Many Faces (and Preparations) of Pulpo!
We survived walking 450 miles of the Camino de Santiago de Compostella in northern Spain! Then (yes, woe is me) we followed that up with two weeks of “recuperating” in Paris. I might still be a little confused about whether I should order a café con leche or a café crème, but I am excited about sharing some foodie experiences and new discoveries from our time abroad.
Let me start with food that is little-appreciated in the United States. Sure, grilled octopus has become more mainstream in areas with good Greek restaurants (like Chicago), but octopus on the whole is not something that even a lot of our foodie friends gravitate towards. Fried calamari—yes. Octopus—not really.
During the last segment of our Camino walk, we were travelling through Galicia region where they specialized in pulpo—yes, that is octopus. Restaurants proudly displayed their largest and perhaps rubberiest looking octopus in their front windows, enticing most eaters. Americans, we noticed, were more repelled by them though, fascinated by their outlandishness rather than their gastronomic attractiveness.
Antonio, a character from Wings, a long-ago sitcom, once said, “Revenge, like octopus, is a dish best served cold.” I disagree. Hot octopus is our favorite. Grilled is definitely our preferred mode, and octopus is served that way—excellently, I might add—in some Chicago restaurants. Taxim (on Milwaukee Ave.) comes to mind as having one of the better preparations.
In Spain too, apparently grilled octopus is becoming quite popular. But, on the whole, many locals sniff disapprovingly at this new-fangled preparation. The preferred and traditional mode—as we had it at Melide (the town that is most famous for its pulpo)—is . . . boiled. I know. Boiled sounds kind of boring. But they do make an interesting show of it. At one of the more popular institutions for pulpo, someone stands at an open window next to a pot of boiling octopus. Then he takes one out and—with amazing swiftness—cuts tentacles into thick rounds (think ½ inch thick quarters), drizzles a prodigious quantity of olive oil over the pulpo, and sprinkles sea salt and paprika over them. Then repeat. We were indeed enticed and did go in to enjoy pulpo á la Gallega.
If you cannot eat the larger pieces, you can have tiny little baby octopus called chipriones. The ones (back of the picture below) we had in Molinasaeca, along with some fried sardines (pictured in front) were a lovely change of pace from the traditional menu del dia of fried pork cutlets with fried potatoes. (More on menu del dias on the Camino in a later post.)
Our favorite pulpo dish, hands down, was pulpo á la Plancha con patate. After we completed the long walk to Santiago, we took a rental car to Fisterre (from finis-terra), the last Spanish point before the Atlantic. On our drive to the coast, we stopped at a little and unassuming restaurant that our Santiago hotel recommended. We ordered the octopus á la plancha and got giddily excited when we were treated to some sizzling sounds from the kitchen. We were not wrong to anticipate that we might have an excellent meal. The heady mixture of soft but chewy, salty and crispy, briny and earthy (from the accompanying potatoes). Is it any wonder that the picture would headline this post?