Before arriving at Finca As Fadegas in Galicia I told Vanessa that there were two specialties from the region we had to eat or I would consider our visit an absolute failure. One of the two, pimientos de padron, we ate at lunch on the day we arrived. That accomplished, I turned my attention to the other: octopus.
After lunch on the first day I struck up a conversation with Vicente about the traditional food of Galicia and expressed my interest in trying Pulpo Gallego. I didn’t want to seem demanding, so I asked if he would recommend a restaurant in Ribadeo where Vanessa and I could go when we had some free time. Vicente named a place, but then added that it can be difficult to find genuine Gallician octopus. Fishing limits on octopus in Galicia make it necessary to import it for sale in restaurants and fish markets for large parts of the year. Much of what passes as Galician octopus is actually imported from Africa or the Canary Islands. Vicente admitted that he stocks his freezer with true Galician octopus, which he buys from a friend so that he isn’t without it when octopus fishing is prohibited. He offered to cook some for lunch the next day.
Strangely, octopus is one seafood that benefits from being forzen. Fresh octopus has a tendency to be tough and chewy. Cooks have invented tricks to tenderize it, including pounding it violently, and adding cork or vinegar to the cooking pot. By freezing octopus, ice crystals make microscopic cuts throughout the flesh, which result in more tender meat.
The next day at noon Vicente had two octopi defrosted and a huge pot of water on the fire, as promised. As the water came to a simmer he dipped each octopus in and out a few times to acclimate it to the heat. I had never seen this technique before, and he explained it helped prevent the purple skin from falling off once the water was boiling. He then dropped them both in and left the pot to boil, covered. Forty minutes later he removed them from the water, already tender, and began to cut the tentacles into little rounds.
Vincente cuts the first octopus
Once cut up, the octopus was heaped onto a plate, drizzled with fresh olive oil, and sprinkled with salt and pimenton de la vera. There it was, Galicia’s finest expression of the octopus, referred to alternately as Pulpo Gallego or Pulpo á Feira (because it is an essential dish at festivals and parties here.)
Unable to resist, we all dug in. The octopus was perfectly tender with an especially thick layer of that delicious fatty-gelatinous substance between the meat and the skin. It tasted like octopus, of course, but there was a subtle flavor difference from the octopus I have eaten before. Clearly it is this difference in flavor that drives Vicente to keep Gallician octopus in his freezer.
Vicente then cut up half of the other octopus. He spooned some of the octopus cooking water into another pot, dropped in pieces of potato, and topped it off with fresh water. When the potatoes were done, he added the pieces of octopus, sauteed onion, and more pimenton de la vera. Cooking potatoes in the octopus water is an ingenious traditional method of stretching the octopus to feed more mouths while infusing every bite with the octopus’ flavor.
The remaining half of octopus we sliced as thinly as possible, and cooked it briefly in a pan where lots of minced garlic had just been sauteed in olive oil: Pulpo al Ajillo.