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Posts from the ‘food’ Category

Pilgrim breakfast in the Parador

P1050151The croissants were scrummy but Breakfast In The Parador wasn’t as grand an experience as you might imagine.

The splendid state hotel which now stands on one side of Santiago’s beautiful Cathedral Square was originally built in 1499 as a Hospital for pilgrims who travelled from all corners of Europe to pay homage to St James at the neighbouring Cathedral.

When they reached the end of their long journeys dirty, hungry and exhausted they were given food, drink, a bed for three days and – if they needed it – medical help. That tradition endured over the centuries but in the 1950s the hospital was converted to the swanky hotel that now attracts a prestigious clientele and fosters an air of indulgence and superiority.

Yet the custom of helping pilgrims who arrive in the city has been honoured in a token way by giving the frst 10 peregrinos who turn up each day P1050143a free breakfast, lunch or dinner. The rule is that you line up with your compostella as proof of your pilgrimage  (but minus your backpack) at the stable door  and wait to be led inside and manoeuvred swiftly through the smart quarters to a staff door which leads up a flight of stairs to the kitchens.

We stood in a humble line beside stacks of plates and trays of semi-prepared food as waiters whisked past balancing trays and  contemptuous sneers. I can’t imagine a British hotel kitchen allowing half a dozen random people to hang around near uncovered food, but it was a fascinating insight into continental hygiene standards.

It was also an insight into how it must feel to be on the receiving end of charity. We could all have afforded to go into the old town to buy our breakfasts at a cafe but chose to experience the medieval tradition as part of our camino. Maybe the staff are overworked or just tired of people turning up in their kitchens three times a day, but sadly the token “charity” wasn’t P1050152dispensed with speed, grace or even a smile.

Yet nothing was lost. The pastries and coffee were good and, as always on the camino, it was the multilingual conversation between strangers that was the memorable part of the half hour we spent in the Pilgrim’s Dining Room at the top of the back stairs of Santiago’s posh Parador.


Hitting the road with a mic


The cattle corpse was still warm, but skinless, when it whacked the back of my head. I quickly moved before the next swinging carcase emerged from the horror around the corner.

Ten minutes later the door of a chill room clunked shut and I shivered in the company of 120 rapidly cooling animals and a man in a white coat.

They’re not the opening sentences of my new novel; just a recent day in the life of a rural broadcaster.

I’ll spare you pictorial evidence of my outing to the abattoir. It wasn’t my first one, and certainly not the goriest. That was in Brazil where our cameraman got lost in the “slaughter room” and reappeared a few minutes later dripping blood from head to foot. At least it wasn’t his own.

But the last few weeks haven’t all been about meat plants. There have been gentler commissions which saw me strolling through colourful wildflower meadows, interviewing a farmer about harvesting the seeds of 200 different flowers and grasses. I learned that the random wildflowers we see on roadside verges and roundabouts aren’t there by chance after all; they’re grown commercially then packed and sown in specific variety mixes. On another day I crawled around a harvest field getting sounds of a combine, and on Monday I’m meeting the animals dubbed the “cutest sheep in the world”.

We “media people” lead such terribly glamorous lives.

Home is … chocolate cake in the tin

It’s been two years since I baked a chocolate cake. And two years since my younger son left to travel around New Zealand.

But I’ve just finished decorating the cake I baked this morning because … he’s on his way back! Both my boys are coming home today – and what is home without a chocolate cake in the tin?

My mother baked every day when we were growing up. Like many Scottish families at the time we ate “High Tea” rather than dinner. Lunch was the main meal of the day and when we ate at 5.30pm, straight after the afternoon milking,  it was a savoury dish followed by a cup of tea and a selection of Mum’s scones, pancakes, “angel” cakes with sponge wings, sultana cake, and sometimes shortbread or Victoria sponge.

Occasionally there would be rich Sacher Torte or her pièce de resistance, an apricot tray bake which was in such demand at local  charity “Bring and Buy” sales, a black market formed amongst the local clientele and  it was auctioned and hidden before it ever reached the sale table! I have her (classified) shortbread and pastry recipes but I’ll never match her skill or lightness of touch.

I look back now and wonder a) how none of us became obese and b) how she found the time to bake on top of managing a large family and helping run a farm. The answer to a) is probably that we all did physical work on the farm and portions were small by today’s standards. And as for b),  I realise now that, in part at least, baking was her creative outlet. Mum never ate the cakes or sweet things herself and we took the home baked food for granted;  anything “shop bought” was regarded as inferior. Her delicious food was always devoured. But I wish we’d praised her more.

I’m living in a rented house at the moment with all my favourite dishes and utensils packed away in storage, so I’ve had to borrow the tins and the beaters today, and make do with strange bowls and tools. That’s my excuse for the cake not looking perfect.

But really, I doubt the boys will notice.

Celebrating in Santiago

P1000625We sat down to tapas and wine at a sunny street café, just whiling away a couple of hours, watching the Santiago world saunter by. What a luxury!

Robbie and I ate calamari, gambas in garlic, olives and pimientos de patron, washed down with vino blanco and cervesa then wandered slowly along to the Pilgrim Office to join the queue for our Compostellas. It stretched all the way up the stairs and there, just arrived, were some of the best pals we had walked with over the previous weeks! We had a great reunion and as they went in search of beds we duly visited the relics of St James and wandered the streets of this hard-to-navigate old city.

P1000633We all gathered in the evening; Nathan and Carmen, Irish John, Donald, Suzanne, Brian, Elaine, Patricia and so many others at a huge happy table. A few us went on for a drink in a late bar then, under a full moon in the cathedral square, we gathered for photos beside the central shell embedded in the stone cobbles which marked the end of the Camino.

Robbie caught a flight early in the morning then I went back to the Cathedral while it was still almost empty, such a contrast to the day before. I sat quietly in a pew near the front, just reading, resting and absorbing the atmosphere for more than two hours, barely noticing the gathering crowds or that I was gradually being squeezed into a corner of the seat.


The rest of the day was spent meeting up with pals in the streets, sitting down to share wine and tapas and then drinking mojitos till late with friends including Andreas, Lisette and Bibi.

John and Patricia were on the same flight as me to Stanstead where we hugged and said goodbye.

And it was only then that I realised my Camino was finally over.

I had my pilgrim passport full of stamps, a slimmer, stronger body, a journal and brain stuffed full of memories, experiences, email addresses and phone numbers.

Besides, I wasn’t really travelling alone: as my itchy back testified, I still had the company of the bed bugs.

Mussels, figs, painkillers … and poetry in the street


We didn’t often stop for a proper lunch but today, after 25 hot and not entirely pain-free kilometers, we threw off our packs and sat down at a street table in Cacabelos and ordered tapas: juicy mussels, potato croquettes, bread, water (with painkiller) and wine. Mmmmm.  The waitress brought us a complementary bag of ripe figs from the garden too and those we ate at the table were delicious. The others didn’t travel too well.

The food slowed us down so it felt like a hard slog through the endless vineyards P1000533where workers were harvesting grapes, past a sculpture workshop and its strange colourful work outside and finally into Villafranca where we searched in vain for the “albergue with nice gardens”. Turned out it had been burned down and the gardens abandoned to weeds.

The last albergue on the outskirts of town was “completo” but Libia, the young co-owner served us tea and biscuits while she called around local guest houses and hotels. Everything was full, apart from the  “boutique” hotel, Las Doñas back down by the bridge.

So… the choice was between heaving P1000550on our packs and limping on to the next town 12m away or succumbing to white sheets, a bathroom with toiletries, clean fluffy towels and an all singing-dancing shower. Tough decision.

I met an old man in the street later that evening who was anxious to point out a plaque on a house marking the birthplace of the Spanish “famoso” poet, Enrique Gil y Carrasco. We conversed for some time (despite my limited Spanish) about P1000454national poets, I heard about the pride he felt about this native son and he listened to a wee bit of Robbie Burns right there in the fading light of the pilgrim way. We parted with great affection and hand shaking.

It’s moments like these that make the camino unforgettable.

Water and wine in equal measure

ImageNo evening passed without a cervesa or two and at least the regulation half bottle of vino tinto. It was more than I’d drink at home but after a long day on the road it felt about the right dose.

And, just as alcohol was essential in the evening, we drank water by the litre through the day, regularly filling up at the well marked fuentes.

Only once did I join some local workmen in a coffee liqueur with their early morning café con leche. They convinced me it would give me more strength “mas fuerte” for the day so I slugged back “El elfilador” and needed more stops today than I’d ever needed before!

The biggest mistake we made was underestimating how much water we’d need for the long hot slog over the mesata from Calzadilla to Reliegos. It was just over 18km from Calzadilla but we had already walked 13km from Sahagún and the sun was high in the sky when we set out. The heat was vicious and there was no shade either so I changed into long sleeves. And the blister on my little toe was starting to make itself felt.

Image 2Our water bottles were dry before we had even reached half way so the next 10km were really hard going and on arriving in Reliegos we were desperate for fluids. We walked straight to the bar and when the barmaid saw our red sweaty faces she immediately filled huge glasses with ice, water and refrescos. So that’s what dehydration and heat exhaustion feels like. It was a silly mistake to make.

Image 1But what a great evening we had with Patrick and Andreas, two men we teamed up with at the albergue. The food in the bar was delicious, the company first class and the wine? Oh, that helped with the hydration too.

Slipping away silently

P1000332On occasional mornings, if we were planning an extra long day, we left at 5am so, in order not to disturb everyone else with sounds of rustling, zipping and clipping, we packed our bags the night before so we could slip out silently with only a sleeping bag to stow away. Boots were always left at the door so all we had to do was lace up, load up and head out into the darkness.

P1000388On the cold starry morning we left everyone still asleep on their mats in Grañón the moon was so bright we needed no torches – except occasionally to hunt the yellow way-marking arrows. We walked under Orion’s Belt, below the same canopy of constellations that guided countless generations of pilgrims, the north star twinkling high above endless wheat fields.

But while the heavens and the scenery nurtured the soul it didn’t do much for the stomach – and nowhere was open for breakfast that morning until we’d walked almost 16km. The sun was high in the sky by the time we reached the outskirts of Belorado and – finally – a café con leche grande and the biggest chunks of madeira cake in the shop.


I was persuaded to carry on to Villafranca another 12km away and while it was a long hot slog with lots of stops to fill water bottles, we were rewarded with a great albergue at San Antón Abad round the back of the town’s very smart hotel. It had been restored from an ancient pilgrim hostel once known as the Queen’s Hospice and the owner was proud to tell us about its history, pointing out the Royal Coat of Arms as he showed us the dorm where we’d be sleeping.

It was Adrianna’s Name Day, a great excuse for early cervesas with so many friends – Brian and Elaine, Bill, Tomas, Trudi and Scott from Tasmania.

Peace and humility in Grañón

P1000387We never knew when we set out in the morning where we’d be sleeping that night and albergues varied enormously in terms of the facilities and comfort they offered. Some had washing machines, some had kitchens, others provided a meal on the premises, some even had separate loos for men and women! The prices ranged from 6-10 euros so you didn’t complain and readily accepted whatever was available. “The Camino provides” was the philosophy.

Grañón stands out though. It was basic, not just because you slept on the floor, but washing facilities were P1000384limited and cramped. And I’ll never forget hanging my laundry alongside rags on crowded lines up in the ancient bell tower, avoiding the piles of guano and the barely guarded drop to the ground far below. But it had an atmosphere that was unique and steeped in history.

We prepared the food communally – dozens of people along a table chopping vegetables and preparing apples for baking with cinnamon – then went to the mass downstairs. The lady sitting beside me led the singing with a strong beautiful voice then pilgrims were invited to go forward for a blessing.

The meal was cooked in big ovens at the village bakery and we all went and watched in the street as those who could sing performed for our supper, with the villagers and tiny children all watching the daily spectacle. We shared the delicious food, the washing-up was made light by many hands, and I fell exhausted into my sleeping bag on the floor.

P1000390There was no fixed charge here, just an honesty box for a donation if you could afford it. And if you couldn’t, there was an invitation to take what you needed from the money left by others.

In the few minutes before sleep came that night I felt this was the closest I had come to finding the original spirit of the P1000397pilgrimage. There was a history, a simplicity and humility to this place that couldn’t be captured in the modern albergues we enjoyed elsewhere. I was resting my head on the same floor as thousands of others over the ages: I was becoming a pilgrim.

Vino, vaseline and an occasional pastry


These were the essentials for a carefree camino.

By the time we reached Nájera we’d covered around 90 miles and the daily pounding in the heat was starting to show on our feet. Many pilgrims were really suffering with horrendous blisters and while my own feet were holding out pretty well in their well-worn boots, I’d started to copy some companions who were plastering their toes with Vaseline every morning.  You can never take too many precautions when reaching your destination every day depends entirely on your feet!


So I remember Nájera less for its illustrious history as the one-time capital of the Navarre Kingdom and more for stocking up with a huge tub of vaseline at a farmacia, buying coffee and chocolate and, oh joy of joys, officially the most delicious apple pastry I have ever eaten – anywhere! I munched it as we crossed the bridge over the río Nájerilla, making for Azofra 6km away through the vineyards of Rioja grapes.

The unlabelled vino at our communal dinner in the albergue garden that night (cooked by Ramon and shared with Norwegians Trudi and Tomas, Bill from New Mexico, Suzanne, Donald and other friends) cost only 2 euros a bottle. And when our stocks ran out we walked back barefoot to the

P1000324village shop for more of their local brew and met an old man on the return journey who was thrilled that we were drinking (and clearly enjoying) his co-operative’s produce. I remember repeating “Esta muy bien” a lot and his laughing face as he waved his stick and wished us a Buen Camino.

We cooled our feet in the garden fountain after the bottles were empty and slept in the most comfortable albergue so far. Two to a room. An open window. Peace.

Taking the road less travelled

We often found ourselves on early morning detours following the “undiscovered” camino. In other words we couldn’t find the yellow arrows or scallop shells and were lost in the dark.

So it was that we got another tour of Torres before heading across the fields and woods to Logroño and a barefoot lunch in a bar in the financial district of this University City. Many pilgrims were taking a day’s rest but, fortified by ice-lollies, we headed on along the main road, over the río Ebro for another 12.5km to the town of Navarette.

We had numerous stops for melted Toblerone or oranges  so by the time we arrived, hot

P1000220and exhausted, the Municipal albergue only had attic rooms left. I lounged in the square drinking cervesas and laughing with Swedish Helen, Chris, Pedro and Nina and others then spent the night in a discounted single room in a B&B. Oh, the luxury! A bed, my own bathroom with as much hot water as I wanted, fluffy towels and no call for earplugs. The candles and pot pourri on the table were totally superfluous!

It was blissful. But I missed the cameraderie of my new pals.