“Where are the vegetables?”
We get asked this question over and over, especially by those travellers who have gone through the Camino.
“We see fields, they’re green with things that look like vegetables! There’s plenty of them in the fields, but we can’t find any when we get to the restaurant! Do you export all of it?”
It is a very reasonable question and I must say that our answer is based on suppositions.
We personally eat a lot of vegetables at home, either on their own or in pasta and rice dishes. I’m Italian and we both love to cook, so it’s not hard for us to make all sort of dishes where the main role goes to the veggies: raw, marinated, boiled, stir-fried, deep-fried, sautéed, you name it. We love vegetables!
But it is true that Spain can be hard for a vegetarian, and mildly uncomfortable for the veggie lover who can not self-cater. Most cafés and restaurants will hardly have any green option beyond the “ensalada mixta” (usually some sad iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, onions and possibly some tuna. Because, hey, we don’t want you to go low on your protein intake!). Of course this is a wide generalization and things differ quite a lot from the North to the South, especially the Mediterranean Coast. But we’re in Galicia, so let’s talk about what goes on here.
Galicia has quite a range of local vegetables.
Most of them are winter greens of the brassica family: cabbage (of many kinds), cauliflower, turnips, turnip greens, kale, Brussels sprouts, collard greens… Before living in Galicia I, Anna, thought I knew about cabbage… well, I was wrong. Here you can find local varieties such as the heart cabbage, small and heart-shaped and sweet and crunchy; or the coliflor del país, a cauliflower that is picked early and sold with all its outer leaves: the cauliflower florets are the whitest and sweetest thing you can imagine, and the leaves, boiled, are a fantastic leaf-vegetable.
Grelos (turnip greens) – known in Southern Italy as cime di rapa – are a Galician institution, a flavour difficult to find beyond its borders and that everyone will sigh at the memory of their mother’s. In summer we get our share of local peas, fresh beans, green beans, tomatoes (although a bit later than down South) and of course peppers, especially the tiny green ones from Padrón (officially called Pimiento de Herbón – that’s another story…) or the lesser known pimiento de Arnoia.
So, we do vegetables in Galicia. Just, apparently, not in public. The only explanation we can think of is that when people go out to eat they want something more special than what they get at home. This would make sense if eating out were something extraordinary, but it is not: having a tapa or a small plate together with a drink is something you do a few times a week (if not daily). Also, with good vegetables (and there are good ones) you can do something very special… but not in most places. People seem to constantly crave for meat and fish, and a meal with no proteins is not a meal. We must deduce that vegetables are seen as second-class citizens in Northern cooking. They have their role in the kitchen, but they’re never the stars. Except if you get a dish of Padrón peppers!
What was your experience with vegetables in Spain?