Loaves and Fishes

Don Harris | August 2013

It seems that on just about all of our many travels throughout Spain, we include spending a special time in Galicia. And if there is one thing that comes to mind as a special treasure from Galicia, it is their marvelous bread. Bread is the staff of life, and through the centuries Gallegos have developed the most remarkable loaves: wonderfully crusty exteriors, and light interiors with lots of holes to capture the aroma. 

Long ago my wife Ruth and I happened upon a magnificent thick and crusty round loaf of this iconic bread when we visited a Galician village, whose name I cannot recall. So for the last twenty-five years or so I have been on a quest to find that specific village which bakes the greatest breads in all of Galicia!

Earlier this year we thought we had found it in the country village of San Cristobal de Cea, located between Ourense and Santiago. The origins of the town’s baking tradition are closely linked to the story of the nearby Cistercian monastery of Santa Maria La Real de Osera. Back in the 13th century the vast monastery did not have the resources within the religious community to produce enough bread for their needs, so they grew the wheat, milled the flour and convinced King Sancho IV to designate the town of Villa de Cea as the source of all their bread. Eight hundred years later, we visited a baker in the same town of San Cristobal de Cea, with the help of Pablo, a gifted photographer and web designer from the neighboring port of Vigo. 

As could only happen in the amazing 21st Century, I first met Pablo via Flickr, an online photo sharing portal, when I told him how much I admired the artistry of his photos of the monastery which was so much a part of the Cea story. It turns out that his grandmother was raised in the area, and a friend of his girlfriend, Rosana, knew the location of one of the home bakeries. What a delightful time we had when we all spent the day talking with the baker and exploring the surrounding countryside. We even celebrated Ruth’s birthday together in a favorite local restaurant!

The bakery and the baker’s house are one. Much of the interior of Carlos’ house is devoted to bread making. His day begins at 3:00 in the morning when he adds sacks of locally milled rustic flour to his professional-sized stainless steel mixing bowl (it has an electric motor, his only concession to modernity). He adds water from the 'mother yeast' (formento) from previous batches and then shapes the dough on a fine-grained wooden table, kneading it for 60 minutes by hand. The dough is allowed to sleep (dormillo) for about an hour, then he divides the dough into one pound and three pound loaves and allows it to rest for another 25 minutes. This laborious cycle is repeated three times, more or less, until he determines conditions are favorable for baking.

The oven is heated with local wood and brush, carefully selected so that no adverse odor or taste affects the bread. There is an art to placing his loaves in the oven in a certain order for even baking - it is termed 'walking the bread.' When the oven is full, it is closed for a baking time of about two hours. The baker’s day began before dawn, and he removes his final baking run at 4:00 PM. His is a labor of love, and a full-time commitment, one that has continued for centuries, passed from father to son.

The bread of San Cristobal de Cea was not the bread we were seeking and so we moved on to the walled city of Lugo, about an hour east of Santiago de Compostela. Over fifty years ago, a young man named Manuel Chousa opened the doors of his bakery, and like the bakers of Cea, he began work well before dawn. When he finished baking for the day, he would push his cart around Lugo filled with the legendary crusty loves and rolls. It was not long before Manuel gained a reputation for producing the best bread around, and that tradition is carried on through his sons, José Manuel and Rubén Chousa.

The Chousas joined with a friend, Roberto López, to form an expanded modern bakery known as Ingapan. They still bake bread the traditional way – some of it in the original bakery of their father. Applying the most advanced technology to par-bake and then flash-freeze each loaf, this bakery enables us to deliver the experience of fresh-baked Galician bread all the way across the sea. 

Locally, Ingapan supplies the San Froilán Soup Kitchen, as they say, “to care, to feed, and to protect people who lack their own resources to live.” Last March we visited this soup kitchen in an old section of Lugo, accompanied by a member of the Chousa family. We were enthusiastically greeted by two kindly nuns: Sisters Dorinda and Asunción, who were busy prepping fish, liver and some vegetables in order to provide complete daily dinners for needy families and the homeless. They feed more than 120 people each day. Ingapan donates the bread – the staff of life.

Putting the Galician bread aside (which is not an easy thing to do), Galicia feels like home to me. Its rugged, rocky shoreline with many small harbors sheltering fishermen and their boats remind me of the coves and crashing surf I knew as a child in New England. Sometimes, even today, I stand on the shore of Cape Cod or the Outer Banks of North Carolina and reflect that the waves on our side of the Atlantic wash on the shores of Galicia – if we could only see that far! 

Of course I've always loved the sea, and later as a young man the Coast Guard brought me to similar fishing villages along the Oregon coast and the Alaskan towns of Ketchikan and Sitka. On one of our very first exploratory trips in Galicia, we visited the fishing village of Cambados, located in one of the dozens of rias (fjords), where natural springs feed into the Atlantic Ocean from fingers of land. It is hard not to feel rhapsodic sitting in a shore side café, watching the fishermen entering the harbor with their boats laden with the day’s catch with hungry seagulls circling overhead.

Other members of the fishermen’s households are raking in shallow water, harvesting mussels, clams and little cockles called berberechos. Others still put these delicacies of the sea directly into little tins for the market. A patient person arranges the tiny-shelled berberechos in a symmetrical, spiral pattern – in its own way and amazing work of art. Then there are the brave young men dodging the bounding surf in little skiffs to chisel percebes (a type of long-necked barnacle) off the rocky cliffs: an amazing briny delicacy and worth the risk.

Apart from the loaves and the fishes, I am sure that one reason Galicia has a personal appeal is due to the Camino de Santiago, the fifteen hundred year old route that funneled Christian pilgrims from all of Europe into the distant Celtic land of Galicia – just about as far west as one could walk. 

It goes without saying that as a Navy chaplain I would be drawn to the spirituality of the pilgrimage route and the ancient monasteries tucked in Galicia's green valleys, not to mention the awe-inspiring medieval cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of Saint James are interred. All of our family has visited there several times, and my son Jonathan walked all the way across Spain on the Camino from France while he was a student many years ago, and then retraced the final part of it with his bride Stacey on their honeymoon.

Back in the 1960s, my wife Ruth and I were exploring the mountains leading to Galicia in our tiny Seat 600. As we came upon the mile-high Cebrero Pass, over which pilgrims have trod for more than a thousand years, we happened upon the mountaintop village of O Cebreiro. At that time the Camino had not regained the prominence it has today, and the village was essentially unknown to us. 

The core of the settlement consisted of some archaic Celtic dwellings called pallozas, huddling close to the ground with low rounded stone walls crowned with extensive thatched roofs designed to protect the inhabitants from the mountain winds. Although their architecture pre-dates the Roman presence, the pallozas we came upon that day were far from being museum pieces (as they became later). These houses were homes for real people carrying about their daily work, with chickens and other animals coming in and out of their dwellings – as they needed shelter too!

Not more than a stone’s throw away was a field-stone church restored to its thousand year old foundation. Through the centuries the structure had provided shelter for many wayfarers seeking protection from the high winds. In earlier times the pastor would ring the bells to guide the pilgrims traversing the surrounding valleys. 

The small church was a dark place, of course, but, as we entered the nave, it was hard to miss the massive granite baptismal font – large enough to immerse an adult believer. As our eyes were drawn towards the altar we saw on display a golden chalice which some say is the Holy Grail.

Tradition has it that a doubting priest was routinely celebrating Mass when a devout pilgrim appeared at the door of the chapel. He had struggled to the mountaintop in order to receive the Sacrament. As the man came in from the howling gale, the celebrant looked up and thought to himself how foolish was the devout pilgrim for having trudged all the way to the top of the mountain in such severe weather in order to witness a non-existent miracle. Continuing with the Mass, the doubting priest, as was his custom, elevated the Host and to his astonishment, the bread in his hands miraculously became flesh and the chalice was filled with blood!

Holy Grail or not, doubting believers and granite fonts – visiting the chapel made a lasting impression on us 20th century skeptics, as it has made with the villagers who had lived there on this mountaintop for centuries on end, beginning with Ferdinand and Isabella who made the trek to this holy spot.

While I was writing this reflection I heard of the heart wrenching loss of eighty passengers aboard a train headed for Santiago de Compostela, many planning to celebrate the feast day of Santiago/Saint James, the patron saint of Spain. My heart goes out to those throughout Galicia and the Spanish nation who are mourning the loss of those whom they have loved. Our whole family is saddened.

Tu amigo,

As I was finalizing my essay, I received an email from Pablo who wrote to say:

...On Wednesday, we were in our Kickboxing class when arrived the news of the accident and the health authorities calling about the need for blood, so we went to the hospital Nicolás Peña, who belongs to the Galician Transfusion Center and was managing blood donations from Vigo area to Santiago. It was very emotional to be part of a queue of hundreds people who waited many hours in the night waiting their turn to help. And I feel very proud and lucky that as I have a regular donor card and my blood type is 0-, I could contribute with my little grain of sand. In less than an hour all the hospitals were overwhelmed with volunteers, donors and doctors on holidays.

Yesterday was the official funeral in Santiago. I feel sorry for the families of the victims, and the train driver, who has survived and will have to carry a heavy load the rest of his life. The accident seems to be due human error.


O mércores, estabamos na nosa clase de Kickboxing cando recibimo-la nova do accidente de tren, e o chamamento público das autoridades sanitarias para ir doar sangue, así que fomos ó hospital Nicolás Peña, que pertence o Centro de TRansfusións de Galicia e estaba xestionando as doazóns de sangue do área de Vigo, para Santiago. Foi moi emotivo poder formar parte dunha cola de centos de persoas que esperaron durante horas na noite o seu turno para poder axudar. E síntome moi orgulloso e afortunado de que, o ter tarxeta de doante habitual e ser grupo sanguíneo 0-, puiden aporta-lo meu graniño de area. En menos dunha hora os hospitais estaban colapsados de voluntarios, doantes, e incluso médicos que estaban de vacacións.

Onte foi o funeral oficial en Santiago. Sintoo moito polas familias das víctimas, e tamén polo conductor do tren, quen sobreviviu e terá que levar unha pesada carga o resto da súa vida. O accidente parece que foi debido a un erro humán.