As we continue our endeavors to add a Spanish flare to all holidays, we set our sights on St. Patricks day; the day when all the world is Irish. Or should we say Gallego? As it turns out, Ireland isn’t the only “Land o’ Green” to proclaim Celtic heritage. The Celtic tribes that eventually settled the Emerald Isle first visited the farthest Northwestern portion of Spain: Galicia. It’s in this vibrantly verdant region that a lesser-known Spain is to be found.
On a cloudy Summer afternoon, my small plane descended through dense fog to A Coruña, the once Celtic capital of Galicia. Having lived in a small town in Andalucia & visited Barcelona, Northern Spain seemed an obvious next step. As we banked toward the still-hidden runway, the clouds parted to reveal a sight more akin to the British Isles; intense green fields dotted with sheep, cows & pigs, small circular stone cottages & misty jagged cliffs descending to the sea. This was not a Spain I had ever experienced.
Everything about Galicia & the Gallegos who live there was a direct contrast to the Spain I had known except, of course, the Spanish sense of hospitality. White-washed arabesque houses were replaced by stone buildings & the ever-present strum of a guitar was exchanged by the quivering pitch of a bag pipe. Gaiteiros, Galician bagpipers, are an emblem of the region, as is the numerous redheaded & green eyed inhabitants. Even the language, Gallego, is tinged with Celtic roots, though luckily for me, Castilian was the normal dialect.
Like the rest of Spain, the culture carried accents of other Spanish regions, but here everything seemed to be a little less touched by change than in other parts. Galicia has always maintained a somewhat distant relationship with the rest of Spain. This was one of the only areas never to be conquered by the Moorish invasion in the 7th
Century. Using the land as an ally, Gallegos repelled the invading army using high mountain passes & falling boulders. Maybe that’s why their descendants proudly tag their nationality at the end of their regional dishes like Caldo Gallego or Pulpo Gallego. On one particular evening, I wandered into a Marisqueria (a restaurant that specializes in local seafood) and ordered the specialty, a Mariscada Gallega; a plate so overflowing with oceanic creatures that you could almost open an aquarium. “Un medio, por favor.” I said, since eating an entire platter of shellfish seemed a daunting task for me alone. Of course, what arrived was anything but medio. Luckily, help wasn’t too far away. A moment later a chipper older woman & her daughter sat down beside me & I asked if I wanted some help with my crustacean –laden table. Gallegos are always willing to help those in need, so it would seem.
Along with their world-class seafood, the Celtic roots of Galicia can also claim ownership to the introduction of Jamón. Celtic tribes were swine herders who, according to some historians, domesticated the local wild boar, now known as the Pato Negro. Though most Jamón is now produced outside Galicia, it was in the Catholic North where pigs found a home during Moorish times. Tetilla cheese is also a specialty of Galicia enjoyed all over Spain. Maybe it’s the creamy fruity flavor that makes it so popular, or perhaps it’s that its name translates to “nipple”. I concluded that it’s probably a little bit of both.
Of course the most exciting bounty of Galicia for me was the wines. The most internationally recognized wine from Galicia is Albariño, specifically from Rias Baixas. The cool, moist oceanic air flows up the finger-like fjords through pergola-trained vineyards, maintaining an electrifying acidity in the grapes. Another white grape growing in popularity is Godello. Rescued from the edge of extinction in the 1970’s, Godello has reemerged as an extremely complex wine, both single varietal & as part of blends with other lesser known white grapes. Its Chardonnay-like attributes make it an ideal varietal for oak-aged or steel tank fermented wine styles. Even lesser known are the red wines of Galicia, with Mencia leading the pack in popularity. Recently, though, many new high-end bottlings have emerged made from esoteric varietals like Caiño
Tinto, Espadeiro & Bastardo. Cult winemakers like Raul Perez have started a revolution, of sorts, that aims to make Galicia Spain’s answer to Burgundy. From what we’ve tasted recently, the truth of that bold endeavor seems to be very much a reality.