We ate barnacles in Santiago de Compostela. We didn’t mean to; we didn’t know. By the time we’d figured out what percebes were—the only explanation our waitress had given Andrew when he asked what they were—we’d eaten them. Though they looked like chopped-off lizard legs, with what looked like thorny, clawlike toes and leathery lizard skin, the meat inside was soft and briny-sweet.
In Santiago, restaurants along the cobbled streets display fresh seafood and regional foods in their windows, including percebes, huge purple pulpo (octopi), gigantic fish, heaping platters of shrimp and large shrimp-like creatures, mesh bags of fresh clams in their shells, and teardrop-shaped Galician cheese. All include on their menus a mariscada de casa for two people. On Sunday night, Andrew and I chose the most charming of the restaurants, one with a garden in the back much like the gardens in New York City restaurants, and ordered the mariscada and a bottle of wine. We were impressed with and, briefly, cowed by the dinner that followed.
Our mariscada came in two parts. First was a selection of raw seafood, including mussels, oysters, shrimp, and clams. We ate happily until we got to the clams: they were moving. They were slowly pulsing and breathing in their shells. Andrew prodded a clam with his fork; it recoiled. It was a moment of reckoning, as both of us quickly realized our limitations. Raw seafood: okay if it’s not moving, not okay if it is. Sometimes likes and dislikes are just that easy. We let the waitress take the clams away.
We were then brought a gigantic platter of cooked seafood. It was an amazing selection: the percebes (the identity of which was still a mystery), scallops in their shells, piles of shrimp and shrimp-like creatures, crab legs, clams (cooked this time), mussels, and skinny cigalas (shellfish in long, skinny, rectangular shells). We saved the percebes for last but bravely attacked them too, after asking the waitress how to eat them. She showed us how to peel off the leathery covering and pull out the meat with our teeth.
By the time we were finished, all that remained were piles of refuse on our plates: shrimp heads and cracked crab legs, empty shells and broken claws, bread crumbs and errant drops of wine. It was a perfectly delicious, perfectly Galician meal that left us both happier with Santiago de Compostela than ever.