Pulpo a Feira is one of Spain’s best-loved tapas dishes – a very simple plate of tender octopus slices served with chunks of potato, salt, smoked paprika and olive oil.
It hails from Galicia, Spain’s verdant north-western corner that is quite unlike the familiar image of the country.
Summer in Galicia is interspersed with Atlantic breezes and showers – keeping the temperatures in check and the coast and sky in hazy blue-greys.
Galicians believe that they are of Celtic descent. Fair skin, bagpipes and ancient Celtic designs are all evidenced in support of this theory.
When people come to this part of Spain on holiday – many to avoid the heat of Spanish cities in high summer – grazing on the country’s best seafood is an important pastime.
We start at 11am. Inma, a Galician resident in Madrid, and her husband Esteban, have spotted a menu featuring a crustacean that’s almost impossible to find in the rest of the country. Notoriously ugly, like goosenecks with bent fingernails, they are called pescebes and grow on treacherous rocky outcrops. Experienced divers are thrown against the jagged rocks as they attempt to cut the shellfish off with a knife. A ‘raciones’ plate of these and a round of beers kick off our day of Costa de Morte (Coast of Death) sightseeing and seafood grazing.
Raciones are the next step up, size-wise, from tapas – they’re more of a meal-size plate, but like tapas they’re designed for sharing. It’s definitely social, and it’s a pretty light commitment of time and money – meaning if you see something else you like later, you can stop and try that too.
For our 2pm stop we had the Pulpo a Feira. Found at every bar and restaurant in this region, Pulpo a Feira used to be made by beating the (dead) octopus with a rock to tenderise it. Today freezing does the same job – much less curiously.
The octopus is boiled in a large copper pan for nearly an hour and then the tentacles are cut with scissors and laid out (sometimes with potatoes, sometimes not) on a wooden plate before being seasoned.
So different in texture to deep-fried calamari rings, this octopus is soft and malleable.
The background to the dish is that octopus was one of the few seafoods that were brought to market towns away from the coast. When visitors came to these towns for the cattle fairs, this is what they ate, so it became known as ‘octopus of the fair’.
The paprika – popular in Spain since the early contact with South America – may have initially been as useful for its preserving qualities as its seasoning.
The operation was organised by a pulpeiro, a specialist octopus seller (or handler?)
Galicia is one of those regions where good and bad fortunes depend on the sea. The treacherous Costa de Morte has experienced countless shipwrecks and deaths by drowning over the centuries. Even as recently as 2002 the major shipwreck of the Prestige oil tanker caused a huge environmental disaster and devastated the local fishing industry for a number of years.
But today seafood is definitely back. Our final stop is a seafood festival. These can be found along the coast throughout the summer, providing the laidback atmosphere (Galician bagpipes notwithstanding) and the excellent local Albarino wine to accompany and celebrate the produce of the sea.
Where to buy ingredients for Pulpo a Feira in Auckland:
Whole (frozen) octopus is available at Seamart in Mt Albert (955 New North Road). It is $13.99 a kilo (in January, 2012), and typically the octopus would be a couple of kilos. Smoked paprika is available at most supermarkets or at Sabato, the Spanish food specialist (57 Normanby Road, Mount Eden).
Where to buy Albarino wine in Auckland:
Crisp but aromatic albarino wine is an important accompaniment to Galician seafood, and has a growing popularity in Europe. Glengarry has the Galician Pazos de Lusco Zios Albarino on special for $18.90 at time of writing. A couple of New Zealand wineries have also begun growing albarino, and in 2011 Cooper’s Creek released Australasia’s first albarino wine with grapes grown in Gisborne.