Pulpo Gallego, also known as Polbo a Feira, in all its soft, succulent, salty, Spanish Olive-oily goodness, served in a crowded, dimly lit restaurant late on a rainy Saturday night in Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain.
It's octopus, grilled and tossed in olive oil, paprika and salt and served on a wooden serving dish. It is tender, juicy and salty, tasting of the sea and Spain and legend and romance. With each bite the Celts fire up their bagpipes, Cristopher Columbus crosses the ocean and Pablo Picasso paints Guernica. For me, the dish captures all of Spain (or at least the portion of Spain I have known) in one large, charred, flavor-packed plate.
We had arrived in Santiago from Madrid at about 8:30 PM. By the time we had checked in to our hotel, freshened up and started walking through the refreshingly cool streets to the restaurant, it was almost 11 PM. - a.k.a time for dinner.
Marcos y Miriam took care of ordering, of course, but we spent several minutes planning what to have. Caldo Gallego - the traditional Galician Soup, razor clams, a plate of sliced sausage and lomo, bread, wine and, of course, pulpo.
Marcos conveyed all of this to the waiter, in Galician, which sounds like a mix between Spanish and Portuguese. At the end of his instruction, the waiter paused and then, in a voice that conveyed concern even to those of us who did not speak the language, began to tell Marcos something of import, and in a very convincing way. Marcos concurred, or at least acquiesced, with a bit of a chuckle, stating as the waiter left,
We pressed for details. "You know, we ordered all of that food" he said, with a grin, "and at the end the waiter tells me, 'I don't think that is enough. You will be hungry, you should order a steak,' so, we are getting a steak as well."
He went on to explain, "He is not trying to boost sales, he doesn't give a shit about that, it is just very Galician to feed someone. More is never too much. This won't be the last time we have to deal with this, you will see."
He was not wrong. But after the Caldo Gallego (pictured above) and the razor clams and the charcuterie and the pulpo, a steak really was to be too much. We caught the waiter in time and cancelled the steak. Enough was enough.
This pattern repeated itself as we traveled throughout Galicia. We went to a spot known as "The end of the world" due to its distinction as the western-most spot of continental Europe, for a lunch of fresh fish. It was early so we got to walk through the kitchen and look at the fish on the grill...
...everything was fresh and simple and lovely and huge. See the platter below. Much more fish than four people should eat. But eat it we did, and I can feel the sweet, juicy flesh on my lips and tongue as I write this. Just the right amount of too much, perfectly cooked, perfectly fresh fish to last in my memory for the rest of my life.
We were in the region for three days, and I never, ever, even a little bit, felt hungry. The best place for eating, though, was the home of Marcos' parents, in the countryside outside of Ferrol.
In a beautiful house on beautiful grounds, all of which had been painstakingly developed and improved over 35 years by Marcos' father, we ate a couple of meals that will live on in the history book of Big Matty's Best.
The first was dinner, the evening after a long drive along the coast from Santiago to Ferrol. We were tired and, frankly, not feeling hungry after such a long, winding drive. But once the food started getting laid out, our appetites returned.
We had veal, a dish reminiscent of Ossso Buco, but Spanish and homestyle, deeply flavorful and tender. We had Tortilla Espanola, and salad. And we had steak - because, why not, we were in Galicia, right? I pictured Marcos' mother, shaking her head like our waiter the night before, deciding we needed steak because of course there was not enough food already.
It was a moment, sitting in this lovely old home, surrounded by a kind and generous family I had met only once before, who didn't know me from Adam, really, but who were treating my wife and me to a fantastic family dinner. I could have stayed at that table for the rest of my life.
Fortunately, there were leftovers, and we did the whole thing again for lunch the next day. And yes, we had steak then, too.