Galicia Seafood & Shellfishing
Life in Galicia evolves with the sea and revolves around the tide. If you visit the coastal towns and fishing villages in this part of North Western Spain you will undoubtedly eat the fish and shellfish that are so much part of the diet and culture here. But you can also see the industry up close, from a boat, and learn about how it works. On a recent trip to Galicia, organised by the Spanish Tourist Board, I went out to sea to see how mussels are grown and harvested and checked out some local restaurants to sample some fine, grown in Galicia seafood.
Suddenly there’s a lot going on all at once. I am climbing from one boat to another, holding the arm of one captain and being steadied by a second. A man in oilskins is shovelling piles of purple-blue shells into round steel vats. Handfuls of mussel spawn, collected from wild populations on the rocks, are being grasped tightly by a line of men and women in gloves. The mussels are pushed tight against a rope and covered deftly in thin, biodegradable netting. Another man is crawling along the adjacent platform- a tangle of wooden struts. Someone is Snapchatting the whole event and someone else is rounding up some glasses on a tray for a welcome drink.
A shellfishing experience
Galicia offers many different shellfishing experiences for tourists but today we are homing in on the mussel farms; a speciality of the Rias Baixas. In the Noia-Muros Bay we set out on a cloudy day on Joaquin Vieta sloop – a shiny tourist boat that offers private half day excursions. As we head out to the farms and chug around the ‘batea’ platforms, the mussels seem interesting and distant. When a family who runs one of the floating platforms waves and invites us over, the mussels suddenly become interesting and close up.
A mussel production line
The Lago family licences a batea and uses their boat, Lourdes del Mar, to lay down and collect the mussels. Today they are preparing the ropes that will be hung from the platforms for six months or more. The long net parcels they are making, in an action that reminds me of my late Grandma knitting socks, will become part of a horizontal systems of ropes suspended in the water. The net will disintegrate in a few days and the young mussels will clamp onto the rope where they’ll feed on the nutrients of the sea and grow plump and tasty. Once harvested they are destined to be washed and boiled and arranged beautifully on plates in Galicia and around the world.
The perfect farming conditions
The Rías Baixas area is abundant with mussels, scallops and oysters. In the past, the area was also heavily populated with salting and canning factories that provided work for locals. Although many of these are long gone, people still flock here to grow, harvest, buy cook and sample the products of the sea.
Galicia is blessed with over 1000 km of coastline, an Atlantic climate and mild temperatures. The diet, livelihood and culture of the people living on the coast of northwest Spain are shaped by the ocean and have been since the time of explorers and pirates. But successful mussel production isn’t just about the salt. Nicknamed the region of a thousand rivers, Galicia is punctuated with bays and inlets called ‘rías’. These rías are fed by estuaries and the crew of our boat tell us it’s this happy collision of the fresh and salt water that makes the Galician seafood stand out from the rest.
In local restaurants all around the region, mussels, razor clams and oysters share the table with pulpo or octopus. While pulpo stuffed empanadas are the go-to snack, lunch is often the local favourite ‘pulpo a feira’ – or market style octopus. (also known as pulpo a gallega.) You can trace this simple dish back through history.
“The villages of Galicia traditionally had a market day once or twice a month. People from surrounding villages went for the day and sat at huge tables,” says our guide Sabella Vilariño. “There would be a big tent where they cooked octopus in seawater in big pots or petrol barrels. And that’s what makes it special. You can cook octopus at home and it’s never going to be the same as the pulpo in restaurants. ”
Percebes hunting ground
There is also a decent, if dangerous living to be made locally from collecting and selling percebes. Fishing for these sea creatures is said to be one of the world’s most precarious jobs. Galicia’s Coast of Death, (a reference to the number of shipwrecks,) is where percebeiros or barnacle fisherman risk their lives prising the creatures off slippery rocks on these wild bays, finding the spots where the waves crash hardest so that the percebos taste of the ocean.
“They always have to keep an eye on the waves behind them. The best barnacles grow on the most isolated rocks,” Sabella explains.
Touring the mussel farms
But while Percebes can fetch up to a hundred euros a kilo (especially around Christmas time,) it’s mussels that are harvested in huge numbers. Way more in Galicia than any other region in Spain. Mussel farming is often a family business; it’s estimated that up to 4000 rafts, made of eucalyptus wood, are held by over 2000 families in the region. The bay of Muros and Noia is the northernmost of the four Rias Baixas and there are over a hundred bateas in this small bay alone. Each rope when full with mature mussels weighs around 300 kilos and there are 500-800 ropes on every batea. That’s a lot of mussels!
Goodbye, it’s time to eat
As we leave the Lago family boat to head off to a local restaurant we toast their good fortune in this year’s harvest. Finding a mussel boat that will let you on for a close up look isn’t part of the Joaquin Vieta experience, but if you hire it (prices and details below along with some restaurant and food recommendations) you may be as lucky as we were.
Getting to Galicia
Galicia is in North West Spain. If you fly from a UK airport you can touch down in Santiago de Compostela, Vigo or La Coruña in around two hours. From there it’s a short drive to the coast.
Eating seafood in Galicia
Good restaurants are everywhere. That’s the Galician way. And from the tapas bars in Santiago to the cafes on the islands, there’s no end of great opportunities for eating seafood on every budget. While other countries serve it on expensive platters, here you can have it as tapas and raciones. If you want to treat yourself to Michelin starred food, then Galicia is a good place to do it as prices can be lower than elsewhere in Spain and Europe.
Fishing trips for visitors
Time on the Joaquin Vieta sloop with a crew is bookable by the the half day. Departing from O Freixo, it stops at the shipyards, old salting factories, and mussel hatcheries. If conditions are good, the crew can cast trolling lines and prepare the catches for you to eat. It’s not cheap; 100 euros per hr for 22 people and you must hire it for a minimum of four hours. But if you have several families in your group you might like to club together and invest.
If you don’t have the budget or the family members for that, you can take an hour long trip on the Costa Viva Cruceros. This tourist boat offers regular cruises along Muros e Noia estuary. You can see the farms through the boat’s glass bottom and taste typical products. You can book any of these experiences by visiting the Turismo Galicia website.
You can also go clam fishing for the day with clam fishermen. Ask at Cambados tourist information.
Where and what we ate
El Papatorio in Santiago: You can choose your fish and they will cook it for you on the BBQ in this tapas bar and grill on one of Santiago’s busy old town streets. Team it with the delicious Entrecôt, Padrón peppers (pementos de Padrón) or an Albariño wine.
Casa Acuna restaurant on Ons island is a popular harbourside restaurant with stunning pulpo empandas. The pulpo a feira (pulpo a la gallega) or boiled octopus is served on a traditional wooden circular board with olive oil and paprika. We ate it with a plate of mussels, and also clams in green sauce. The acoustics meant it got noisy at lunchtime with families but it was a fun experience.
At Yayo Daporta the Menu Degustacion (taster menu) gave us a dish called the sea bottom – a miniature undersea world. Before it, mussels were teamed with glacial looking sea noodles. And immediately after it came Cambados scallops, followed by steamed hake with mollusc jelly, wakame seaweed and natural clams.
At O Fragón in Fisterra we enjoyed the tasting menu for only €35 starting with this little can of cockles with onion.We also had red mullet and red scorpio fish served with new potatoes “This is a very ugly fish with a lot of bones. Very ugly but very good.“ said chef Fran Fernandez Insua. He was right.
Disclosure Note: I travelled to Galicia as part of a project between Captivate and the Spanish Tourist Board. As ever, all opinions, clambering on boats and overeating is entirely my own. This post has been added to the #MondayEscapes linky.