We’ve been in Vigo, the largest fishing port in Europe, berthed at the yacht club (Real Club Nautico de Vigo) to get our liferaft serviced by Viking Safety, who have a branch in the city. Vigo brings back good memories for us as the first mainland port we reached after crossing the Atlantic from the Caribbean in 2011.

Poached Cigalas, green asparagus, confit leek, kumato, lettuce

Both of us remember a small bar, La Mina, in the old town that served mussels as the only tapa. The place was small, traditional, and definitely not spoiled. So, after tying up Otra Vida, we walked a short distance into the old town and quickly came across it. At least, at first, I thought it was the place, until I saw a menu in the window with pictures and some English descriptions. Oh no … surely it can’t be … surely it hasn’t gone tourist …

Well, we poked our head into the bar, and it didn’t look touristy. Older people were playing cards at the tables. The décor matched the customers. There was a short handwritten menu on a board all in Spanish. Prices seemed local. We were the only foreigners there. Sigh of relief. So we sat at the bar and chatted with the proprietor and his wife. No mussels left – they had run out earlier in the day, as lunchtime had been busy. Ordered some food and local red wine, simple and intense with plenty of oak. Ah, that’s better, life is good again.

The food arrived. Meaty, highly flavoured chorizo al vinto tinto, slices of jamon iberico bellota, crusty springy bread, oreja de cerdo (coarsely chopped pigs ears, not to my taste, but Maret loved them as the flavour reminded her of sult, an Estonian winter dish). And the incongruous chorizo al infierno – I assumed with a hot spicy sauce, but actually the chorizo came on a skewer over a dish of burning alcohol. The quality of everything was excellent.

Yes, this was as every bit as good as three years earlier.

Percebes (goose barnacles) cooked in sea water. 

So, needing to do laundry, we asked about a local lavanderia. The proprietor and a customer gave us directions to one nearby. We finished our drinks and walked outside. The customer was now smoking a cigarette, and started to chat with us again, this time in limited English. He was a friend of the proprietor, and told us the story of the sign in the window. The proprietor was upset by the high prices of the tourist restaurants near the port, and decided he wanted to offer a better experience for visitors to his city. He expanded his range of food from just mussels to about ten items, and priced them at a very fair level. However, he noticed that when foreigners visited his bar they didn’t know what to order, so ordered cheese, and were uncomfortable about what price they would pay for what they were getting. So his friend offered to make an oil painting showing the items, descriptions of them in Spanish and English, and clear prices. That is the painting hanging in the window.

Now, I could brush off my old management consulting hat here, and describe how this is a classic case of brand extension, using price elasticity to optimise the yield curve, factoring in the variable cost of raw materials, volume discounts vs. expected shelf life, seasonal demand variations, and so on. But I think I would be profoundly wrong if I did so.

What makes some areas of Spain so special for me still is the form of individualism that this bar owner represents. His bar is not merely a commercial enterprise; rather it is a statement about who he is. It is the same concept as cocina del autor, the revolution in food that started in Spain in the 90s, where talented chefs created a very personal interpretation of local foods, adding twists from their experiences gained elsewhere. This was food that had something to say, food that was individualistic, food that gave something beyond mere nutrition. It was, most resolutely, not food designed to maximize profit. (Indeed, the poster-child restaurant of this era, El Bulli, was always reasonably priced for its level, and even after superstardom never made a profit from its restaurant operations – activities outside the restaurant subsidised it. Why? Ferran Adria, the now famous chef, and Juli Soler, his front of house partner, simply didn’t believe in extracting what they felt was excessive money from their customers).

Dusk at anchor, Islas Cies

And this little bar in Vigo somehow belongs to the same movement of individual expression as El Bulli. I would wager that neither did market research to find the most popular items, and certainly neither was going to start offering fried chicken with barbeque sauce or ham-and-pineapple pizza to pander to visitors.

The bar owner here decided he wanted to offer an experience – to share his love of Vigo, of local wine, of simple foods – and did this with heart and passion. Of course he wanted to make a living, but he was doing that anyway. This development was not driven by profit, but by the desire to express something, to give something.

I see it as an expression of authenticity, honesty, quality. Again one could become intellectual about this and drop in quotes from Heidegger, Sartre, Pirsig or any number of others. I fear this would again be missing the point. It’s about a way of living, of sharing pleasures, of expressing oneself, of trying to enhance quality of life. And that is enough.

I find it interesting that Galicia is often considered to be one of the “backward” areas of Spain in terms of economic development related to tourism. Certainly the small towns we anchored at prior to arriving in Vigo still had fishing as a mainstay of their local economy rather than tourism. Cedeira, Carino, Malpica, Corme. Lovely, every last one of them.

Chantrelles from our Sunday morning hike in the forested hills above Cedeira

Are the economies of these towns doing OK? Well, there were a few shuttered shops, but in general these towns seemed to be getting along just fine, and people seemed happy and cheery – none of the depression and despair that one comes across in some places.

It’s also particularly noticeable that traditional generosity has not been destroyed by profit maximization in difficult economic times.

We finally found the elusive cordero lechal (suckling lamb) at a carniceria in Malpica. The proprietor, sitting calmly watching a movie when we walked in, asked about us, and then told us his story while serving us – he claimed to be 73, looked in his 50s, and put it all down to lots of sport and exercise. As we were leaving the shop he called us back in to show us a few items of pottery on display made by his wife. Assuming he was trying to sell it, I pointed out we lived on a boat and pottery wasn’t very practical … at which point he picked up a small metal shoe and gave it to us … a gift from him to us.

And tapas still come with your drink, a gift, a little extra, an amuse bouche. In some places as simple as a thick slice of chorizo on bread or a chunk of delicious lightly fried fish, sometimes a little more, like a small plate of bean stew.

Finisterre, literally the end of the known world in Roman times, was our last anchorage before Vigo. Sadly it has plenty of something that we found missing in the other places we visited. No doubt Finisterre does a good job at extracting euros from the visitors, some of whom walk from Santiago de Compostela as an extension of the Camino route. But the soul of the town seems to have “developed” along with the economy. It’s an altogether more gloomy and unsatisfying place, pandering to the perceived (or perhaps real) wishes of visitors. There are still a few fishing boats. I imagine they are much photographed.

Yes, Galicia deserves its reputation as being “backward” in tourism. We liked that. The something that is missing in the parts of Galicia we saw before Finisterre is perhaps best described as “tourist crap”. I sincerely hope the Gallegos continue to choose to get along without it.

It will be quite some years before we’re in this area again, but we’ll be back. Oh, it’s so very good to be in Spain again.

Calamari with Potatoes
1.     Clean the calamari.
2.     Finely chop garlic, parsley (lots) and fresh red chili.  Infuse in warm olive oil for at least 30m.
3.     Peel and dice potatoes, cook in salted water.
4.     Heat up the garlic/parsley/chili/oil, and quickly fry the calamari.  Be very careful not to overcook the calamari.
5.     Mix the calamari and oil with the potatoes. 
6.     Season with salt and black pepper.  It is a bit of an art to get the salt right … you want the sauce and calamari to be just a little too salty without the potato.  The potato will then balance out the saltiness.

Saffron risotto with navajas (razor clams)

1.     Sweat finely chopped shallot, finely chopped leek and 1 bay leaf in butter.  
2.     Add short grain rice.
3.     Add 1 fish stock cube, saffron, white wine, white pepper, tarragon.
4.     Cook, adding more water as required, and stirring often.  Add some salt, but less than the point of tasting it.
5.     While the rice is cooking, rinse the navajas and pan fry in a little vegetable oil until the shells open.  Do not cook them through.  Chop into 1cm pieces.  Pour any released juices into the risotto.
6.     Finish the risotto with a little mascarpone or cream, and finely chopped parsley leaves.
7.     Add the navajas as the risotto is resting … they will cook through.   Add a little MSG and adjust salt to taste.

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