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The Markets of Northwestern Spain

Enjoy a Time-Honored Slow Food Tradition

Medicinal herbs at the Ribadesella market. Photo © Beebe Bahrami.

Throughout northwestern Spain a time-honored Slow Food tradition continues, not because of politics and perseverance but because it is still a vital and central part of people’s everyday rhythms: weekly and daily purchases of locally grown and produced foods. Slow Food is so much the conventional reality in this part of Europe that to call it such is a redundancy of everyday life.

Since 1986 I have been going to Spain, both to live as well as to visit as often as possible. From its post-Franco rush to try everything new to its current economic growth and subsequent changes, Spaniards still consider eating well and spending their money on good, locally grown and produced food a god given right. More money is spent on food than any other budget item in the average Spanish household. This love for food is seen in the constant going out to tapas bars, in the daily food shopping at the covered markets throughout a city, and in the throngs that inhabit the weekly outdoor markets in most towns and villages. This love for good food is one of the reasons I keep going back. The other is how Spaniards enjoy themselves—their food and their friends. It is one of the most jovial societies in which I have had the privilege of living.

Though I started my explorations of Spain in the south, in recent years I have been spending time in the north, especially the northwest provinces of Asturias and Galicia, and northern reaches of Castilla y León. The north is a green, rugged, and narrow strip that brings imposing mountains close to the Atlantic coast. There one finds several microclimates and biological zones in near proximity, offering an incredibly diverse local diet.

The northwest is green, Atlantic, seafaring, has bagpipes and connects with its Celtic past. It still holds to its agrarian and fishing lifestyle with other industries in the mix, including a growing tourist infrastructure. Everyday fare is locally grown and produced. A neighbor’s cider hut is the more likely place a villager buys his special golden elixir. Artisanal cheese is the standard cheese, purchased at the weekly market or at the many small food shops sprinkled throughout Asturian and Galician towns. What many visitors may not realize is that the lovingly purchased, with mouth-watering, souvenirs they buy is what people are eating and drinking every day.

What I like to do in the northwest is rent a village house or apartment and then strike out every day on a footpath (senda) or take the little train line, the FEVE, which snakes along the coast, to a new spot from which I will walk. Walking makes me both happy and hungry and then I let my feet and sense of smell take me to one of myriad village or roadside lunch spots. Because eating well is such an important part of the Spanish day, these spots are not hard to find. I’ve learned that if a village has 100 people, it will likely have two to three cafes and bars. I also shop at the weekly markets and let dinner be at “home” where I enjoy cooking the finds of the week.

In the villages, towns, and cities of northwestern Spain, weekly markets and covered markets are plentiful and showcase the regions’ locally produced foods, from local cheeses to venison or wild boar sausages, to several varieties of honey, to the many variations of apples that also go into making the local hard cider, sidra, to big leafy greens, little red peppers, famous beans known as fabas, to herbs that have been grown and harvested by hand by a seasoned herbalist and healer. One person might only sell garlic, mounds and mounds of it before her. Another makes clay pots, yet another carves and sells wooden spoons. A fisherman in Ribadesella can be seen at times selling his home-made fish pies, similar to the Cornish or Welsh variety but 100 percent Asturian or Galician (empanadas), and they’re his own recipe; he won’t divulge.

After over nine years of exploring the northwest, visiting the weekly and covered markets as a central vocation, here are a few I recommend to the first-time visitor:

Oviedo

Asturias’ provincial capital, has a magnificent covered market in the heart of the medieval neighborhood every morning. There you can see all the varieties of locally produced foods, as well as foods brought in from other parts of Spain, such as Andalucian olives, La Manchan saffron and cheeses, and Riojan wines. You will also be able to feast your eyes on the seasonal produce from just down the street: the honey, the locally cured sausages, and the myriad varieties of cheese made from northern goats, sheep, and cows you see grazing on green, lush grasses year round on the hillsides and coastlines throughout the northwest. During Advent, locally gathered chestnuts are added to the cornucopia.

If you visit Oviedo on a Tuesday, you will also find the weekly market in full swing and wrapping around the outside of the covered market. It is a mix of locally grown and produced foods as well as herb sellers—both for culinary and curative purposes—crafts people, and clothing sellers. The market is a wonderful mix of agrarian peoples from around the world—local Asturians, South Americans, North Africans, West Africans, and Eastern Europeans. As a man I met on a flight to Spain, from Galicia, told me, “The irony of our modern world is that we Galicians had to leave Spain and go to the New World for work, or to other parts of Europe. But now, so few of us are in Spain to tend the land and work the fishing boats that we have to hire people from the places to which we emigrated to manage our lands and boats back home!” He then sighed, ‘Each autumn, even when I am in New York, I feel all the chestnuts falling in the forest near my village in Galicia and lament that no one is there to gather them."

Oviedo's open-air and covered markets. Photo © Beebe Bahrami.

Santiago de Compostela

The pilgrim’s final destination in Galicia, Santiago de Compostela, has another colorful urban and exemplary covered market, also open daily in the morning. Just above this medieval town where pilgrims have been arriving for centuries, the covered market itself looks old, as if it has been feeding those pilgrims for hundreds of years much in the same way. Near Rúa da Virxe da Cerca, the covered market is named after the plaza on which it stands, the Plaza de Abastos. The Mercado de Abastos is east of the cathedral and offers a mix of indoor and outdoor spaces, all guided by towering stone doorways and shelters. There you will find seasonal fruits and vegetables, edible flowers, cheeses, fish, meats, honey, and local confections. One of my favorite patronesses is a woman in her sixties who sets up her three or four baskets of just-picked little red peppers near one of the gray granite walls of the market. Her scale sits before her and there is often a line. Galicia is famous for its grilled red peppers, which are soaked in garlic and olive oil and served up as a tapa with hunks of crusty, local whole-grain bread.

Weekly markets offer an even more gratifying view and experience of the seasonal movement of foods. Because Galicia and Asturias are coastal and temperate climates, which get a lot of year-round rain, there is a 12-month growing season. In winter you will find winter greens, similar to mustard greens or kale. In summer, pit fruits dominate and continue into the fall. The best peach I ever ate was picked for me in October and was my dessert in a 3- course meal (costing €7!) in an unmarked village tavern near Cudillero. Everything in that meal was pulled from the kitchen garden next to the tavern as soon as we put in our order.

My husband and I came upon the place when we were walking along one of the myriad foot paths that connect village to village in Asturias. As we entered the small village, we saw a black sign in the village center that said “Meson” with a big white arrow painted on it. We followed the arrow and then we heard voices and smelled food. Soon, we were entering an unmarked stone doorway where stood a bar with every variety of elixir and a gathering of tables, one occupied by the cook and her friends as they played cards, waiting for the next visitor. We must have looked hungry because the cook promptly got up, went to the garden, harvested a tomato, plucked some lettuce leaves, pulled up an onion, and continued to the kitchen to make us a green salad to accompany her pote de fabas, a bean soup also populated with locally harvested vegetables, herbs, and the pig down the road.

Weekly Markets

My favorite weekly markets are in Sahagún (northwestern Castilla y León near Asturias), Padron (western Galicia), Luarca, and Ribadesella (both along the northern coast in Asturias).

In Sahagún, the town’s heart near the main square is overtaken by food sellers and craftspeople from all over León. They set up their tables and tents beneath the welcoming statue of a local son, Fray Bernadino de Sahagún, who is considered Spain’s first anthropologist because of his 16 th century study of the Aztecs. Inland and skirting the southern edge of Asturias, Sahagún is on the pilgrim’s road, the Camino, and once housed four communities in medieval times: Jews, Christians, Muslims, and pilgrims taking a break from walking or riding. These four communities were both distinct and integrated, living together in a state of symbiosis and mutual reliance. A small town today—and still receiving Pilgrim’s on the Camino—you can still feel Sahagún’s history in its many medieval buildings of burnt ochre stone and brick. All around the town are verdant vegetable gardens and well-tended sheep. Vineyards can be seen further afield and grow this region’s decent wines.

Sahugún's open-air market. Photo © Beebe Bahrami.

Padron’s weekly market meanders throughout the town and onto the roads, radiating out of town. At the market’s heart there is a tent where merchants and visitors alike enjoy a traditional breakfast of steamed octopus seasoned with paprika and washed down with a hearty breakfast cup of red wine. Everything is for sale, from just-picked produce from the surrounding hills, fish, churros, breads, locally cured cheeses and sausages, and unlabeled local vintages, unlabeled because everyone knows who the winemaker is and his or her reputation.

In Ribadesella, look for that mysterious fisherman and his incredibly delicious onion, garlic, herb, and paprika seasoned cod pies. The same food sellers who come to the coast also go to the mountain towns, only a few kilometers inland, to sell their harvest. Some hail from there and so you are likely to find wild boar chorizo or venison chorizo as a part of the offering. The herb seller here lives in the mountains and both grows her own organic herbs and carefully harvests select wild ones from the hills.

Luarca’s weekly market takes over the whole center of town, snaking up its terraced streets. One of my favorite stops there is the plant seller with her potted fragrant seedling herbs and baby tomatoes and peppers ready for planting in a nearby garden. At the highest point in the highest street perch a husband and wife with their cheese and sausage kiosk. They love to give out samples, which inevitably result in a sale as the cheese and sausage both squeal with peak flavor; I often purchase a Rioja or Castilla y León tinto, red wine, and a handful of olives, to pair with these treasures for lunch.

Luarca's fishing harbor. Photo © Beebe Bahrami.

Walking Paths

What to do in addition to exploring the rich culinary offerings? If you love to walk or hike, follow the marked sendas, trails, as well as any other well-worm path as not all trials are well marked. Tourist offices in Oviedo (Plaza de Alfonso II El Casto 6, tel. 985213385) and Santiago de Compostela (Rua de Vilar 43, tel. 981584081) can give you a guide to the inland and the coastal route of the Camino, the Pilgrim’s Road to Santiago de Compostela, which passes through Castilla y León, Asturias, and Galicia. Be aware that you are trekking into some wild areas. Wear supportive trail shoes. Don’t leave anything behind—carry your trash out and deposit it in the receptacles in villages and towns, which do recycle. And always have rain gear on hand. It will rain. If you ski, in winter and spring the Picos de Europa offers some of Europe’s best skiing. If you surf, surf shops in Llanes, Ribadesella, and Tapia de Casariego can outfit you for a day of wave riding. Kayaking is also big, especially in the Ribadesella and Arriondas areas.

On a trail in Asturias. Photo © Beebe Bahrami.

Weekly Markets

Like the covered markets mentioned above, these start in the morning and go until lunchtime (2 p.m.).

Coastal markets:

Padron: Sunday morning,
Tapia de Casariego: Monday morning,
Llanes: Tuesday morning,
Luarca: Wednesday morning,
Ribadesella: Wednesday morning,
Navia: Thursday morning,
Cudillero: Friday morning.

Inland markets:

Cangas de Onis: Sunday morning,
Infiesto: Monday morning,
Salas: Tuesday morning,
Villaviciosa: Wednesday morning,
Arriondas (in the mountains, upriver from Ribadesella): Saturday morning,
Sahagún (in northern León): Saturday morning.

Sunday Rastros (Flea Markets):

Oviedo and Gijón. You can’t miss these as they set up throughout the old towns and snake through the streets. Madrid also has its famous Rastro on Sunday, which is a fun thing to do if you are flying in or out of Madrid near a Sunday.


Getting Around

Getting to Spain (All airlines listed here also offer flights to Oviedo; Iberia and Spanair also fly to Santiago de Compostela.):

Plane: If you are short on time, flight connections from Madrid will get you to Oviedo or Santiago de Compostela on Iberia or Spanair. There are twice weekly flights on British Air from London to Oviedo as well. (The Asturian provincial airport is 40 minutes driving from Oviedo. Frequent buses connect to Oviedo city as well as to other cities and towns.)

Train: If you have time, take the national train line, RENFE, from Madrid’s Chamartin Station, which serves the north. The train to both Oviedo and to Santiago de Compostela takes around 6 and 1/2 hours and passes through exquisite plains, mountains and valleys.

Bus: Another viable option and equally beautiful, this takes less time, around 5 and a 1/2 hours to the northwest by bus.

Local Transportation

On foot: In some parts of the northwest sendas, trails, are marked with little signs and the trial’s number on it. This is so far inconsistent. I have walked mostly on unmarked trails and always found my way as they all connect village to village. In other words, trails have a practical origin, to get people from point A to point B. For the adventurous, I suggest you set out on a footpath while also using all your good sense, such as staying on the path, respecting the natural surroundings, and always ask. Spaniards in general are very social and people-oriented and they are curious about visitors. Even with language as a barrier, they will find a way to understand you and you them.

By bus: ALSA runs both national and local buses. Buses reach all the local destinations from Santiago de Compostela and Oviedo. Once you are in rural areas, locals know the bus schedules pretty well. Often you can even ask the driver to drop you at an unmarked stopping place on the way. The ALSA website shows the longer journeys’ schedules. For local schedules, go to the bus stop in whichever town you are and ask for roundtrip schedules for the specific destinations you want to make. The station attendant will give you a computer printout tailored to your travels. For the long journeys you can buy your ticket online, but I never have trouble buying it at the station. If you are not traveling during one of the major holidays, like Holy Week (Semana Santa), you will have little trouble getting a seat on the bus. Even during Holy Week, when everyone seems to travel, ALSA increases its buses and departure times and getting seats tends not to be a problem.

By Rail: One of the delights of the northwest is the little, narrow gauge rail system called FEVE. FEVE, www.transcantabrico.feve.es, runs a corridor from Santander in Cantabria to Ferrol in Galicia. It is a pure delight to take this rail with its old fashioned charm of train ticket attendant jovially greeting you and commuters doing the same as though you are a local going off to work or coming home. Its full schedule can be downloaded from the website. FEVE offers a serene way to witness the land in all its nuances.

By Taxi: Taxi stands in small and large towns and cities are marked by a squarish white sign with a big “T” on it. Often it is quicker and less expensive to take a taxi and arrange for a return a few hours later, than to rent a car for those jaunts where rail or bus are harder to work out. Asturian and Galician coastal towns are small enough that everyone knows the cab drivers. Just wander into a bar and ask. Enjoy a great café con leche while you’re there (coffee never fails to be superb anywhere I’ve been in Spain over the past 20 years! I’ve only had one bad cup in all that time.)

Car Rental: You can also rent a car in Oviedo or Santiago de Compostela. But I find renting a car eliminates the best way to meet locals and see how they live so I never travel this way. But if time or easier mobility are issues, car rental can be procured from the airports.


Accommodations and Restaurants

All hotel pricing is based on double occupancy. Restaurant pricing is per person.

Oviedo: In Oviedo I have always stayed in the Hotel Favila, near the train station in the heart of town. Over nine years I have always been so happy at the family-run Favila that I have not looked elsewhere. It is simple and clean and central to everything (Hotel Favila, Calle Uria 37, tel. 985253877, ~€55/night). There are many superb eating places in Oviedo. One that really brought out the local, seasonal fare was La Corte ( San Francisco 21, tel. 985213145, ~€15-20/person).

Luarca: El Baltico (Paseo del Muelle 1, 33700 Luarca, tel. 985640991, ~€55/night) is run by a dear elderly man who takes his time to meet and greet each visitor. He runs a good place with attached bar and restaurant and the rooms are simple, very clean, and overlook the harbor where you can watch the fishing boats come and go throughout the day and night. El Barometro, on the same harbor front walk is just a few doors down going deeper into the harbor, is a great place to sample fresh seafood and classic Asturian cooking. I have watched as fishermen carry their just harvested catch into the restaurant where the husband and wife who own the restaurant turn the fish and shellfish into some of the most mouthwatering seafood fare available anywhere. Plan to spend at least €25-30 per person to sample the good food and wine. El Barometro also offers a good fixed price daily menu (menu del dia) that offers seasonal fare at more economical prices (~€13 per person for a three course meal including wine or mineral water).

Llanes: I have stayed in two great places here. One is a village apartment in the village of Cue, about a mile and a half east of Llanes: Casa de Aldea El Juacu, Cue, Llanes, tel. 985401522, ~€60/night. The other is in the neighborhood enclave of Pancar in the south of Llanes, connected by a delightful footpath into Llanes’ harbor area: Hotel el Canton, Pancar, 33509 Llanes, tel. 985402550, ~€55/night. Eating is a good bet anywhere as Llanes has become a culinary destination in Asturias, drawing in foodies from all over Spain and Europe. Wander along the harbor and its offshooting streets and go in where you fancy. Prices range from fixed price menus around €14 per person to a la carte fare for €20-40 per person. It’s all good and like El Barometro in Luarca, it’s all coming off the fishing boats in the harbor (or from the grass-fed cow up the road in the mountains).

Santiago de Compostela: To stay in the heart of town, I like the simple, inexpensive place near the cathedral, Hostal Suso (Rua Vilar 65, tel. 981586611, ~€40). Be sure to taste the welcoming owner’s tapas in the bar downstairs. He often makes traditional and new inventions and serves them with drink orders. My favorite was his deep fried saffron rice balls with Manchego cheese in the center. For more eating, as in Llanes, this is a foodie town. Wander throughout the medieval quarter around the cathedral and you will find many excellent places to eat. You can find local culinary delights for any budget. Menu del dia are enticing as are the a la carte offerings of seafood and mountain food, ranging from ~€9 at workers café fixed price menus to ~€30 for a la carte extravagance.

Outside of the cities I often forego hotels and rent rural apartments through Toprural, selecting Asturias or Galicia and then the locale within the province I want. The Toprural website used to be only in Spanish but now can be viewed in English. Just be alerted that though the listings can be read in English does not mean that the proprietor renting the place knows English. It is always a good idea to be prepared to communicate in Spanish, even if you have to get a bilingual friend to make the arrangements for you. But don’t let this stop you. Once on the ground, renters love to try to communicate even if there is no common language. Moreover, English is taught in school so they will likely find a niece or nephew to show up and act as an interpreter. Each proprietor handles the rental differently. Some just make the reservation for the nights you want and ask you to pay at the end of your stay. Others want a deposit at the time of reserving and usually offer a bank account routing number as the best option.