The Cantabrian Sea in Spain covers a huge area from the Basque Country bordering France, heading west through Cantabria, Asturias and finally Galicia, where it collides head on with the Atlantic Ocean at beautiful Estaca de Bares. In the English speaking world we loosely refer to this sea as the Bay of Biscay, an English rendering of the Basque word Bizkaia or Vizcaya in Spanish. The artesanal fishing fleets along this coast specialise in line-caught Hake, Bonito or Albacore Tuna and more famously, Anchoa or Anchovy. Long considered by Spaniards to be one of the great gourmet dishes in Spain, the anchovies are filleted and then preserved in three ways, en salazón (salt), ahumadas (smoked) or in extra virgin olive oil. They are only slightly salty, quite firm texture wise (the Spanish use the wonderful word terse), and index-finger sized, nothing at all like the tiny, wormlike, swig of a salt cellar things you find strewn on pizzas, at least in the UK. Product transformation or sobado is done entirely by hand, hence the rather elevated price, a 180gr can or jar will cost around 20 to 30€ or more. Now on to the good cause bit. A Cantabrian company by the name of Cantabria En Tu Boca (Cantabria In Your Mouth) has come up with a unique way of easing the burden on those suffering from the consequences of the economic crisis that has been blighting the country over the last few years. Their recruitment policy is centred exclusively on people over 50 who are currently out of work and have had their benefits curtailed. In addition, 100% of the company’s profits are channelled into the same cause. Right now this service is totally unique in Europe in that nobody is offering top quality, own-brand gourmet products to the public in such a charitable way. They also plan to start similar ventures abroad once they establish a decent online presence. So who knows? Solidarity via fabulous gourmet foods from Cantabria could be happening in your town pretty soon. Round of applause. You can learn more about them here: wwww.cantabriaentuboca.net
An epiphany moment, which, after nearly twenty years of gastronomic adventures in this gorgeous corner of Spain, is an achievement in itself. That special occasion calls for a mariscada como Dios manda, as the Galicians will tell you. So what does this actually mean? Something about God ordering seafood platters? Well, yes. A seafood platter fit for God himself? Well, yes. Ask a native Galician what constitutes a mariscada como dios manda and he will invariably reply ‘patitas’, i.e. little feet.
This in local seafood speak means crustaceans, and preferably local ones. That means we have to politely reject gambas (prawns) and langostinos (bigger prawns), as they’re not native to Galician waters. No, the only thing any self-respecting Galician seafood nut will order is centollo (spider crab), percebes (goose barnacle), camarónes (shrimp), nécora (velvet swimming crab) and cigalas (norwegian lobster/dublin bay prawns/nephrops-nephrops)and, if they’re available, the very rare and much prized santiaguiño known to all and sundry by their easy to remember scientific name Scyllarus Arctus.
With this in mind, and the special occasion being the visit of my dear nephew James, we headed to Restaurante Suso in La Coruña, tucked away in the same street (C/ Angel Rebolledo, Nº 50) as that other La Coruña institution O Bebedeiro. The place is small and pleasantly unassuming, a far cry from the starched table cloths, napkins and snooty waiters you get in some marisquerías or seafood restos.
As you head upstairs you get a tantalising glimpse of the precious ‘raw material’, piled onto pristine worktops, with bubbling cauldrons overseen by the charming cooks, all beaming smiles and warm greetings. We were shown to our reserved table and within minutes the order was taken, the bread basket plonked on the table and the wine served, a delicious Pazo de Señoráns Albariño Rias Baixas, the obvious and correct choice for such a feast.
About ten minutes later our platter arrived, all freshly cooked, no cold cabinet chill in this place. We started off with the goose barnacles, uniform in size and simply exquisite. After that we moved on to the spider crab, wisps of ‘marine moss’ still on his back, a sure sign that it was locally caught. The norwegian lobsters swiftly followed and finally the velvet swimming crabs and the shrimps, a riot of different though subtle flavours and deathly silence reigned as we chomped our way through legs, sucked gleefully on heads (yes, the Brits do do this) and weedled our way into legs and claws, stoically putting into practice the old Spanish refrain, Oveja que bala, bocado que pierde, i.e. the sheepeth that bleateth doesn’t get to eateth. Wise words.
We were far too stuffed for either café or pudding, and left the place very contentiños, as the Galicians say. Restaurante Suso is a must do it experience for all marisco buffs, i.e. those that are after the pure experience, i.e. without the unwarranted ‘distraction’ of molluscs, bivalves and other lesser creatures, which are perfectly acceptable as stand-alone dishes, though not as part of a ‘proper’ mariscada fit for the Gods and the more discerning mortal.
Photo: James Harrison
I read a very alarming statistic today. 60% of mussels prepared and canned in Galicia are imported from Chile. While I’ve nothing against Chile or the Chilean people, I have to say their mussels are crap compared to ‘Mytilus Galloprovincialis’, the Galician Mussel. Basically it’s ‘more economically viable’ to import Chilean product, add to that the ‘furry hand ‘of the dark forces who wish to limit protected status to live mussels only and the pressure from the acuaculture industry, looking to ‘muscle in’ (sic) on traditional mussel cultivation platforms, we effectively have a signed death warrant for the Galician Mussel, which, incidentally are far to superior to those miniscule things the French produce and adorn with unnecessary pollutants like garlic, white wine and cream, probably because they don’t actually taste of anthing. If you buy canned mussels, make sure you buy the ones featured on this website. Just click on ‘comercializadores’ and then ‘transformadores’ on the left and you will see the brands who have nailed their colours to the mast in support of our friend ‘mytilus galloprovincialis’. The website is in Galician, not Spanish, but that’s neither here nor there.
Viva el mejillón gallego!!
Considered by the world’s number one chef Ferrán Adriá to be the place in Europe, if not the world, to find the best seafood, this two week extravaganza in O Grove has to be seen and tasted to be believed. The event, held in the first fortnight of October, pulls in well over 200,000 people every year with attendance figures steadily on the rise. Mollusc and crustacean lovers will find themselves quite overwhelmed with the sheer variety of stuff being served up. The subtle flavours, textures and perhaps even aphrodisiacal qualities of mussels, clams, oysters, squid, cuttlefish, octopus, lobsters, langoustines, scallops, queen scallops, razor clams, goose-barnacles, velvet swimming crabs, sea urchins and spider crabs are a real challenge on the senses. Apart from all the action in the food pavilion, there are plenty of other activities, such as sculpture exhibitions, Galician and Portuguese folk dance and bagpipers and tambourine bashing girls in regional costumes. Info:www.turismogrove.com