Pilgrims' Menus on the Camino de Santiago, Then and Now: Part 2

Paella valenciana (made with chicken, rather than seafood), Hontanas, Castilla y León

Having introduced readers of the Historical Cooking Project to the Camino de Santiago in my last post, I wanted to talk about my own experience as a pilgrim on the Camino Frances this past fall. One of the gifts of undertaking a challenge such as the Camino de Santiago is the ability to return to basics - away from computers and offices, bills and packed buses, all that remains is the road ahead, and the distance to be covered that day. As such, mealtimes become sacred pauses in a day spent largely outside. The ritual of a day on the trail quickly became important to me; I learned that having coffee and toast or pastry first thing in the morning was the best way to ensure a happy first few hours on the trail. Stopping for cafe con leche or fresh-squeezed zumo de naranja at ten or eleven AM for a "second breakfast", often with a ham or egg sandwich, helped me gauge how far I wanted to keep walking and was an opportunity to socialize with other pilgrims. After arriving at a place to stay the night, showering, and hanging my walking outfit up to dry beside the albergue, I often went looking for a snack - a beer and bag of olive oil-cooked potato chips being one of my favourite ways to signal to myself that my "work" for the day was done.

Desayuno espanol: cafe con leche, zumo de naranja natural, y tostadas con aceite y tomate 

Most albergues have lights-out at ten PM, when many urban Spaniards are just starting to think about going out for dinner. Instead of tapas-bar crawls, most pilgrims settle for menus de peregrino, served at six or seven PM. These fixed-price meals include a soup or salad, an (often fried) plate of meat or fish with potatoes, a simple dessert and wine or water. Vegetarians have a difficult time in this part of Spain; even salads come heaped with canned tuna, and pork is everywhere. I loved the sandwiches made of jamón Serrano and roasted peppers, but I soon got tired of one of the only dependable meat-free options, the tortilla de patatas. I ate more meat and eggs than I do at home, but with all the walking, I think I needed the protein!

The biggest surprise I had concerning meals on the Camino was how easy it was to find companions to share them with. On the route I walked, if I walked into a bar on or near the pilgrim trail, I could sit down with people I'd never talked to before just because you recognized them as pilgrims. This led to wonderful shared meals and friendships with a variety of other travelers, people I might continue to spend time with for the next week, or people I might never run into again. As I was walking my Camino alone, I had brought along a thick novel to pass time in the evenings. After five days on the trail, I mailed the book, which weighed more than one kilogram, away, having realized that I didn't need to fear being lonely with so many fellow pilgrims to share meals with. As I mentioned in my last post, the Camino's popularity comes from its status as a religious pilgrimage. I, however, did not undertake the journey for religious reasons. As such, I found communion not in the churches along the way, but in the bars and albergue kitchens, in the simple joy of sharing meals with others.

About to eat a meal we made together, Mansilla de las Mulas, Castilla y León

Walking the Camino taught me a good deal about acceptance. Living in a city with a vibrant food culture, and caring about food and where it comes from, means that each meal can become a search for the best - the best smoked meat, the best Thai food, the best donut, coffee, or macaroon available. When you're in a village with only two bars, however, one of which is closed on Sundays, the food you get there will be the best food available. The meat may be overcooked, the potatoes greasy, the flan plopped unceremoniously onto a plate from a plastic container. But you are assured of a full stomach, of good company, and, if you wish it, a bottomless wine glass. The camaraderie found at the tables of roadside bars in these rural areas more than makes up for the taste of yesterday's bread. Getting away from online review sites and plans was quite freeing - I never felt that I had "wasted" a meal by eating only average food.  This evolved throughout my journey as well; I remember being at the start of the trail and determined to find the best places to stay, the best representations of regional cuisine, and the most representative Camino experiences. I also found myself competing against other walkers, feeling resentful at my own walking pace. As I moved westward, becoming more confident in my own abilities, I was able to move away from this desire to compare myself to others, and happier with the food on offer. Letting go of the desire to not only be the best, but eat the best, was an essential part of my own journey.

A welcome alternative to cafe con leche, Foncebadón, Castilla y León

I think this separation from the idea of "the best" is important for all of us who are researching the food of the past. Working with old recipes, it's sometimes difficult to comprehend how our ancestors could have eaten such a limited diet. One of the biggest challenges for me is following recipes - whether for seventeenth-century spinach pie or for boring biryani - according to what is written in the recipe,  rather than the way I'd alter the dish to fit my own taste preferences. Food is, however, more than its taste - it is the sustenance we gain from it, the company we share it with, and the memories wrapped up in a dish. On the Camino, I may not always have eaten the best of what Spain has to offer, food-wise, but chorizo, caldo gallego, olive oil chips, and supermarket flan will remind me of this journey for the rest of my life.

My first night staying in Galicia, I was introduced to what has become one of my favourite desserts: an almond-orange cake called tarta de Santiago. While it's different from those I ate in Spain, I have settled on Claudia Roden's recipe from The Food of Spain as my favourite.  Roden suggests that this flourless cake, enjoyed in northern Spain for centuries, may have been a Passover cake for the area's medieval Jewish population. Today, these cakes are topped with powdered sugar, almost always with a stencil of the Cross of St. James on top. I was uncomfortable using this symbol of various Spanish conflicts, from the expulsion of Spain's Muslims to the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. I instead chose a snowflake cookie cutter as a stencil before bringing this cake to a holiday party. If you have people joining your table who avoid dairy or gluten, this cake will make them feel welcome.

Tarta de Santiago, adapted from Claudia Roden's The Food of Spain

1 3/4 cups ground blanched almonds, or 1 heaping cup ground blanched almonds and 1 cup slivered blanched almonds (for a crunchier result)

6 eggs, separated

1 1/4 cups sugar

Grated citrus zest - either from two oranges or one orange and one lemon

1/4 teaspoon almond extract or orange-flavoured liqueur

Powdered sugar

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a springform pan and line with parchment paper. Roden uses an 11-inch pan, but I used a 9-inch one, which results in a denser cake.

Beat the sugar and egg yolks together in a large bowl until a pale creamy batter has been formed. (I used electric beaters for this, as it makes the job considerably quicker). Add the almonds, zest and almond extract or liqueur and mix until all ingredients are combined. Set aside.

Clean the beaters, and in another large bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form.
Fold the egg whites in carefully to the almond mixture until all ingredients are just combined. Pour into the prepared pan immediately and bake for forty minutes, or until firm. Cool completely.

Just before serving, sift powdered sugar on top, using a stencil if you wish to add a particular design. This cake is delicious at the end of a Spanish meal, or *ahem* with a cafe con leche for breakfast.


  1. again, as with part 1, I enjoyed your insights, as well as the positive way you recount your experiences, refocusing on what really counts - eating :)


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