Come for the abuse, stay for the omelette


This is Pep, yelling at a customer. I'll get to him, the omelette, and a bonus recipe in a minute.

First: oh god, we are the cliched empty-nesting couple seeking out meaning and fraternity on the Camino Santiago. Well, our neighbors Sophie and Oliver are doing the whole shebang - we are here for the first four days seeing them off. Then we will part ways in Pamplona and take a train south while they walk on for the rest of the month. As they will tell us when they finally return to our neighborhood: life has never been as distilled as when you spend 30 days doing only three things: sleeping, walking and eating. Even in our modern, technologically driven life, a pilgrimage like that reveals fundamental things about yourself to you. It was a profound enough experience that they just did it - on a more remote route - a second time.

Sophie and Oliver grew up in Britain, so popping over to Spain or France for a lovely mini-break is old hat to them, but for us this is a big adventure.

So anyway, we didn't get the depth of a month-long pilgrimage. But four days, three nights was long enough to get a sense of it. On a misty morning, we put on our packs and set off, futzing around for too long before hitting the trail (but wow! the scenery):



and therefore arriving last at the first albergue, whereupon we were handed towels and a coin for the shower and shown to our top bunks in a steamy room with eight rickety metal bunkbeds and a (closed) sliding glass door. A bunch of people were already in bed and a guy was setting up a portable CPAP machine. My husband the light sleeper took one look, said "no fucking way," and set his sleeping bag on the ground out by the clothesline.

Of the four of us, he was the one who got a great night's sleep. Sophie and Oliver were in a different dorm with the most aggressive snorer in the world. Gripping her coffee the next morning, Sophie said she'd literally slept about 41 minutes the whole night, and looked ready to 86 the whole trip right then.

Day 2 was the most technically difficult with lots of downhill, so the three of them set off and I took a rare selfie:


then put my arthritic self on a shuttle to the next stop, which was a village with a big old monastery, a farm and a pretty little Inn. I arrived right when the last people were checking out and managed to reserve a quad room for like twenty five bucks including dinner. I took a shower and a nap and felt INCREDIBLE. When my crew arrived, cursing the vertical trail and the fact that the original pilgrims had apparently not heard of switchbacks, I said "you are going to love me" and showed them to our shared room.

One day before, it would have been really weird to sleep in the same hotel room with our friends, even with one of the beds in a loft. But after one night in a cramped albergue it was SO LUXURIOUS AND PRIVATE - especially knowing that most people were sleeping by the dozens in a dormitory in the former monastery nearby.



The way it works on the Camino is you carry your minimal clothing and a sleeping bag in your backpack and when you reach a town you find an albergue (looking for a sign or a shell symbol on the building), and you rent space for the night in a bunkhouse of some sort. The early bird gets the worm, so you strive to hit the road quickly and get the best bed. You walk for 6-8 hours, stopping for a lunch of bread and salami or something, and then once you've reserved your space for the night, you get a bottle of wine and relax -- reading, napping - the rest of the afternoon. And, in a nod to modernity, you strive to find some wifi somewhere for awhile.

There are also people (whom we loved to hate) who stay in fancy B&Bs and have a truck haul their suitcases ahead for them. No way are they finding themselves.

With your bed you get a pilgrim's meal, eaten communally -  a stew and some bread, or meat and roasted veggies - simple food and wine - and that's where it gets really cool. That's where you battle language barriers and learn about all the different people who have decided to carve out a significant portion of a year to walk and sleep with strangers.

There were definitely people whose pilgrimage was religious, but most were in some sort of life transition. We heard tales of divorce and cancer and lots of empty nests. We met just-retired professionals and military people and gals on a gals trip. (Our friends are a working screenwriter between projects and a recently retired acupuncturist.) We met people traveling as a group and people traveling alone, including a young woman who was spending a solo year traversing Europe after college. We were so impressed. We saw a shipboard romance begin and then immediately begin to get weird. We identified annoying folks who we strove to avoid on the path. Life, distilled.

So on that second night, once everyone had taken a shower, we walked up to the monastery and found that part of the building had been converted to a hotel with a small bar. We ordered gin and tonics and omigod they were delicious! I have since learned the trick, which I will share with you as a bonus recipe at the end of this story.

And on to the next day, and a new town and a new communal bunkhouse, though far nicer than the first night, and we learned three major secrets of the Camino: if you are tired enough you can sleep through anything, you can get used to a lot of things you don't think you can get used to, and most towns have good and bad albergues and before long your radar for the difference becomes acute.

And then: Day 4. We had reserved a hotel room in Pamplona because we needed a place to send our luggage ahead to and somewhere to shower before we got on the train. We offered the room to our friends for the night, who had originally said they wouldn't need it but by then learned that the secret to doing this for a month was going to be springing for a private room every few days.

So we said goodbye and watched them walk on. It was sad to leave both our friends and an adventure we were just starting to get a feel for.

Well, the Spanish plains are beautiful, and the coastline near Barcelona spectacular. And we had a culinary mission. Oliver told us that if we went to one restaurant in Barcelona it had to be Cal-Pep. "Go there, expect to wait, expect to be insulted, and eat everything they give you."

Cal-Pep is a small place with a long counter and a ittle room in the back that holds the uncommon status of being both a tourist and a critic favorite. We knew there would be an epic line so we got there embarrassingly early by Spanish standards and waited along the wall. You can have a beer and watch the show - theatrically loud chefs insulting each other while turning out stacks of garlicky mussels and charred peppers and seared fresh fish. The owner, Pep, is so hoarse from yelling at employees and patrons for decades that at this point he's taken to repeatedly slamming his metal spatula on the counter and the grill when he needs their attention. He reminded me of an only slightly less threatening Hector Salamanca from Breaking Bad. It's kind of like watching a basketball game - lots of impressive choreography and overdramatic fouls. In the face of this, a wry sense of humor and the proper humility, we could tell, was the right response.

As we stood there awaiting our turn, a well dressed woman and her date barged past the entire line and demanded to be seated. The chef she spoke with gestured with his knife toward the cash register. She strode over there and we were able to get the gist of what she was saying. She wanted to be seated in the back room. She was told she'd have to wait. She said "I see a table there! You must seat me now." She was told it was a three-top and she was only a party of two, so she'd have to wait (which I know has to be a bullshit excuse for not seating her). Then, in what is, judging by the similarities of the 1-star yelp reviews, a coordinated strategy to sniff out and destroy any whiff of pomposity, the entire staff then completely ignored her, pausing briefly to pull a lucky group of three from the line and ostentatiously parade them past her and seat them at the desired table. Finally after about 20 minutes of this, the woman and her date stormed out.

So when we got a chance to sit down and were asked what we liked to eat (there's no menu), we said "we want whatever you want to make for us!" And immediately our assigned chef/server brought us a bottle of wine, poured us some, set it before us, then started handing us plates of incredible food. (It turns out they look at the bottle when you're done and charge you for how much you've drunk.) We had salted prawns and tuna tartare and charred peppers and some kind of sausage and some kind of fish and a spanish tortilla, which is really an omelette. Everything was simple but perfectly cooked, which is my favorite kind of food.

The moral of the story? Don't be a dick. Not only is it nicer, but some people are better at it than you, and you won't win.

Okay, time for the recipe(s)! I signed up for the Cal-Pep email list and this week's recipe is for something we did not eat that night but I'd love to try.




Cal-Pep's Atomic Omelette


- ½ kg of large beans (called "judiones" in spain)
- 200 gr. black sausage (or product to taste)
- A clove of garlic (finely chopped)
- Olive oil
- 6 eggs

Add oil in a pan and when it’s hot add the garlic. When the garlic is golden add the large beans and the chosen product (in our case, black sausage) and fry until the beans been browns.

Separately, beat the 6 eggs (it’s important that the eggs are beaten a lot to make spongy the omelet) and add the mixture of the beans with the black sausage we’ve precooked. Put back into the pan all mixed to make the omelette, in “crêpe” shape.

We recommend let the omelette a little raw on the inside.

It can be served accompanied with a little garlic sauce (spanish “alioli” sauce) or a little spicy tomatoe sauce (with garlic).

This reciepe can be made with whatever you like: tuna with oil, garlic, artichokes or any kind of vegetable mixed with this large bean.
In CAL PEP we work with beans from the brand "La Soltera" from the city of Banyoles (Catalonia).
The photograph of this dish is Judit Prat. Thank you!

*     *     *

And now the bonus recipe I promised. I told you that our friends Sophie and Oliver went back to do a second Camino in Spain, and on this trip he learned the secret to the excellent Spanish gin and tonics. I now bestow that secret upon you.

First of all, don't use a tall thin glass like we use here. Use one of those big bowl-like glasses you see shrimp cocktails in in Mexican restaurants. I suppose a big brandy snifter would work, or even an actual glass bowl.

You put in a whole bunch of ice, preferably on the crushed side, and instead of lime, you squeeze a wedge or two of lemon in the glass. Then you fill with a shot or two of regular - like Tanqueray - gin and regular - like Schwepps - tonic. Before you serve, you squeeze an orange wedge around the rim of the glass.

It's demanding a table vs asking nicely for one. I'm telling you, these small tweaks make all the difference.

Showing 1 reaction

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.
  • Kit Willis
    commented 2017-11-04 11:48:46 -0700
    Thanks for this great post— a chance for a little vicarious traveling for us armchair travelers. Love that the recipe has a Spanish accent!

Join the mailing list