Octopus (Pulpo a feira)

Originally published on the blog El Viajero on El País.com

The best octopus in Galicia to be tasted is not on the edge of the rugged cliffs of the Atlantic Coast, nor in the markets of Vigo, rather more than eighty kilometers from the the capital of Santiago de Compostela, and sixty kilometers from the nearest ocean. In O Carballiño (Ourense), octopus is cooked in copper pots used everyday and on Sundays the pulpeiras, strong-armed women, take their equipment to the street–pots, gas canisters, a table, wood plates, scissors, an olive oil bottle, and paprika–so that steam floods the streets.

To find an explanation, we must go back to the twelfth century and a monastery in Ourense, Santa María de Oseira, which a noble bequeathed to estate of Marín (in Pontevedra). Since then, the Cistercian monks received the tithe not only in capital wealth but also in meat and fish. In the sixteenth century, due to Lent, fish prices fell and the port of Marín began to send pulpo. Dry and cheap, it also became common material payment.

The pulpeiro profession did not arrive until the seventeenth century. The commercial fair of Cea moved to land closer to the monastery, on the banks of the Arenteiro River. The monks received so much octopus from Marín that they decided to sell it. Today, the pulpeiras—because the majority of octopus cooks are women—are highly valued in both local and national cuisine.

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