Saturday, September 14, 2013

Food: 7 Things You Need To Know

Hola my dear fellow travelers! 

After completing a little more than 28k today I found myself thinking about this space that we share. 

<Let me note here that after today's trek, we have completed 402.1km or.....HALF of the Camino!>

I also realized that I've probably strayed a little too far from some of the things I think we really need to be talking about here. Like: the food. 

Before I forget, let me make a quick list of upcoming topics:

1. The Food: The good, the bad, and the different

2. Screaming American: 'hola', 'comprende' and knowing your geographic relationship to New York. 

3. A Day In The Life: actual documentation and taking your requests for content. Want pictures of the average 'supermercado' and albergue? What you need to know about the rush hour commute on the Camino, and so much more. 

4. The Farmacia: A Pilgrims Home Away From Home 

5. Jill's Favorite Camino Travel Items, Why You Need Them (and what you don't need-- no seriously, leave this crap at home, you can thank me later). Y. 

...and that's just a taste of some of the topics we'll cover. Additionally, if you've got questions, I've got answers so please  feel free to post them in the comments. 

So, the food...

It goes without saying that sampling the cuisine of a foreign land is a significant part of the travel experience, and Espana and the Camino are no exception. But let me hit some of the highlights for you. 

1. Spanish in no way resembles Mexican even if you see tacos or tortillas on the menu. I can't remember what actually arrived when I ordered a taco but it wasn't the folded corn thing with meat, cheese and lettuce inside. And as for the tortilla, this is the traditional breakfast omelette- not the chips for dipping in your favorite salsa or queso. Tortilla is basically a little bit of onion and potato sautéed in a pan (adding meat is optional) and then whisked eggs poured over the top and cooked in the skillet until solid all the way through. The whole thing is then inverted onto a plate and sold by the slice. Hardy, nutritious and delicious. 

2. Chips are the international name for French fries, and they are served with damned near EVERYTHING. They also go by the name 'fritos' like our snack item and though they're good, you'll have seen more French fries by the time you've finished the Camino than the kid working 40hrs/wk at McDonalds. There's a reason that guy is always skinny...

3. The Spaniards love a little starch with their starch. You may have potatoes in your morning tortilla and French fries with your pork at dinner, but that won't stop them from hustling bread at you like it's a contest to see who can get you to consume more carbs. If you order a croissant for breakfast at the cafe, they'll gladly oblige you and then give you a basket with 2 pieces of bread, in addition to your pastry. It is in a word: insane. 

4. They'll know you're American if...

It's important to note that the bread itself, when provided in slices, is usually designed to be more of a shoveling/sopping tool than a solo appetizer or compliment to your meal. So if you want to spread a little delicious butter on that bread you had better learn to ask for it. 

Having been raised in the Deep South I know that everything is better with butter. And doing my duty for dairy farmers everywhere I happily embrace my God-given obligation to find and apply it to whatever food stuff I can as frequently as possible. Naturally then, I learned quickly how to ask for it: Tienes mantequilla? (Do you have butter?)

After 17 days on the Camino this phrase rolls easily off my tongue and I think nothing of the requests for clarification-- my Spanish clearly rocky . So at dinner last night the request unfolded much the way it has before. And a few minutes later the waiter produced 2 small plastic containers of the delicious dairy product. As he handed them over he said something in Spanish which I did not understand and the Spanish women sitting with me began to laugh. 

Turns out that as he gave them to me he said 'I wasn't going to ask where you're from, but now I know!"  Evidently my Spanish rendition of the phrase isn't bad at all, it's just that butter is something only used at breakfast and amongst all the nationalities constantly dining in this country, it is only the Americans who ask for butter on bread! What can I say? We know how to make carbs even more caloric. 

5. Bocadillos. (Translation: sandwiches) we've covered a lot of ground on bread but its also important to note the average size of a baguette here. A bocadillo is usually half a baguette. Now, that conjures different images for different people so let me try to use a universal measurement: the Subway footlong. A Spanish baguette is approximately 2x the  size. They are wider, taller, and a touch longer. A bocadillo is half a baguette with something on it. And when I say something, I mean some-thing, as in one.  thing. Your options are usually to throw some tortilla in between the slices, or a couple of pieces of cheese, or a couple of pieces of ham ('jamon') more comparable to 2 slices of very thin prosciutto than what Americans will think of as lunch meat or Honeybaked Ham carvings. And that's generally it. Ask for 2 of those things together and you'll be thought a lush. And you can forget about condiments. No lettuce or tomatoes for your sandwich, much less mayo or mustard, so prepare for a diet very simplified from your current one. After a day or 2 I adjusted just fine but when I'm in a decent sized town, I might just produce this: 

A veritable feast of white bread, turkey ('Pavo'), mayo and lettuce. And while the mayo is obviously a non-starter for packing tomorrow, I feasted on 2 sandwiches for dinner and packed another for lunch tomorrow. It was practically Thanksgiving in September, right here in Spain. 

I bought all of these fixins, an orange, a can of Pepsi, 1L of flat water, 1.5L of bubbly water ('agua con gas'), 6 granola bars, and a chocolate wafer bar of some kind of €9.20 at the grocery store ('supermarcado'). It's important to note that they're all called supermarcados and some are more super than others, and all of them make your local Publix, Kroger, Stop and Shop or Hy-Vee look like the Fort Knox of food. 

That said, when you can find one with an actual selection- instead of the average which is more on par with your local gas stations "food selection"- you're better off stocking up and planning for picnic meals. 

6. Tapas- invariably some combination of the above available in small quantities generally during siesta when a sit-down meal is not available. They're on the counter for you to choose from. 

7. Finally, there is the menu peregrino (pilgrims menu). Designed to be all-inclusive it usually runs about €10-12 and includes bread, wine, water, a protein of some kind and 1 other item (mixed salad, vegetable, etc). With few exceptions once you've had a few of them, you've had them all. 

The one caveat I would provide is this: if your albergue has a communal meal- take it. The quality of the food will vary but more importantly so will the company. 

One of the most rewarding experiences of the Camino is breaking all of that bread with new people and I would argue that the real spirit of the Camino can always be found around the communal table...But you'll have to ask for the butter. 


  1. Thanks for all the great tips. I am curious as to how you wake up without disturbing others. Do you have your phone alarm vibrate? I haven't seen anybody mention how they know when to wake up.

  2. When you stop at a tienda, ask them to make your bocadillo "con tomato" and they'll add it.