|Where Eels Go to Dry|
It’s great for expats like me to have Spanish friends. Nobody knows how to have fun like a Spaniard. No one can pack more fun into a single day.
But when a Spanish friend invites you on an "excursion," be sure to pack sandwiches. Take your vitamins. Leave a forwarding address.
Pepe Formoso, for example, invited me for “A Day Out” next time I was in Santiago de Compostela. Pepe is an extrovert. He lives in Muxia, on the Atlantic coast of Spain. He keeps a hostel there for pilgrims, and he’s active in FICS, the Camino activist group that I’m also part of.
He’s a little firecracker of a man, the kind of guy who goes everywhere and knows everybody. So I said Yes. And so he planned us a Day Out.
A little background: In mid-July I walked a five-day camino with my friend George, an academic, an expert on medieval pilgrimage. He has fascinating friends at the University in Santiago de Compostela. I’ve done “Days Out” with this gang before, up and down the coast to hidden holy places and mom-and-pop vineyards and haunted churches and hoedowns – always very sociological and historical and culinary. It’s like living in a travel magazine, without the glossy blonde people. It’s a great workout for my Spanish language skills, at least for the first few hours.
Anyway, Pepe invited us out to Muxia for the day, for eels. George and I drove there with Miguel Tain, an art history professor, and Miguel's daughter, a silent, beautiful 13-year-old deep in the throes of adolescence.
By car, Muxia is 40 minutes away from Santiago de Compostela, but Miguel got lost. We drove along the coast road instead, with both historians pointing out places where Vikings once raided and shellfish grew on frames sunk deep in the bays. I felt privileged to have such fine tour guides, but two hours is a very long time to spend in a little car on a winding road.
Miguel's phone beeped: The wind was too high, the sea too rough. We couldn’t take Pepe’s boat up the estuary to the eel grounds, alas!
We finally rolled up, just a little woozy, to the famous fishing village. Pepe descended, swept us up to tour Bela Muxia, his spectacular pilgrim hostel. We were shown the couple who run the place, the ladies who do the cleaning, the graphic design etched into the glass, the foot-bath fountain, the penthouse with a sweeping view of the beach. We talked about how pilgrim accommodations have changed over the years, remarked how far a pilgrim’s got to walk to find this Shangri-La at the very end of the line.
|Postcard image of Muxia|
Muxia (pronounced Moo-SHE-ah) presents itself to the world as violent Atlantic waves crashing against a noble chapel, a remote Galician village now overrun with post-pilgrimage backpackers, a beautiful final scene in Martin Sheen’s camino movie “The Way.” Pepe took us up to the iconic church and crashing waves and rocks. We took photos, discussed contemporary sculpture, and the big oil spill of 2002 that almost killed this coast.
But about the eels? I asked.
I saved that up for you! Pepe said. He took us down behind the town, on the safe side of the rocks, beyond the restaurants, bars, and little hotels, right up against the calm side of the sea. There stands a big frame of wooden beams. The poles stand upright in holes carved out of the rocks, shimmed upward with bits of wood and stone. Crossbeams are lashed tight at the angles. There’s a shed alongside, and signs warning passers-by to keep away – this is a working rig, not a jungle gym. It’s a “secadora artisanal de congrios.” An eel-drying rack.
This town used to be all fishing, all the time, with a bit of seasonal shellfish and octopus action. Settled in among them was a big family that diversified a bit. Juan Diaz Martinez is 87, the last of his line. He opened up his garage/eel-processing house to show us around.
He’s sharp as a tack, but he moves slowly now, he said. Can’t climb up on those frames like he did, what? Five years ago?
Lots of people talked at the same time, so I missed some salient points. Everyone showed off the little tomahawk used to split the eels’ skulls, right here on this tree-stump; the long board with the peg in the end, where you hook the eel through the gills and slice it open longwise; the narrow, spotless, white-tiled sinks that line the walls, where the split fish are bathed in salty water and laid in long white nets. Juan produced newspaper clippings and photos… we arrived out of season, see. This is a Spring thing. Should’ve come in April, for the party!
These eels are not tiny fingerlings like you see on the Basque coast. These are Conger eels, great heavy tubular fish that swim up from the south Atlantic to spawn in the “rias,” the freshwater fjords of Galicia.
Juan’s last big year saw him and his boys take 12,000 kilos of fresh eels – whether from local boats or brought in from France is not clear – and cut and split and lay them in their knitted cots, and haul them up and sling them on the racks in the bright sea air to dry. It takes 21 days to properly dry an eel, he said. At the end of the process, he packaged 3,000 kilos of Artisanal Dried Eel, and sent it to the only place in Spain where anybody eats the stuff.
It went to Catalayud, in the landlocked plains of Zaragoza.
Catalayud used to make great ropes, Juan said. Way back in the day, when Gallego ship-builders and chandlers wanted the best ropes and nets, they’d haul what they had overland to Catalayud to make a trade. Fresh fish was not an option, but the dried eels traveled well. The Zaragozans grew to love them. And so an industry was born, and a cuisine.
It seemed only right we should dine on eels, and by then it was 3 p.m.: lunch time! We went round to the waterfront, to Casa do Peixe, a classy little family-run place that serves eel, and whatever else the guys brought in on the boat today. That day there were percebes. Pepe rejoiced. Goose barnacles!
“Not for me, thanks,” I told him. “I had them before, didn’t care for them.” (I had them before, and they were awful.)
“In Santiago, right?” he asked. “Never eat percebes in Santiago! God knows where they get them, probably shipped in from Korea! Weeks old. Pure poison!”
“You might as well eat the eraser off the end of a pencil,” the waitress said. “Our percebes were fresh this morning. I know. I picked these off the rocks myself.”
“No way!” George enthused. (George is like a little boy sometimes, where food is concerned.) “What a valiant woman!”
And yes, the percebes were divine, served steaming in a little brown enamel pot. Huge and ugly as rhino toes, but almost oyster-like in their fresh oceanic sweetness. There was wonderfully silky octopus, too, but I was saving room in my stomach for the star turn.
|Roast Conger Eel|
The eels arrived, two great platters of them, cut like steaks: fresh eel grilled with red peppers, and dried eels soaked back to life like salt cod, then slow-roasted with new potatoes. We feasted, sopping up the pan juices with dark bread, washing it all down with light white wine from Ribeiro. (“Rias Baixas is trendy bullshit wine for tourists. When Gallegos drink white wine, they drink Ribeiro!”)
Two more friends arrived in time for dessert, but George and I were whispering, wishing… maybe Pepe would rent us bunks in the albergue for an hour or two?
“Get up, you guiris! Let’s go to the picnic!” Pepe said, crushing all hopes of a nap. “All the Socialists are having a fish-fry at the river, and I have to at least show my face!”
We were captives. We climbed back into Pepe’s big van and went hill-and-dale down to the river, where a vast crowd of jolly locals had already (thank God!) polished off a half-ton of grilled sardines and were just settling into pitchers of coffee and home-brew liquor. We sat on lawn chairs, shook hands with the pink-faced Red party bosses. I showed my Communications Workers of America union card, and was roundly cheered by my fellow travelers.
From there we went to a beautiful beach where herons fed in the lengthening shadows. We had to see an old river-crossing, where pilgrims had to pick their way over granite blocks sunk in the stream,
until about eight years ago. Photos were snapped, hair-raising
stories were told of near-misses and half-drowned pilgrims. We climbed back
up the trail behind the others, George muttering something about a "Death March." We hadn’t touched the liquor, but we staggered anyway.
|old pilgrim "bridge"|
Back at Muxia at last, Miguel poured us into his little car. We drove straight to Santiago this time, with the sun falling down to the right, to the west. Miguel talked of his research, his two years in Berlin, engravings of Santiago cathedral he found in a French archive. George politely tapped the back of my seat when I began to nod. We passed a 16th century palace on the edge of the city. “You must see that, Rebekah,” Miguel said.
“No! Not now, please!” came voices from the back seat. “Next time!”
We said goodbye to Miguel and walked back to George’s flat in the gloaming, through the crowded streets of the old city. We heard no noise, we acknowledged no greetings, we ate no dinner. I went to my room and packed my bag for the journey home in the morning. George, I think, was showering when I last was aware.
The sun went down over the holy city, and my long journey was finished. I slipped into a divine sleep full of good cheer, Spanish verbs, and eels, eels, eels.