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A Food Lover's Pilgrimage To Santiago de Compostela  : Food, Wine and Walking along the Camino Through Southern France and the North of Spain - Nolan Dee

A Food Lover's Pilgrimage To Santiago de Compostela

Food, Wine and Walking along the Camino Through Southern France and the North of Spain

By: Nolan Dee, Earl Carter (Photographer)

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'A constant on my camino was the powerful sensation of a message across time, a guiding hand reaching out to me from those who had passed this way before.'

A thousand-year-old pilgrimage route and food traditions stretching back de toda la vida – since forever. These are what Dee Nolan set out to experience on her pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela – through the rich farming lands of southern France and northern Spain, green Spain. The monks who came here in the Middle Ages to look after the first pilgrims planted grapevines from their homelands far away. Now food lovers come seeking the magnificent wines made using grapes grown in those same ancient vineyards, along with sublime cooking and fresh, luscious produce.

Dee's own emotional journey along the Way of St James – el camino de Santiago – took her back to the very heart of things: why we should care about what we eat and how it is produced, why we need escape valves like the pilgrimage in our busy modern lives, and why she found herself, after a long career in publishing, back on her grandfather's farm and connecting with the soil.

This joyful book tells the story of Dee's camino, of the pilgrimage itself and of the food traditions that sustain us all. Following the route of those first pilgrims, Dee met wise cooks and farmers who are finding that the future lies in the past. And she realised why, in our secular age, we are so captivated by this medieval Christian pilgrimage.

About The Author

Dee Nolan, an award-winning journalist and editor, began her career in Melbourne. She then worked for some of the world's leading newspapers and magazines in London and New York. While still living in the UK, she and her husband, John Southgate, bought back her family farm, Gum Park, in the Limestone Coast of South Australia, and they began a long-distance restoration of the house and property. Established by Dee's grandfather a century ago, it had been out of family ownership for twenty-five years. After more than two decades overseas, Dee has returned to live in Australia, where she and John divide their time between Sydney and the Limestone Coast. Their passion for olives and their commitment to sustainable farming has been realised in the certified organic olive oil Nolans Road, which they produce from the olive groves they have planted at Gum Park.

In my heart of hearts, I had probably known for a long time that one day I would make a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. A scallop shell, the symbol of the pilgrimage, had hung from its red silk thread on my wardrobe mirror ever since my husband, John, had brought it back from a visit to the little city on the remote north-west tip of Spain. I had saved a thick file of travel articles about the pilgrimage, clipped from UK newspapers in the 1980s, when the rediscovery of the camino, as this journey dating back to medieval times is more commonly called, really began to gather pace. And there was my growing sense that I would find my future in the past. At least, that's the only logical way I can explain our decision to buy back my childhood farm in South Australia or our wish to farm it organically and raise rare-breed sheep. Not that, as a romantic, I know much about logic.

John's trip to Spain was in 2002, the last year we lived in London before moving to Australia: me to return home after twenty-five years, John to make it his new home. New-wave Spanish wines had become the talk of the wine world, many of them made using long-forgotten varieties from remote regions that lent them great originality and elegance. John and a group of grape growers and winemakers went to see all this first-hand. Of particular interest were wines from tiny vineyards near Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, some from vines often a century or more old, grown on barely accessible terraced slopes where, in ages past, the Romans and later medieval monks had also cultivated vines. Were they the same variety? No one knows for sure, but what we do know is that the monks who came from France and Germany to populate the isolated north-west of the Iberian peninsula in the Middle Ages and offer shelter to the pilgrims, brought vines with them and were great viticulturalists. Wine was medicine.

Finding himself with a few hours to spare in Santiago de Compostela, John had attended the Pilgrims' Mass, which is held at noon each day in the great cathedral. Even though it was mid-week, in the crush of the thousands of people attending there was standing room only – and precious little of that. He had been astonished by the ceremony of the botafumeiro, which took place at the end of the mass. This is an incense burner as tall as a man's chest, hauled up by eight men on great ropes and swung high above the heads of the worshippers in wide, heartstopping arcs.

The north of Spain he described when he came back was nothing like the southern Spain I'd experienced in my youth – where I'd found the passion and flamenco of the Seville feria so dramatic and intoxicating. And where, in austere Extremadura, I'd had my first taste of sweet, aromatic jamón ibérico, or Iberian ham, and understood why it is considered one of the finest foods on earth. But John was enchanted by Santiago de Compostela, jewel-like even with its grey granite architecture, and he especially loved the sensational seafood from Galicia's coasts.

Every now and then I'd hear of someone who'd done their camino and, increasingly, I found it tweaked my antennae. Why, I wondered, when our churches were emptying, had an ancient Christian pilgrimage become so popular? I did some homework and found that scholars had identified, as much as they could a thousand years on, the original final route the pilgrims took from just beyond the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela, called the Camino Francés after the early French pilgrims who used that path. These days it takes about five weeks to walk this 700 kilometre stretch. Some pilgrims cycle, others do it in stages, returning in subsequent holidays to complete more sections.

As well as the Camino Francés, four major medieval routes through France (where the pilgrimage is called the Chemin de Saint-Jacques) to the passes over the Pyrenees had also been mapped, and these too had become popular with modern pilgrims. Another route, the Via de la Plata, comes north through Spain from Seville, and there is a Camino Portugués from Portugal. In the past fifteen years, the number of pilgrims on the camino each year had risen from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands, but everyone I talked to who'd been on the camino said that if you avoided the summer months it wasn't touristy or over-crowded. They all said it was much more than a travel experience.

The romantic in me couldn't help but wonder if any of my Irish or French ancestors had gone on the pilgrimage. And if they had, were they the pious type who'd gone with humility and faith to seek their place in heaven, or the inquisitive type who'd gone for adventure, or were they even dispatched on the pilgrimage as a form of punishment? I seriously began to wonder if I should do it myself and, if so, how I should tackle it. I liked the idea of walking: I had lately discovered bushwalking, most recently completing the four-day Milford Track in New Zealand, but I couldn't be away for the five weeks it takes to walk the Camino Francés. And I badly wanted to experience for myself not only those windswept Galician vineyards that John had visited but also the Spanish food that was creating so much excitement in the culinary world – not so much the first foam-and fireworks wave of the so-called molecular gastronomists but that of their younger protégées. I wanted to meet the artisanal producers of exquisite cheeses, hams and vegetables in the country's fertile high northern plains and mountains – Spain's larder.

In my files was another crumpled clipping about a butcher in the Basque Pyrenees, Pierre Oteiza, whose efforts saved the native Basque pig when the breed was just twenty pigs from extinction. Its unique flavour is similar to jamón ibérico, and it has found a high-profile clientele, including French super-chef Alain Ducasse. I wanted to meet people like Pierre, to see those pigs as they roamed freely through the Basque hills. It struck me that there was a connection between my growing yearning for the camino and my fascination with people like Pierre Oteiza, saviours of rare breeds of animals so nearly victims of our dangerous love affair with mass-produced food. Likewise, the camino could have become a sort of rare-breed cultural casualty, an historical curiosity teetering on the brink of extinction. But late twentieth-century men and women, for reasons I didn't yet understand, had discovered that, far from being irrelevant, the camino offers an unexpected antidote to the complexities of modern life.

I did more research and talked to my friends: there would be no shortage of volunteers to come with me, but I was torn between France and Spain. One of the French camino routes, the one from Arles, ran through the south-west, one of my favourite parts of France.

Friends had moved from England to the Tarn, not far from Conques, a famous pilgrimage site on another route from Le Puy. But northern Spain, green Spain as I read it was called, came with the excitement of a new experience and it was, after all, where all the medieval pilgrims ended up. Perhaps I should do two different caminos, one to France and one to Spain.

John gave me his blessing. He was facing two knee reconstructions, so he volunteered to keep the home fires burning. We talked about it endlessly and finally he came up with a suggestion: why not hire a car and spend two weeks in France the next European autumn and meanwhile continue to research the best way to undertake a walking camino in Spain the following European spring?

An old chart showing where the early pilgrims walked through western France and across northern Spain looks like a modern road map. The medieval motorways were the four French routes from Paris, Le Puy, Vézelay and Arles, and the Camino Francés in Spain. Crisscrossing them was a myriad of minor paths offering short cuts around dangerous and difficult sections, and detours to lesser shrines. Pilgrims might move from one main route to another or make a side trip, perhaps to a monastery where they had an introduction from the priest at home. They made pilgrimages within their pilgrimage.

That is how I set about planning my camino – a sequence of pilgrimages that would end at the shrine of St James, or, in Spanish, Santiago. The first stage would be my trip to France. I would start at the place where most modern-day pilgrims depart for Santiago de Compostela, a small Basque town at the foot of the Pyrenees called Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. In a remote mountain valley about an hour away were Pierre Oteiza and his glorious pigs – divine intervention, surely! As more and more stickers appeared on my big maps, a plan began to shape itself. All the pilgrimage sites I wanted to visit and the food producers I longed to meet were either on the Arles route or the Le Puy route. Friends would join me in Arles, but otherwise in France I would travel on my own – just as I had on my first trip to Europe in my early twenties. And, just like then, I was sure that some of my most memorable experiences would be the ones I hadn't planned.

Unexpectedly, about this time I had to visit the UK for work. Eureka! This was my chance to visit Santiago de Compostela – just two hours' flight from London – and finally put a plan in place for the Spanish pilgrimage. I arranged to meet an American anthropologist called Nancy Frey, whose name had somehow swum to the surface of the tsunami of information about the camino that exists on the internet. In between the tens of thousands of blogs, with their accounts of epiphanies and blisters, what caught my eye about Nancy's camino expeditions was her emphasis on Spain's cultural heritage. I emailed her 'On Foot in Spain' website. Did she live near Santiago? If so, could we meet up? Yes, she emailed back, she was just an hour from the city.

Everyone says the square in front of Santiago Cathedral, Praza do Obradoiro, is one of the most breathtaking in the world. It was nearly midnight when my plane landed, and my first impression of the square from my taxi was of a deserted expanse of granite paving stones, wet and glistening from a rain shower. Then, suddenly, there was the cathedral. I hadn't expected to drive past it, nor was I prepared for the surge of emotion I felt looking up at its majestic façade, which glowed golden against the dark night sky. If I felt like this not having even taken a step on the camino, how on earth did pilgrims feel when they arrived at the square and saw, at last, this great, grand edifice?

I spotted my first pilgrims the next morning, a young couple crossing the road outside my hotel, telltale scallop shells on their backpacks. They looked so well and fit, walking as if on air. Passing the cathedral, I noticed small groups of pilgrims gathering in the square, some wheeling bicycles, others lying on the ground in quiet contemplation, looking up at the cathedral. I was dying to know their stories: where they were from, how far they'd walked or cycled. As midday approached, there was a general movement of people right through the old town towards the cathedral for the Pilgrims' Mass: walkers and cyclists in lycra and fleeces; small groups of older Spanish women and men in Sunday-best woolen suits; and other smartly dressed visitors making their way across the square from the Parador Hostal dos Reis Católicos, the five-star hotel originally built as a hospital for pilgrims in 1499.

The sense of expectation and occasion was intense as the daily mass got underway. Still pilgrims were arriving, twisting out of their backpacks and propping them against the pillars. The priest read out a list of the home countries of the pilgrims who, in the past twenty-four hours, had received their Compostela – the cathedral's certificate of pilgrimage completion. Then the moment I'd hoped for. The botafumeiro is only swung on special occasions (although I later learned you can also pay for it). When men in ankle-length brown robes moved on to the altar, I sensed we were in luck. They began hauling on long ropes, slowly raising the smoking giant incense burner above the main altar and then, with the certainty that comes from centuries of tradition, swung it in a wide, wide arc across the transept. It was a truly unforgettable sight – on each arc it swung up and up until it almost reached the high vault of the ceiling. I could see why this had so transfixed John. He had been underneath it. I was glad I was safely out of its orbit.

I sat for a long time after the mass, not wanting to break the spell. Pilgrims lingered too, swapping cameras to take last photographs of each other, savouring the final moments of their shared experience. Most of them would finish their camino when they walked out of the cathedral. Then a group of young pilgrims near the altar called out excitedly to someone behind me. I turned to look. An older French couple were making their way slowly down the centre aisle. They looked exhausted. Another pilgrim rushed over to hug them. 'You made it!' he said. The couple were hesitant, overwhelmed – not, it seemed, by the grandeur of the cathedral, but by the realisation of what they had achieved. They stepped into the pew in front of me, edging off their backpacks as they sat down. They were in their own world. The man reached out and took the woman's hand. 'We did it,' he said quietly, looking at her with heartbreaking pride. Their tears started to flow – and mine did too. Outside, I phoned John in Australia on my mobile. 'I really have to do this pilgrimage,' I said.

ISBN: 9781920989910
ISBN-10: 1920989919
Audience: General
For Ages: 18+ years old
Format: Hardcover
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 420
Published: 25th October 2010
Country of Publication: AU
Dimensions (cm): 31.75 x 25.4  x 3.81
Weight (kg): 2.5
Edition Number: 1