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The Tapas of Santiago: Falling in Love with Pimientos de Padrón

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It was a week-long bar crawl in search of the best tapas of Santiago and once I sampled my first plate of pimientos de Padrón there was no turning back.

I’d heard of them but never tasted them and for years I thought the name meant ‘peppers of the boss’ (padrón means boss in Spanish). It doesn’t. Padrón is actually a small town in Galicia, Spain’s northwesternmost province, whose other major claim to fame is its location along the Camino. I didn’t make it to Padrón the village but I certainly had a number of encounters with its namesake.

Pimientos del Padrón from Santiago de Compostela

Crunchy, luscious, melt-in-your-mouth luscious pimientos de Padrón

The perfect pimiento de Padrón is piping hot, slightly crunchy on the outside, with a few burn marks and a sprinkling of thick sea salt. They’re so easy to prepare: wash, dry, toss in olive oil and crunch away.

While green peppers are supposed to cause indigestion I’m obviously immune. A daily plate for a week did nothing to weaken my sturdy constitution or my hunger. Interestingly, while these peppers tend to be sweet, they can on occasion be hot and spicy and that’s part of the fun: you never know how hot – if at all – until you take that first bite. As my hunger grows and I start thinking it’s tapa time I regretfully realize I’m actually at home in rural France and about as far from a pimiento de Padrón as I am from a bactrian camel. And now I must confess.

Dear Pimiento: I was unfaithful.

The day I discovered the navaja, monogamy flew out the window. Navaja means knife in Spanish and these are obviously razor clams. But oh so tender, smoky and tart, with a slight rubbery texture that you swallow rather than chew. Purists eat them grilled with a drop of lemon juice but I’m anything but a purist.

Navajas in Santiago de Compostela

If you love seafood you just might change your travel plans and stay around a bit longer just to keep eating these

My razor clam recipe? Buy a portion of navajas, sauté them whole in hot olive oil and garlic for one minute, remove from heat, stir in lemon juice and chopped parsley, and suck them out. Repeat.

P1020429

Cute, eh?

I could be excused for all this extravagant eating during my week in Santiago.  I was ill and needed comfort food. I eventually ended up in the hospital with a strange lump on my forehead that required emergency surgery.

That, of course, had no impact on my appetite.

And since I’ve now made myself irreparably hungry I’ll grasp at memories of my last visit to Santiago, where I walked on the Camino (for an entire hour) and spent the rest of the week reconfirming what others had told me: that this was indeed a city for foodies.

Fish market in Santiago de Compostela

Fresh and artisanal – just a few fish, not mass production

What I love about Spanish markets – most European markets actually – is their down to earthness. No (or few) plastic crates, fruits and vegetables thrown pell-mell with no effort at geometrical perfection. C’mon, the fruit calls out, taste me and you’ll see I don’t need to be dressed up!

Choosing fruit at Mercado de Santiago

Little has changed over the years. Women still go to market despite the abundance of shopping malls on the outskirts

But back to the tapas of Santiago.

I lived in Spain for a large part of my childhood and my taste buds haven’t lost an ounce of their recall power. Just seeing this ensaladilla rusa brought back memories of small-town Castile, my home between the ages of seven and ten. Bars were a way of life then and my father let me tag along as he went off to meet his friends and right the wrongs of the world over a pipe and a drink, his vehemence intensifying after each glass of local wine.

ensaladilla rusa

Ensaladilla rusa: one of Spain’s classical tapas

I, meantime, focused on the edibles, as one did at that age (even though back then a small sip of wine was not in any way discouraged).

Ensaladilla was one of my favorite tapas and I still make it today: cut cooked potatoes into cubes, let cool, add a tin of mixed carrots and peas, another of tuna, add in a chopped hard-boiled egg, scoop in abundant mayonnaise, add salt and mix. Some people add olives but I think they overpower the delicate tuna taste. Break off the end of a baguette (yes, we did have them in Spain – they were just a little crunchier), slather with ensaladilla and attack.

Don’t be fooled by all the Spanish ingredients: its name translates to ‘Russian salad’ and with reason; it originally came from Moscow but the Spaniards, as they do with all things they love, have adopted it and made it quintessentially Spanish.

Below is a typical Santiago tapas bar. Somewhat typical, in any case.

It’s filled to the brim with Spaniards, tourists, pilgrims and a mixture of classical and modern tapas. I’m a classical girl myself: give me a pintxo of local ham, a deep-fried chicken croquette, a slice of tortilla española (Spanish omelet) or a plate of steamed or sautéed seafood and you’ve bought me for life. I just stay away from the innards. Not even years in Spain and France have eradicated my dislike of those inside bits.

Taberna do Bispo in Santiago de Compostela

Tapas at the Taberna do Bispo

Santiago de Compostela is known of course as the end point of the Camino, where pilgrims converge after weeks or months of walking across Europe. It is also known as one of the best tapas destinations in Spain.

Plenty of large bars cater to visitors and provide every kind of tapa imaginable. The smaller bars do the same. They may have less variety, but they make up for it in succulence. I tried to go wrong in Santiago by walking into overcrowded, badly lit or smelly tapas bars, looking for tapas I wouldn’t like.

I failed.

That doesn’t mean there are no bad tapas here, just that I didn’t find them (requires additional investigation).

Each morning, before setting out for my tapas research or the hospital (depending on the state of the forehead), I had a Spanish breakfast. If you’ve been to Spain you’ve probably had this too.

churros con chocolate

Chocolate con churros, Spain’s national breakfast and one of the greatest threats to the national waistline

I may be in love with the pimiento de Padrón but that didn’t stop me from getting up close and personal with everything else on offer.

I can always make room for the tapas of Santiago – for any Spanish tapas, in fact. They’re delicious, of course, but they also take me back to a carefree time when choosing which one to eat was perhaps the biggest decision I would face that day. It’s called childhood.

Things every Woman on the Road should know

  • There are many ways to reach Santiago (other than walking the Camino) but most of them entail going through Madrid. You can fly or take the train but if you’re not in Spain yet you can fly direct from the UK or Geneva on low-cost airlines.
  • Santiago is extremely safe, during the day and at night. It’s full of pilgrims and the mood is more elevated than it is mercenary. You can walk into any bar or café on your own and you won’t get a second glance.
  • The city has excellent public transportation and I rode the bus system everywhere. The center is small and you can just walk it.
  • Because it’s geared to pilgrims you’ll find plenty of accommodation choices, from hostels to luxury. Just reserve ahead of time in summer or you may be sleeping on the Cathedral steps. I stayed at the clean and friendly Stellae Luscofusco – right on the Camino and about 15 minutes’ walk from the Cathedral. The owner, Carmela, took me under her wing when I became ill and made sure I got to the hospital and got cared for. She even phoned them for me.
  • Santiago’s tourist office website is well thought out and a good starting point.

11 Comments

  1. Miss Footloose | Life in the Expat Lane on August 29, 2013 at 1:54 am

    Fortunately I’d just eaten when I read your post, since I live far away from Santiago, and can’t go out and indulge. But soon I’ll be in the south of France for at least 6 months and will make it to Spain to do some tapas eating.

    However, the ensaladilla rusa doesn’t do it for me…I lived in Armenia for years, a former Soviet republic, and that Russian salad was everywhere, along with others also drowned in mayo. In the supermarkets there, you have large shelf sections devoted to multiple varieties of mayonnaise — flavored in all sorts of ways to fit whatever salad you choose to make. And all these cans of peas and carrots and soggy mushrooms ….

    But I do love most any tapas delicacy I’ve had the chance to eat. Something to look forward to.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on August 29, 2013 at 6:10 am

      Oh dear, I can see your ensaladilla experience wasn’t brilliant – and it’s not a dish for everyone. I’ve had some pretty horrible ensaladillas in my time as well – but when they’re good they’re great. In one bar alone I think I counted over 40 tapas so at least you won’t have to go near it! And southern France for six months sounds wonderful – near Spain, yes, but I love southern France so that’ll be a treat too!

  2. Rachel on August 29, 2013 at 4:56 pm

    Sadly the great classic Russian Salad can be awful. But a good one is very good. Nothing soggy and definitely nothing tinned. Just have to keep trying them and the rest of the tapas – so hard not to eat too much in Spain.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on August 29, 2013 at 9:36 pm

      Definitely mixed reviews about the ensaladilla but I’m glad you’ve at least experienced good ones! Each time I go to Spain I come home weighing more… so I’m planning a trip to Sevilla next I think.

  3. Steve on September 1, 2013 at 11:44 pm

    wow – that looks so delicious! I’m not sure if I would try the navajas 😉

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on September 2, 2013 at 7:26 am

      Yes, Steve, you should! Unless you hate seafood but if you like it, these will take you over the top!

  4. Kristin Henning on November 16, 2013 at 12:04 pm

    Yes! We’ve spent lots of time in Spain, everywhere, and you’ve named three of our favorite dishes. We make paella, and gazpacho and ensaladilla, but have never tried making Pimientos de Padrón. Think I can manage a batch in the U.S. when we get back?

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on November 16, 2013 at 12:33 pm

      Your challenge will be getting the actual pimientos themselves!

  5. […] full to breaking, and I wouldn’t visit Madrid without stopping here for some jamón. Or some pimientos de Padrón. Or some […]

  6. Jayne Coleman on December 13, 2016 at 11:19 pm

    I visited Santiago last week and loved it. Out of season so it was very quiet. Loved the markets, cathedral but especially the walk through the park resplendent in its autumnal colours. Unfortunately I didn’t try the tapas but had the best tortilla so far with a beer! I’m currently living in. La Coruna teaching English whilst trying to learn Spanish. Santiago is just 25 minutes away by train so I will definitely be going back

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on December 13, 2016 at 11:25 pm

      La Coruña is a lovely city (but then, I’m a sucker for Spain!) Loved walking by the seaside there and there were some pretty mean tapas there too if I recall correctly…

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