Eight legs, scores of suckers, a beak like mouth, a toothed tongue, can change its shape to fit in any space, and is considered a delicacy in countries from Europe to Asia. The Maldives braise the beast in curry leaves, chilli and spices (Miruhulee boava), the Japanese use it in sushi, takoyaki and akashiyaki, and the Tunisians roast them, grill them or serve them in stews (chorbas). Closer to home our neighbour Portugal cooks the tentacled blob Lagareiro style, roasted with potatoes garlic, onion and herbs. We’ll gloss over the Koreans’ dubious novelty ‘eating it while it’s still alive’ method.
In Spain, octopus, or pulpo, is one of the country’s most celebrated and exalted seafood dishes. In countries like the US or the UK (insert modernised western nation here), one can find prawns and lobsters, mussels and increasingly ‘odder’ foods such as barnacles or cockles. But octopus? I’ve never seen one available. As a result demand for octopus from visitors to the country remains high; either because there is a genuine desire to eat it, or, almost as often the case, to try it as a ‘bizarre’ food.
The dish was voted one of the ‘Seven Wonders of Spanish Gastronomy’ in a 2016 vote (along with papas arrugadas, paella valenciana, jamón ibérico, tortilla de patata, quedasa pasiega and paparajotes murcianos) so, safe to say, it’s pretty popular here. But what’s it all about? And how do you cook and eat a multi-limbed cephalopod.
When we talk about pulpo, the only logical place to start is that windswept emerald land of fjords and fisherman, crisp white wines and rain: Galicia.
If each region of Spain is defined by a style of gastronomy or selection of dishes – Andalusia with its fried fish and cold soups, País Vasco and its pintxos, Rioja with its red wine, red peppers and potatoes – then Galicia way out in the north-west, is undoubtedly crowned the land of seafood.
They eat everything: goose barnacles, velvet crabs, spider crabs, lobsters, clams, cockles, razor clams, scallops, the list goes on. My mother has an attack of jealousy every time we visit even an ordinary market there.
However, no dish is so linked to the region than pulpo á feira, fair-style octopus (or, more commonly known throughout Spain and internationally a la gallega, Galician style). There are, of course, many ways to serve this brain with legs – covered in melted cheese, served on the grill with salt and pancetta, chopped up and stuck in an empanada – but the roots of the dish are in the word feira. This was a party food.
During the parties, festivals, fairs and romerias of Galicia, octopus became the star, served, as so often is – and should be – the case, very simply. It was a party food, a celebratory plate of cooked up mollusc, that is frequently divvied up either by the truck load or in smaller ‘tapas’ sizes.
If you’re really keen, the second Sunday of August is the Octopus Fair in the little town of Carballino. Between 80,000 and 100,000 people attend, consuming about 50,000 kg of pulpo!
The dish couldn’t be simpler, but, as with a lot of Spanish foods, the simpler it is, the more care has to be taken with both the quality of the ingredients and the way of cooking.
In a large pot – preferably copper – you plunge your cleaned and eviscerated octopus. After a few seconds you take it out, dry it, then dunk it in again for a few seconds, dry, and then finally, a third time, leave it in the water. This process is to ‘asustar’ or shock the body of the beast to help conserve the light purple skin during cooking.
After slow cooking the octopus is taken out and left to dry naturally. The best way to do it is outside, and at the hands of the local women who manage the polbeiras – octopus bars. If you head to the villages of Ourense or, or a personal favourite of mine – Melide, on Sundays, you’ll see people on the streets or hanging out of the windows of taverns serving up the dish to the locals.
With fierce-looking scissors, the octopus legs are sliced up into chunks, laid out on a wooden plate, covered with extra virgin olive oil, spicy paprika, salt and maybe served with a couple of cooked potatoes. That’s it. Perfect.
Where I eat:
Madrid – Mercado de la Reina (Gran Vía, 12), Sidrería A Cañada (Calle Ave María, 17), O’Conxuro (Calle Ponzano, 30)
Toro – La Esquina de Colás (Plaza Mayor, 24)
Cambados – A Fonte Do Viño (Plaza de As Rodas, 3)
Melide – Pulpería Ezequiel (Rúa Cantón San Roque, 48)
What I drink with it:
When eating seafood in Galicia it should be legally binding that you pair the stuff with the local white wines. A chilled glass of Albariño or Ribeiro is perfect. A personal favourite is the one that popped my cherry: Martín Códax.
What I listen to while eating:
Fiesta Pagana – Mago de Oz