Walk, pray, then feast

At the end of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, Andrew Bain samples manna from heaven.

Inside the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, at the end of the famed Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, the 12th-century Portico de la Gloria is a masterpiece of religious art. Among the dozens of sculpted figures - the Christ, the Apostles, the angels, the musicians - is a tiny feature that speaks volumes about the Spanish city around it.

High on the right-hand side, in a scene depicting hell, is the carved image of a soul being tortured - even through the pain, however, the figure is eyeing off an empanada. Nothing, it seems to suggest, comes between a Santiagan and food. In this holy city, good food and wine are themselves almost a religion.

"I've heard it said that Santiago has 52 churches but thousands of bars," says my guide, Fernando, on a gastronomic tour of the city. "I'm not sure if that's true but it is true that you can't go five metres without passing a bar."

If food here is indeed manna from heaven, it has a fitting spiritual home at Santiago's produce market on the edge of the old town. Known locally as the second temple of Santiago, the Abastos Market is even designed in the shape of a pre-Romanesque church. Inside, it's like a large nave with small side "chapels", each devoted to produce: vegetables, meat, seafood and cheese.

To dine on the market's bounty, you needn't go far. The Churro Mania Punto Kente restaurant, inside the market, specialises in cooking customer-bought produce. Hand over your market purchases with the receipt and chefs will use your ingredients to conjure up a meal, charging you 10 per cent of the receipt amount.

A second restaurant in the market is the newer and funkier Abastos 2.0, operated by two young Santiagans. Filling a tiny space, Abastos 2.0 has no storehouse or pantry - when you place your order, staff head into the market to source the ingredients.

Away from the market, gastronomic life revolves around the old-town streets of Rua do Franco and Rua da Raina, as it has for centuries. Suitably for a street devoted to food, Rua do Franco takes its name from the French - the Franks - who came as pilgrims along the Camino de Santiago in its early days. Staying for months before walking home, they established this French Quarter, the epicentre of Santiago's dining scene since.

It's a street where locals, students and tourists mingle without divide. It's also the scene for one of the city's great social jousts. At one end of Rua do Franco is a bar called Paris, at the other end a bar called Dakar, prompting a pub-crawl version of the car rally. In this drinking contest, people (usually university students) must drink a glass of wine in each bar along the street (about 40 of them) and tell a joke after each drink.

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"I don't know anyone who has been able to finish it," Fernando says.

While Rua do Franco is lined with restaurants, the adjoining Rua da Raina is noted for its tapas bars, many unadulterated by time and fashion. At street level, Raina contains nothing but bars, taverns and restaurants, of which the classic tapas bar is undoubtedly O Gato Negro.

Opened in 1922, this bar has a stone floor, timeless patrons and Formica-topped tables and its appearance falls somewhere between a butcher shop and a country pub. The fare is as simple and traditional as the decor, with wine poured from a barrel - no "denominacion de origen" here - into ceramic bowls. The perfect accompaniment is a bowl of pimientos de Padron: fried green peppers, famously grown in the nearby town of Padron, with a pinch of salt.

Keep wandering Santiago's cobblestone streets for more gourmet treats. In Rua do Vilar, one street from Rua da Raina, I pass Casa Mora, a 100-year-old cake shop that has helped define Santiagan desserts. The almond-base cake named tarta de Santiago, a city icon almost as ubiquitous as the scallop shell of St James, was first mentioned in texts in the 16th century and is found across the city. But Casa Mora, still run by descendants of its original owners, that is credited with adding the icing-sugar cross of St James to its design.

Elsewhere, throughout the historic quarter, are the small grocery stores known as ultramarinos, meaning "beyond the sea". Mostly established in the 19th century, they sold imported products - from "beyond the sea" - but now specialise in local goodies such as chocolate, liqueurs and tetilla cheese - the so-called Galician "titty cheese" said to be shaped like the breasts of the biblical Queen Esther on the Portico de la Gloria before they were filed down by some puritan.

After a day of wandering and grazing, I come to Santiago's showcase restaurant, Casa Marcelo, where traditional Galician foods are presented with modern touches. Just a few steps from the main cathedral, Marcelo is the city's only restaurant with a Michelin star. In a starched atmosphere, my five-course dinner begins with shrimp wrapped in wakame in a tuna and vegetable soup. The soup is made in an Italian coffee pot and served in a wine glass, with the raw shrimp placed into the soup at the table to cook.

In keeping with Galicia's love for seafood - the nearby port town of Vigo is one of the largest and most important fishing ports in the world - the menu is ruled by the sea and best washed down with a glass of albarinho. The grapes of this Galician wine are infused with the saltiness of the coastal air. It's regarded in Spain as the perfect seafood accompaniment.

At meal's end comes Casa Marcelo's coup de grace: a cup cake-size tarta de Santiago that's cooked only until the outside crust sets, leaving a doughy centre. As I finish this sweet symbol of Santiago, icing-sugar dust still hanging in the air, one thing seems clear: this city famed for its saint might equally be known for its sustenance.

Andrew Bain travelled courtesy of UTracks and the Spain Tourism Board.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Emirates has a fare to Madrid from Sydney and Melbourne for about $2155, low-season return, including tax. Fly to Dubai (about 14hr), then to Madrid (8hr 5min); see emirates.com. Iberia flies from Madrid to Santiago de Compostela (70min) for about $270 return; see iberia.com. Emirates begins flights to Barcelona via Dubai on July 1.

Touring there

UTracks has a 15-day Food Lover's Pilgrimage Santiago de Compostela trip on September 1, priced from $5290 a person. The trip starts in Bilbao and ends in Santiago with dinner at Casa Marcelo; see utracks.com.

Gastronomic city tours take place several times a week, Easter to mid-September, from Turismo de Santiago's office in Rua do Vilar, from €15 ($19) a person.

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