No one told me what a continuous picnic the Camino de Santiago would be. I walked the first four stages of the 34-stage, 800-kilometre Camino Francés in October. The route starts in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, just over the French side of the Pyrenees, and continues to the west coast of Spain.
Not the best undertaking for an avowedly un-outdoorsy person. But the pleasant surprise is that you tend to walk for few hours, work up a terrific appetite and you stop for lunch in a small town where the food is great and the beer is flowing, and then in the evening, it’s €9 for a hot meal and a bottle of red wine – yes, a whole one to yourself. Only in Spain.
You can cook your own food in the pilgrims’ hostels (refugios) every evening. But that likely means carrying stuff with you – ingredients, maybe a few utensils. But when walking for over 20 clicks in a day, some of it leg-breakingly rough terrain or brutally vertiginous ascents, every gram in a rucksack is critical. I brought a feather-light, techy titanium spork with me. I never used it.
That’s because I completely lost my cooking mojo – all I wanted to do when I arrived in the next town each evening is sit down at the nearest pub, take my boots off, and not move for several hours, eat everything in sight, and drink two pints of beer, or an undisclosed amount of wine. And that is what I did.
You’re eating in Basque country
Walking from St Jean to Puente La Reina, I was within the Basque country the entire time, and everything gastronomically great this suggests. If I could sum up the walk in three ingredients, it would be: jamón, almonds and wine.
The second two came into play on day one, where the steely willed can ascend 1,200m over 25km in one day. But I stayed the night halfway up the mountain at Orisson – not much more than an inn on a hillside, but one well stocked with coffee, pastries, wine, beer, (yes I had all of those that day, I had to pass the time didn’t I?) and where the evening meal was a rib-sticking cassoulet-type stew, with roasted pork on the side, washed down with that whole bottle of wine and accompanied by Basque cake – a lovely light crumbly tart of ground almonds with a custard filling.
There are no shops between there and the next evening’s stop, so pilgrims are advised to order a boccadillo and carry it with them for lunch the next day. Cheese and chorizo for me, in a baguette. So far, so very French-Spanish.
I ate it at 1,400m above sea level, having passed fantastical scenes filled with wild horses, rainbows and clouds at my feet instead of the sky. I didn’t notice when I crossed the border. I sat in a huge tussock of grass wondering if I’d ever be able to get up again, my enjoyment of the sandwich emotionally competing with paranoia over tendonitis.
That evening I ate a special discounted meal for pilgrims. More cooked bits of pork, and another bottle of wine. After the disappointing dessert of a green banana (fussy pilgrim) and in a little monastic town with no shops, I went to see what the pilgrims’ vending machines would offer up in the way of coffee and something sweet. The machines are almost an ironic in-joke of the Camino, dispensing anything from Compeed to ready meals, to cakes, to well, artisanal chocolate.
I had an illicit (no food in the dormitories! Lights out at 10pm!) hot drink and a gnaw on a block of very nice dark chocolate with honey.
And wine’s not just for dinner, my Spanish companions had it over breakfast the next morning. I stuck to a cafe con leche with the ubiquitous bread – whether it’s with jam and butter, ham, tortilla, or as my Valencian friend had it, with olive oil, it relentlessly heralds the beginning, middle and end of the day.
A sausage for the road
Zubiri was a gastronomic high point. The small Navarran town had two bars, and one of them was usefully combined with an artisanal butcher. I promptly installed myself there for the next 12 hours for lunch, dinner, and then breakfast. After a dusty, painful, rock-strewn day, the afternoon and evening passed as a blur of beer, fried eggs, txistorra – unforgettably tasty Basque sausage, super-tart local cider and morcilla.
In the morning, the butcher, Valentin, sent us off with a fuet sausage for the road. The road to Pamplona. On this and other days there was food to see on the way of course. Some of it was not for the taking – lovingly tended vegetable patches in villages, filled with tomatoes and brassicas at this time of the year. I walked past farmers loading a paddock’s worth of freshly harvested potatoes onto a truck. I idly picked blackberries, or moras, on the way, but they often had a bitter aftertaste.
Towards Pamplona and beyond, the landscape gradually shifted from the leafy forests and valleys of this part of the Basque country to straw-coloured rolling hills with groves of olives, almonds and rows of asparagus plants. I sucked the sweet juice out of wild fennel stalks and nicked a pomegranate through a fence.
But back to Pamplona, the small but perfectly formed capital of Navarre, and stuffed full of gift shops selling the finest olive oil, Navarran wine of course, sausages and hams and chocolate. There was a horse butcher too. Why did I shudder at this when I’d been eating pork for the past few days? At least I could knock horse meat having tried it – years ago in Mongolia. It had been unpleasant, with a pungent, almost chemical smell.
On a Saturday night at 9pm, Pamplona’s old narrow streets pulsed with chatting, drinking, nibbling locals and visitors like me on pintxo crawls. A stream of cold bottles of tempranillo, padrón peppers, the most delicate of fried calamari and wafer thin slices of jamón ibérico, punctuated by the occasional papier-mâché giant dancing through the street or a group of people in regional dress.
The existence of a churrería on a side street was brought to my attention. There’s no way I would be able to stop thinking about the idea of churros and chocolate for breakfast until I had it. So when I did, it was a little anticlimactic, which I think churros tend to be. Don’t get me wrong, my cream-filled churro was delicious and fresh, but there was an unravelling simplicity about it as I ate it, as if something was missing. Maybe it was just that I needed another.
That’s the problem, after walking 100km it would have been a nice bonus to lose some weight – but all the gourmandising and drinking cancelled it out. Some pilgrimage.
More Camino eats in a year’s time. And I’ll leave my spork at home.