From the crest of a hill at Bodegas Martín Códax winery, the fog hovers thick and silvery, ebbing and flowing over the ragged coastline. The setting could be confused for the firths of eastern Scotland, but for the miles of patchwork vineyards and prevalence of sparkling Albariño. This moody landscape belongs to Spain’s Galicia.
Exposed to the Atlantic, Galicia lies in the northwest corner of Iberia. A succession of finger-like inlets, or rias, known formally as the Rías Baixas, forms the coast north of Portugal. With their plentiful seafood, the rias serve as the lifeblood of Galicia and its culinary economy, distinguishing it from the rest of the country.
A wealth of species live in Rias Baixas’ nutrient-rich waters like oysters, Grooved Carpet Shell and Japanese clams, cockles, scallops, sea urchin, octopus and lobster. The Rías Baixas Denominación de Origen (D.O.) borrows the region’s name for its Albariño-dominant wines.
Santiago de Compostela, a historic city teeming with lively restaurants and bars, serves as the gateway to the region. A deeply spiritual town, an influx of pilgrims hiking the El Camino de Santiago, or Way of St. James, appears during warmer months. They complete their weeks-long sojourn at the Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, while at nearby Mercado de Abastos, others embark a different journey.
Every Sunday afternoon, vendors hawk octopus fill the square outside the Mercado. The cooks, called pulpeiros, serve archetypal pulpo a la Gallega, tender octopus swimming in olive oil, sprinkled with paprika and piled thick atop wooden plates.
Inside, at Santiago de Compostela’s biggest fish market, the curious and the hungry sip wine while they wander the stalls. Albariño, fragrant with citrus and peach, is enjoyed all year long here. Bearded mussels and yawning clams are piled into glistening stacks aimed to persuade patrons in search of a snack.
Other visitors to Santiago de Compostela can stroll by bakery windows blissfully salivating at shelves stocked with tartas de Santiago, almond cakes dusted with powdered sugar. Or they relax at a café with a glass or two of wine after a long day spent marveling at monasteries turned into hotels.
The city of Pontevedra lies about an hour south of Santiago de Compostela and serves as headquarters for the Rías Baixas D.O. The nightlife and restaurant options are surprisingly robust. From here, one can visit the vineyards of sub-appellations like Val do Salnés, home of Martín Códax. The coastal city is also the perfect base for visitors looking to experience the region’s shellfish tourism.
Family-owned seafood purveyor, Mariscos Laureano, welcomes visitors to observe how it processes and purifies shellfish. It also harvests mussels from semi-submerged platforms, called bateas, that sit a mile or so offshore.
Inside the cold warehouse where employees unload boxes of fresh-plucked bivalves, Romina López explains the importance of aquaculture to Galician life.
“Seafood and shellfish from Galicia is a valuable sector and an important part of our landscape, our culture and, of course, our gastronomy,” says López, a local translator and tour guide. “If you ask anybody in Spain about the most famous food from Galicia, they’ll answer ‘el marisco,’ or shellfish. Galicia, as a food destination, is undoubtedly associated with it.”
Shellfish is so ingrained in Galician culture that scallop shells, a common embellishment to the granite stonework of Santiago de Compostela’s buildings and churches, serve as the emblem of St. James. Pilgrims will often collect one to prove they’ve completed the arduous journey.
In Cambados’ key fishing area of O Serrido, visitors can watch shellfish being collected on the shores of Ría de Arousa. Here, the estuary meets Río Umia, creating a brackish area that provides the optimal salinity and temperature for bivalves. During low tide, mariscadoras, or female harvesters, rake clams and cockles from the waters. Tourists are encouraged to participate.
In order to be licensed by the regional government, mariscadoras must learn about the environment, species, size limits and sustainability efforts. In the past, the role was relegated to women by default. Men would fish the ocean, while wives remained behind to care for the home and children. This allowed them to also work the shoreline.
López says that before the 20th century, only peasants ate shellfish. Today, Galician shellfish is considered a refined, sophisticated food and costs far less than its American counterparts.
Climate change does threaten to disrupt the industry and, with it, the Galician way of life. A preliminary study published in the HSOA Journal of Aquaculture and Fisheries, suggests “climate change will endanger the aquaculture sector of the Rias Baixas…ongoing ocean warming will be a serious threat to mussel production in these areas.”
“Those that work on the sea have noticed differences in the cycles and customs of fish,” says López. “Some moved to further areas, and species that used to be far away from the rias are now in the estuaries.”
This worry isn’t solely relegated to the shellfish business. Local winemakers note increasingly dry growing seasons, including the one endured last summer.
“We might be a red wine region in the future,” says one vintner, wryly.
Truthfully whatever the future holds, it’s easy to forget the worries of the physical world, parked at an outdoor table with a chilled glass of white wine and a plate of garlicky mussels, in the warmth of the Spanish sun.
Where to Eat and Drink
Santiago de Compostela
Casa Marcelo. The chef behind this Michelin-starred gastrobar blends Japanese and Peruvian technique with local bounty. From the fresh, warm bread to the mackerel smoked with smoldering rosemary sprig beneath a bell jar, everything is delicious. Seating is either at a long communal table or at the bar that faces the kitchen. A few words of Spanish will go a long way, as very little English is spoken—though you can always just point to your neighbor’s dish.
Abastos 2.0. Near the market, this buzzy restaurant occupies the space of former stalls and spotlights regional wineries. During summer, grab one of the coveted outside seats and people watch under the sun while tasting through the wine list.
A Quinta da Auga. This Relais & Châteaux property offers an exciting list of local bottles that features nearby appellations Ribeira Sacra and Ribeiro. Dinner features oysters, clams and scallops in an elaborate dining room. Don’t miss the chef’s twist on the region’s classic pulpo a la Gallega: thinly sliced octopus served atop a hollow potato piped with warm San Simon cheese.
Mercado de Abastos de Santiago. This multi-stall market shows off the greatest hits of Rías Baixas, featuring some of the region’s best seafood, cheeses, meats and spices. Take a moment to sip a glass of wine and watch the octopus vendors work their boiling pots.
A Xanela Gastronómica. This eatery hidden in the back of a bar delivers extraordinary value with its inventive riffs on classics with local fish and meat. Offerings like mackerel filet atop weathered rocks in a wooden box sets the tone for the fun, flavorful food available. With craft beers, local wine and five courses, a lunchtime prix fixe meal comes to about $40, at the current exchange rate.
La Ultramar. Maneuver through La Ultramar’s hot-sauce lined foyer and cavernous and raucous front bar, to reach a more intimate dining area where serious food is presented in playful fashion. Try the region’s famous well-marbled beef with slow-roasted tomatoes, and taste your way through the affordable list of regional wines. Portions are huge, so be prepared to share.
The House of the Five Doors Restaurant. An old standby for classic cuisine, Five Doors appeals to diners who like traditional service and a deep wine list. Try the savory scallops, tortilla Española, and if you’re ready to move beyond seafood, the glistening jamón ibérico.