

I overtook them on the trial and walked on ahead, alone. The noise followed me through the trees, through the village of Agés, and to my final destination of Atapuerca. After walking 23.6km I could go no further. I asked for a bed in one of the hostels there, and prayed for a quiet afternoon to garner some space.

As if!

 

 

 

Camino Continues: Viana to Navarette

Distance walked: 22.7km

I left Viana and its resident population of 3,500 in the early hours the next morning.

After a short walk the previous day and an afternoon of rest, I felt physically stronger. My new shoes allowed my feet to feel wonderfully cushioned, and my clothes were newly washed and dried. I felt good to go!

My fellow pilgrim and I walked in the early morning light, with the sound of the gravel trail crunching beneath our feet. There wasn’t much to say in the early hours and neither of us had eaten yet, so we enjoyed the quiet. I kept pace with her for most of the 10km to Logroño and there, we stopped in a café bar for breakfast, while the cathedral bells beside us rang out for early morning mass.

Beautiful!

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We feasted on several rounds of coffee and tea, and gorged ourselves on sticky pastries and savoury tapas, draped in roasted, sweet peppers. Wonderfully, the guy behind the bar offered us glasses of wine at the early hour of 11am. The two of us were in a giddy mood and would have loved the chance to sit drinking vino, while people bustled their way to work. We were tempted, but we playfully declined.

Walking the Camino sort of normalises early-morning drinking. Back in the “real world” you’d look like an alcoholic to open a bottle of wine at 10am but on Camino, the attitude is different. When you’re up at 6am and have walked a few hours already, a beer or wine at 10-11am seems entirely reasonable!

Personally, I liked to wait until 12 or 1pm to have my wine. It was probably a psychological ploy to convince myself that drinking in the afternoon was less shocking than drinking in the morning – but you know, the results would probably have been the same either way!

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Embedded into the pavement, yellow arrows point the way to Santiago. Each region uses a different style of sign.

On the far side of town, we bumped into 2 Canadian ladies we hadn’t seen since Zabaldika. One of them had just bought a new pair of hiking shoes and like me, was breaking them in while she walked.

She’d travelled to Spain with a pair of sturdy hiking boots – a pair she’d owned for less than a year and had already broken in. The boots had been the correct size to begin with, but her feet had swollen in the heat and with the exertion of daily walking.

This is normal for Camino.

The steep descent of the Pyrenees had caused her toes to press against the front of her boots for hours on end. This had led to bruising and blisters so by the time she reached Logroño, her toe nails were starting to fall off.

Ouch!

She’d just purchased a pair of lightweight walking shoes and had abandoned her boots back in the city.

“My husband will kill me!” she said, knowing the €200 boots would never be seen again.

She didn’t care at all – those boots were killing her toenails and they were too heavy to mail home: let some other pilgrim make use of them.

And she practically skipped her way out of the city, along the tree-lined pavements, and out into the open countryside!

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Rioja vineyards 🙂

I gently separated myself from the group to walk on ahead, alone, for a few hours. That afternoon, I passed through miles of vineyards where the soil was truly reddish-brown, and gave its name to the regional wine: Rioja. Funny how I’ve drunk it for years without ever really considering its origins. Only then, walking through the region and watching the red soil cover my fresh new shoes and socks, I realised that all of these things I consume each day, have an origin.

I know this, of course. I buy organic vegetables in farmer’s markets and I read the labels on things. I know where my food comes from.

But I don’t really consider what that place looks like or smells like.

I don’t really consider just how far my food travels before it appears on my supermarket shelf, and just how exotic it is to have global food available at arm’s reach.

When I bought Rioja wine at home, I never imagined that I would one day walk through that very region – maybe even the very vineyards that produced the bottled goodness.

And yet, there I was – happily plodding along, putting one foot in front of the other, and breathing in the smell of earth, vines, and live, growing grapes. How utterly exotic and yet, from a Spanish perspective, how utterly normal.

Truly, a gift experience.

When I arrived in Navarette later that day, I was thrilled to get a bed in the main albergue. It holds only 40 pilgrims and was the only albergue in town to run on a first-come, first-serve basis. All the others were privately owned and were probably already booked up.

Getting a bed in the main albergue, early in the day, felt like a new pattern for me.

Unlike previous days, I’d covered quite a bit of distance without feeling defeated by the effort. The new shoes had transformed my walking experience and I was in an unusual position:

I’d just walked nearly 23km but felt like I could go on further.

Hurrah!

I booked myself into the hostel and asked the staff if they could reserve a bed for my fellow pilgrim, who was somewhere behind me on the trail. They spoke no English and I had only a spattering of Spanish but we managed to come to some agreement:

They would keep a bed for her, but only for another 2 hours. If she didn’t arrive by then, they’d have to give the bed to someone else.

Fair enough, I thought, that sounds like a reasonable deal.

I paid my fee, they stamped my pilgrim passport, and I made my way upstairs to find a bed.