Food for the Journey

A sculpture dedicated to pilgrims tops Alto del Perdón on the Camino de Santiago.

by Vivé Griffith

It took two women to carry the paella pan across the plaza. In Rabé de las Calzadas, a village of 200 people in northern Spain, they’d spent the afternoon deep in preparation for the feast of their patron saint—dicing vats of onions, cleaning shrimp, soaking clams in water. The paella would be cooked above the fire just before the celebration began at 11 p.m. By then, I’d be long asleep.

I’d arrived in Rabé that afternoon—walking out from the city of Burgos through manicured suburbs and down a long farm road. I was two weeks into a pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago, the ancient trail that stretches 500 miles from the Pyrenees to the city of Santiago de Compostela.

Pilgrims have walked the Camino for a thousand years to pay tribute to St. James (the patron saint of Spain and one of the disciples of Jesus), whose remains are believed to be entombed in Santiago. Whereas medieval pilgrims walked as penance for sins, contemporary pilgrims are not always religious, but often speak of feeling “called” to make the journey. They carry their belongings in backpacks and follow a series of yellow arrows that point the way westward over worn paths—greeting each other with Buen Camino!

I loved my days spent winding through the villages of the Basque country and the vineyards of Rioja. Haystacks towered in open fields and the dried faces of sunflowers stared out at me. Locals met pilgrims at their gates to hand us bags of pears or turned from their work to wave as we passed. I had dreamed of walking the Camino for years, and I was enchanted—finding peace in the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other, day after day. I also loved the pilgrim dinners.

Most walkers stay in pilgrim hostels called albergues, with shared facilities, bunk beds and often a communal meal around a large table. At those meals, pilgrims from all over the world share stories and reflect on their journeys. The meals are never fancy, but they are always filling, multiple courses with big baskets of bread and bottles of wine.

Spain is a country rich with culinary treasures—Ibérico ham, gorgeous cheeses, varied tapas and of course, paella. Pilgrims might sample these foods when they pass through cities, but in the villages, most of the fare is simple, hearty and inexpensive. Pilgrim dinners offer variations on ham, eggs and potatoes. We ate pork chops topped with green peppers beside a pile of potato chips, or we spooned pasta from big pots. Dessert might be slices of melon or scoops of ice cream with a cookie on top.

Pilgrim meals were served in big cafeterias amid the clamor of forks, as well as in rooms with a single table. In the village of Navarrete, a meal on a restaurant patio became an impromptu pilgrim dinner. A rainstorm forced me inside and into a pink room crammed with tiny tables. I joined Tony, a boisterous German retiree, for dinner beside American sisters and a couple from Australia. We devoured a deeply garlicky bean soup with greens, roasted chicken and tarta de Santiago, a delicious rustic almond cake flavored with citrus. Tony entertained us with his tall tales. By the end of our meal, the rain had passed and we walked the wet streets together, still laughing.

foodforjourney1Along the path, arrows point the way to Santiago.

Rabé is a typical Camino village, with old stone buildings, a fountain in the square and a church looming over all. Elderly nuns hold a nightly vespers service to bless the pilgrims passing through, and a man at the bar passes out medals of their patron saint, Santa Maria de los Milagros, on white strings to tie around your neck. The albergue is known for its clean facilities and hospitality.

The night I stayed there it was being run singlehandedly by the stalwart Clementina, who would feed us in shifts in the small dining room. I came downstairs early and stood in the kitchen doorway while Clementina prepared our meal. On the stove was a large skillet that she shook vigorously. She was making a tortilla de patata, the classic Spanish tortilla that you find in every bar and café across the country.

“May I watch?” I asked in Spanish. She shrugged. It was clear that watching her make tortilla seemed as exotic to her as watching her sweep the floor. But I’d wanted to learn to cook this quintessential dish since my first trip to Spain years earlier, and in my kitchen at home it never came out like I hoped.

Patiently, she answered every question. How much potato? How many eggs? When do the onions go in? She shuffled between the counter and the stove. Then without ceremony she picked up that giant skillet, topped it with a platter, and with one swift heave, flipped the entire thing. The tortilla turned onto the platter and slid back into the pan in a matter of seconds. I almost applauded.

When dinnertime arrived, I joined fellow pilgrims from Ireland, Spain and Korea at the table. Wine glasses were filled, introductions made. We began our meal with a soup of garbanzos in a golden broth. Next came a mixed salad of crisp lettuce, grated carrot and tuna. Then Clementina placed two tortillas on the table. They were beautiful, light brown and garnished with bright red pepper strips. A collective hush fell over the room. Then we dug in, clearing every last bit before dessert.

People walk the Camino for many reasons, but in general, pilgrims come to believe that “the Camino will provide.” The beds will be available, the right people will cross your path, a meal will come when you are hungry. Stripping back to the basics and letting someone—or something—else take care of me was the lesson of my Camino. Trusting in the particular power of that trail led me to new friends, magical experiences and to Clementina’s tortilla, the one I still imitate at home.

foodforjourney2In Rioja, pilgrims walk beside vineyards that produce its famous red wine.

After dinner, a group of us took a final stroll down the streets of Rabé. The plaza was alive, the fire ablaze and ready. By 9:30, we pilgrims were back at the albergue, the doors closed for the night. The lights went out, and the feast went on without us. There would be time for paella in our future, but for now, we were tucked in our beds, saint’s medals tied around our necks, our bellies full of the simple food that would fuel us through another day’s walk.