Food wonders

Percebes - goose barnacles

Percebes – goose barnacles

We’re in mollusc heaven or mollusc hell, depending on your perspective. Mussels, clams, razor clams, cockles, and others we have yet to identify, are all on the menu here in Galicia. Our Irish/English sensibilities are still coming to terms with the sheer profusion of rubbery be-shelled creatures so beloved by Galicians and, while we’ve embraced some (in a purely culinary sense), there are others for which we lack the courage to take even a single bite.

To the north of Fisterre it was percebes (goose barnacles). Corme even had a statue in honour of the critters in the town square, and in the museum at Muros we were delighted by the percebes-inspired surreal paintings and sculptures of a local artist. Collecting percebes is dangerous, as they live in hazardous locations where waves lash against craggy shores. Fishermen tie themselves to rocks to avoid being washed into the sea by the waves, and these days they wear wetsuits for some scanty protection.

We arrived in San Julian de Illa de Arousa in time for the Fiesta de Navajas – the razor clam festival. We were thrilled to discover that this town is so enamored of the razor clam that it has its very own festival, complete with Spongebob Squarepants fairground rides, and more razor clams to eat than frankly I care to think about!

Ria de Arousa is Spain’s mussel capital. Let me share some statistics that made my eyes pop: The Galician Rias produce 95% of all mussels grown in Spain, and Spain itself produces 60% of the world’s mussels! There are 3,500 licensed bateas – mussel rafts – in the Rias, half of which are in Ria de Arousa. Beneath each raft hang 20-metre ropes on which the mussels grow. The more mathematically minded Julian assured me that this works out at 28.something percent of the world’s mussels are probably produced in the Ria de Arousa alone.

Fleet of mussel boats in San Julian

Fleet of mussel boats in San Julian

We’ve met many a yachtsman who has bemoaned the presence of these bateas, taking up their precious tacking space. I like them. They seem to be the least invasive or environmentally damaging form of aquaculture that I’ve come across, and the towns in the region seem to be prospering, despite Spain’s recent economic hardships. Horray for the lowly mussel.

In every tourist office in every town we are presented with a local mussel recipe booklet, containing some bizarre combinations from people trying too hard to make the most of mussels. Garlic, white wine and a crusty loaf of bread is all I need to dress up my mejillones. We’ve gathered enough from the rocks for a few dinners, but it’ll be a while before I try them a la pineapple!

Besides the ubiquitous mussels, there are 1,143 other shellfish farms in the Rias, mostly growing clams (I’ve been doing my homework). Julian and the girls have taken to joining the locals here in Cabo Cruz, where we are currently anchored, in digging for clams at each low water. Last night I added them to a paella; I’ve yet to decide what to do this evening.

Old cans at the cannery in San Julian

Old cans at the cannery in San Julian

From churches when we first arrived in Galicia, our cultural explorations now revolve around old canneries. There is a profusion of them along this coast, turned into museums celebrating each town’s canning history!! Who woulda thunk it? Those canned mussels, clams, cockles, not to mention sardines and other fishy wonders have found their way to all corners to the planet.

The cannery museum at San Julian

The cannery museum at San Julian

I wouldn’t choose molluscs for my last meal, and likely not my second last meal either. But I’m thoroughly enjoying the high esteem in which they are held here in Galicia. They are impossible to avoid, and given that they have inspired art and poetry and celebration, we at least can give them their due respect and eat a few. One of these days I’ll build up the courage to try a razor clam!

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