Feast or Famine: Pilgrims Eat Their Way up the Via de la Plata.

Yesterday after leaving Salamanca we would have walked five easy miles along the Via de la Plata. We would have passed a series of miliarios and several areas where considerable digging is being done. This is a flat stretch of the Camino and you would have liked it.

We ended the last blog looking forward to a gourmet meal in Braganza. I have been thinking about how well Joanna feeds her tour guests. Both she and Bishop Carlos are so knowledgeable about everything related to Spanish food and wine. Tour participants are the lucky beneficiaries of their passion. For them, every meal is a feast and so it is for their guests also.

For the walking pilgrim, shopping for food and dining out can result in unexpected consequences and some good laughs. Without a Joanna or a Bishop Carlos, we are left to fend for ourselves when it comes to meals. Some pilgrims eat better than others.

Barbara and I have a system that works well for us. It’s not always “feast” but it is rarely “famine.” Feast or famine, it is always an adventure. From a food perspective, let me take you through our typical day and share a few stories with you.

For the walking pilgrim, breakfast frequently starts in a bar.

I figured that would get your attention.

On the Camino some alberges have a kitchen; others do not. Some hospitaleros provide breakfast; others do not. If there is breakfast, it is generally served at a set time. Getting a large group fed can be slow and frustrating. Even if the alberge does not serve brekfast, using the kitchen can be just as slow and chaotic. It’s easier to get up and get out as fast as possible.

Staying in a hotel is about the same. If breakfast is served it rarely begins until well after sunrise. If we wait for the dining room to open, we will have already missed a couple hours of good cool walking time. What to do if you need coffee and you want to get an early start?

A Swiss couple we met carried in their packs little packets of instant coffee. They made their own coffee each morning. We found their coffee packets in the supermercado so we too could make coffee. If we couldn’t heat water in the kitchen we’d have black coffee á la faucet.

Then Barbara found these heating coils and I found these collapsible silicon cups. We discovered that Starbucks, Folgers and Maxwell House all sold instant coffee packets. Our mornings improved dramatically.

Since it is impractical to carry milk, we drink only black coffee. It is bitter, especially Starbucks. A couple of cookies or a piece of chocolate sweetens things up considerably. It also establishes a very bad habit. I now believe every breakfast should start with cookies and/or chocolate. The luxury of having coffee when we wake up is heaven. Both the cups and the heater are available on line. Best part. Barbara brings me breakfast in bed so I am doubly spoiled.

Nota bene! Don’t take off the red label. Keep it and reread it before every trip if you want your heater to last. I speak from experience. It is a tragedy when you burn up the heater on day one of a thirty-day trip. Bring two and have a backup. They are worth their weight. (4oz)

Option number two. You can head for the bar. Usually we do both. The wakeup coffee in bed and then the real deal an hour later.

Most bars in Spain open early. Except for female pilgrims they are full of men drinking coffee, brandy, and smoking cigarettes and cigars. They have good coffee, freshly squeezed orange juice and excellent tortillas.

Often at the bar over our morning coffee we could get information about the day ahead. On one particular morning, this imformation was essential. The day’s walk went through a private game preserve. We needed to call “Mateo” the owner and ask him to unlock the gate to get into his property. I had tried numerous times the day before and although the phone rang no one answered. Was I doing something wrong?

Into the bar we went. Coffee in hand, tortilla eaten through the smoky haze, in my best Spanish I tell the bartender that I have been trying to call Mateo and he doesn’t answer. He laughs. I turn red. I say it again slower and more carefully. All of the men are now listening. I finish. They are all laughing. I am getting redder. I repeat my spiel again, adding the phone number. To make sure they understand I show them the number in the book. Now they are practically rolling around laughing. I am ready to crawl under the table or run out the door. Finally, they take pity on me. “Mateo esta muerto“. “Mateo is dead!” Unlike Mary Baker Eddy, there is no chance he will answer his phone.

But…… “no problema” the gate is always unlocked. It was . We walked right in and past his empty house. It was beautiful. Thank God for smoke-filled bars that open early and are full of men who “know stuff.”

Barbara does breakfast. I do lunch and dinner. I also carry all the food except the cookies and chocolate. (I can’t be trusted with them.) For breakfast on our own we have yogurt and bananas with our coffee, but neither of them works in the backpack. This means we must shop each day at the end of our walk. We restock, buy wine, and get enough food for dinner and the next day’s breakfast and lunch. For emergencies we carry packets of Justin’s Chocolate- two for each day. Sixty weigh just about four pounds.

We shop; and as tempting as it is to stock up, the weight adds up. Not too much: “Give us this day our daily bread”. Pears, tangerines, apples, kiwi and grapes are our go-to fruit. They pack and keep well. Tangerines are the best afternoon pick-me-up and we usually eat four-to-six each day.

Cheese is good too. Occasionally, when as Barbara says, “We need grease,” we get some chorizo. For vegetables, it is usually tomatoes, radishes and carrots. All of them ride securely in four little zip-lock boxes that fit nicely in the top of my backpack. Bread does not keep well nor is it easy to carry. We try to find a bread van or bakery along the way. If not, we go without.

From time to time we have a couple slices of pizza left over from a night out, but as good this tastes it is messy to carry. Bottom line: We eat simply but well and get to know all of the local cheeses.

When it is time for lunch we find a place with a good view, sit down, and open the boxes. Very rarely, we will eat at a restaurant.

Sometimes the view is better than the lunch.

After lunch it is siesta time unless it is raining. Walking in the rain is not unpleasant; eating in the rain is no fun. The second you stop walking, you are freezing. Lunch in the rain is quick and quiet.

On some of the more popular Camino routes pop-up food stands and food trucks have begun to appear. These are much appreciated and the food is generally fresh and delicious.

Today your walk would have begun and ended in two tiny villages. These small villages tend to have elderly populations. As you would have discovered, there are few if any restaurants or bars. Opportunities for food and water are limited. Most of the residents do not speak English. When the weather is fair the women sit outside and knit. They have their opinions about pilgrims.

Barbara and I walked into this village at the end of a long day. It was hot and I was wearing shorts. We both carried our backpacks. As we walked by, one of the women gave a huge sniff and said, “YUH. ALEMANIAS”. “Ugh. Germans!” Later we returned to the same women to ask if there was a grocery store. I asked in my best Spanish, “Aye supermercado?” “Is there a grocery?” One woman said to another “Just say anything, they won’t understand.” When I laughed, she quickly told me where the shop was.

On the way back from the grocery, we stopped in the church. The very elderly priest kissed our hands and said he had never met Americans before. He gave us a blessing and a stamp for our passports. It was lovely.

Another questionable habit that we picked up walking is having a beer and potato chips at the end of every day. We started this after I read in a book on sports nutrition that the most important thing to do at the end of a hard workout or race was to replenish minerals and nutriants in the body. Beer and chips rated near the top when it came to resupplying the body and preventing leg cramps. Laugh if you want but it works. Fatal if you do this at lunch, but just right at the end of twenty miles.

When Camino villages have resturants they usually have what is called the Menu del Dia– the menu of the day or the pilgrims’ menu. Generally it offers three courses-soup or salad, chips with meat, fish or spaghetti, dessert- flan, ice cream or fruit, bread, water and wine for about 10-14 euros. It was filling.

As the cook, I usually “made dinner”. Look familiar? For “dinner” I would add arugula, a bottle of wine and maybe smoked salmon, fresh mozzarella, a can of olives and fresh strawberries for a treat. Barbara didn’t complain. We ate the same thing night after night and it was delicious. Once I bought a tiny bottle of olive oil but we decided it wasn’t worth the weight to carry it with us. Another time Barbara made a huge batch of candied ginger which we ate for days. On another trip I stole a big hunk of ginger cake someone had made for Fr John Andrew while he was staying at our house convalescing. When I fessed up later, he said he suspected I had nicked it. On our next trip he duly called the cake maker to bring him another cake. John sent us off with a huge slap. Now that was worth the weight. Like I said we ate well.

If there was no grocery, sometimes a grocery van would arrive with an assortment of fruit, vegetables, and other fresh food. Other times the freezer man came with a supply of frozen foods. When he came, we usually ate dessert first and hoped that the microwave in the alberge would be good for something other than trying to dry our wet clothes. Times for these trucks were usually posted in the alberges but they were pretty hit or miss.

From time to time we did go out for dinner. One time got us into lots of trouble. I contend it was not our fault. Well it was but here’s what happened. Most menus are in Spanish. Some are in Spanish and English. The translations are entertaining. See below.

It is not very hard to figure out that “old cow” means aged beef but what do you think pig prey to Cocacola reduction tastes like It might make you laugh.

What would YOU do if you were handed a menu that had been carefully translated into English just for you and you read that you could eat this for dinner.

Green Jews

Green Jews with Garlic

Green Jews with Bacon

When this happened to us we were stumped. We knew that judias meant Jews and verdes meant green but what were these Green Jews that we were supposed to eat ? My dictionary was no help.

We ordered Green Jews with Garlic and out they came. Here they are. We laughed until we cried and were afraid we would be thrown out. To this day, I have not been able to find why string beans are called Judias verdes in Spain.

So we had our adventures in fine dining and we almost always ate well.

Two times we landed on the “famine” side of the of the equation.

Once we arrived in the town to discover the only bar/shop/ restaurant was permanently closed. Scrounging around in the pack produced two cans of sardines, a hunk of stale bread, two squishy bananas, two packages of cheap cookies, no wine, and a plum we had to spilt. Not my finest dinner.

Our second “mean cuisine” dinner consisted of three Justin rations each and a bottle of wine which we split. We ate this shivering under the covers wearing every stitch of clothes we carried including hats and mittens, because our room in the old stone house had no heat. Breakfast served the next morning in the adjoining room was plentiful and there was plenty of heat.

The food was as bad as the photo.

Most of our meals came down on the feast side. Even when I was the cook, the wine and cheese were good.

Let me finish with two places among many in my Camino memory where the food was outstanding.

The first is Bar Estrella in Pontevedra on the Portuguese Route. The young owner Michele Cingolani and his chef mother team up to produce incredible food. We had a two-day rest stop in Pontevedra and discovered his place by accident. Charged by our fellow walkers with finding a place for dinner, we returned with them that same night, and again for lunch the next day, and again for a second dinner before we left town. Need I say more?

Two years ago, Barbara and I stayed in a little inn beside a gas station in the Picos de Europa. We were checking out wild orchids and obscure Camino routes. The inn, another mother-and-son operation, had its own restaurant and offered a three course menu del dia for 14 euros- the usual price.

What a gem. Why it doesn’t have a Michelin star I don’t know. The young owner offered three courses of the freshest and most creatively prepared and served food I have ever eaten. The menu changed every night. We ate there three times. Everything was amazing. Here are my favorites.

A fresh head of lettuce served with scissors and salad dressing on the side into which to dip the leaves, a scallops ceviche and a pot de creme served in a clay flower pot. All dinners came with wine, homemade bread, homemade butter, and sparking water for the same price as those chips and meat you saw earlier.

And so while Joanna may know everyone in the food and wine world and take us to meet them and Bishop Carlos may cook us incredible meals and teach us about quemada, we walking pigrims do OK. We eat well. Very well – how else can you explain walking 15-20 miles a day and losing only a pound or two? It was not feast or famine. It was not an either/or proposition. The occasional skimpy meal only made the good ones more memorable. It was feast with a little famine thrown in now and then to keep us grateful. As my father used to tell me, If every day were sunny, life would be a desert.

When I’m dead, you can write on my grave: She ate well and enjoyed every bite.

Hasta mañana. I know we’re doing something somewhere, and I promise to tell you all about it in the next blog. For now. Too much feast!

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