Saintly and serious Santiago de Compostela was a cool gray on our second morning there. We toured the verdant Parque de Alameda and explored the magnificent Cathedral complex, around which the entire city was constructed. We peeked at scallop-shell-clad and visibly exhausted peregrinos tumbling dramatically to their hands and knees on the cobblestoned floors of the Praza do Obradoiro. We passed under the Cathedral’s main altar to a crypt housing the silver cask, which allegedly bears the body of the Apostle Saint James. We would come to learn all about the Patron Saint of Pilgrims and the history of the city in which his body is entombed at the Museu das Pergrinacións, which we were lucky enough to have all to ourselves that day. Having worked off the healthy dose of tostada de jamon iberico (and free churros, of course) that we had enjoyed for breakfast, we arrived at the Mercado de Abastos, ready to eat.
While it’s been around for three centuries, the market building that stands today was constructed in the 1940’s to match the mood of the rest of the city. It’s stately and solemn, with thick walls built in granite masonry and curved archways reminiscent of Romanesque chapels. Four aisles, two of which are dedicated entirely to seafood, lead to a central square with a fountain made of stone. A kind of Middle Ages ~ Game of Thrones vibe is omnipresent here; you can almost picture some kid selling oysters from a basket for a quick dubloon.
Abastos 2.0 is a restaurant built into the side of the market with outdoor seating on the street leading into it, perfect for people-watching. We grabbed a seat at a high-top outside and ordered two glasses of Albarinho to start. The menu is almost entirely dedicated to fresh Galician seafood, with the ingredients no doubt sourced from the fishmongers just inside the market. Some dishes are very simple, steamed or sautéed shellfish caught fresh that morning, while others show considerable artistry and vision on the part of the chefs. It’s mostly tapas-style, made to be shared, and there are also two set menus available for hungrier patrons.
The wine arrived with a generous portion of house-made potato chips, bread and a little complimentary tapas of ensaladilla rusa. The latter was creamy but not overly sloppy with mayonnaise as this Spanish classic tends to be. Boiled potatoes, carrots and green peas were mixed up with flaky tuna to be scooped up with a crumbly cracker. The perfect little snack to whet our appetites.
Percebes (a.k.a. goose barnacles) are an absolute must-have in Galicia, especially because the best stuff comes only from here, and anywhere else in Europe they can get impossibly expensive. The cost comes from the extremely dangerous and thus quite controversial work of gathering them. Brave Percebeiros make their way into the dangerous surf on rocky coasts, where these ugly little monsters thrive. They have to be gingerly hand-picked off jagged cliffs with the waves crashing against the pickers the entire time. And the wilder the sea and more exposed their rocky habitats are to the dangerous surf, the meatier the percebes and the more price they fetch on the market. So it’s a whole thing…
We ordered a portion and shamelessly admitted to our waiter that we have no idea how to eat them. He showed us how to pinch the diamond-shaped feet between thumb and forefinger and twist off the rough exterior coating to reveal the soft, pink tubes of flesh inside. These are edible all the way up to the creepy alien claw. The whole heap is usually boiled in salted water with a bay leaf, allowing the naturally sweet flavor of the animal to shine through. It tastes a bit like stone crab and has a delightfully tender consistency.
The best navajas (razor clams) in Spain also hail from Galicia, as I remember being told on the few occasions I was lucky enough to enjoy them in Barcelona. These are perhaps the most “gourmand” of all the Atlantic shellfish in that they require very little picking, scraping and sucking to get to the very generous, juicy meat. These were sautéed in very fragrant olive oil and a ton of garlic, which added a fantastic layer of nuance to their nutty, caramelized and almost smoky flavor. What a treat.
We knew as far as “un porción de percebes et unas navajas por favor” and let our guy guide us through the rest of the menu. He picked out for us three gorgeous dishes that really showcased the chef’s creativity and talent. The first of these was a lovely ceviche of sea bass, no doubt caught earlier that day. The slippery, smooth ribbons of fish were sliced super thin and presented with pickled red onions, some disks of zingy raw radish and spring onions, all doused in a very piquant and refreshing citrus oil. I will not soon forget the sensation of that fish melting on my tongue, while the lemony freshness of everything else woke up my palate and made my mouth water.
I was excited to see one of my favorite fish make an appearance as well, a feast for the eyes before all else. A fleshy filet of smoked mackerel was served with a glossy teriyaki glaze. A kind of salsa of finely chopped, pickled and fresh veg was lain over the top and neat little pillows of an avocado cream appeared here here and there. The paradoxical harmony and complexity of these flavor combinations were nothing short of masterful. Char smoke, oily and nutty mackerel meat, briny gherkin, juicy tomato, sticky-sweet teriyaki and a floral sweetness from the avocado puree. Each bite was heaven.
And finally, our only non-seafood dish was a mound of seasonal (late-spring) asparagus, sprinkled with a good amount of toasted pine nuts and doused in delicious olive oil. Only the juiciest, meatiest section of the stems were included, those that fall between the frilly, delicate tips and the woody, tough ends. They sported gorgeous, caramelized grill lines and tasted wonderfully nutty and sweet, complimented perfectly by the buttery and resinous touch from the pine nuts. Another fantastic dish in our very desirable spread, which captured the attention of many a passerby, and a very nice terrestrial bit to round out our otherwise very marine meal.
I have nothing but fond memories of our lunch at Abastos 2.0, midway through our road-trip to Vigo and back. This meal was a long and leisurely affair, a moment of pure enjoyment, and an intentional pause from sightseeing before hitting the road again, this time towards Pontevedra.