Dee’s Food Lover’s Pilgrimages

History, fellowship, architecture, food, wine, religion, nature  – there are so many ways to engage with the Santiago pilgrimage.  Dee Nolan explains how her Food Lover’s pilgrimages came about.

Why a “Food Lover’s” pilgrimage?

Pilgrims share the Santiago paths with farmers taking their cows for milking and pass right by some of Europe’s most prized vineyards.  It’s impossible for me not to want to know more about these farms and vineyards I walk through in Spain and France.  A deep interest in how our food is grown is in my DNA. I grew up on a farm and I now live back on that farm, and so I want to understand what I am seeing on the pilgrim path each day – the breeds of sheep and cattle, the varieties of vines and fruit trees, to know their history in the landscape and their role in the kitchen.

Along the Santiago pilgrim paths, some of Europe’s oldest food traditions are being newly appreciated.  Just as the ancient pilgrimage itself has found relevance in a modern age, so I write about the farmers and cooks, the winemakers and chefs who are all taking wisdom and knowledge from the past and finding inspiration for the future. It’s their stories I tell in my books – winemakers restoring century-old vines in forgotten vineyards; farmers rescuing rare breeds of pigs and cattle; home cooks making recipes handed down over generations and famous chefs shopping in local markets a few steps from their glamorous kitchens.

A food culture is a valuable key to a region’s history because it evolves as much through immigration, emigration, wars and occupation as it is the natural product of climate and terroir.  And so the monks who came to feed and house the medieval pilgrims, bringing along their extraordinary knowledge, left an agricultural footprint still clearly visible a millennium later.  There is rich nourishment for any food lover on the Santiago pilgrimage.

Which paths have you followed in Spain?

I have travelled the Camino Francés from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French/Spanish border, up over the Pyrenées and 800 kilometres across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela, and then on to Finisterre, 90 kilometres further on where pilgrims traditionally burn their clothes on the beach to symbolize the end of their pilgrimage.  (I didn’t!)

I’ve walked nearly half of the Camino Francés, travelling the rest of the way by bus and car.  That doesn’t take into account my detours off the path to visit farms and vineyards, and to go diving for razor clams in the pristine waters off Finisterre. Then there are my visits to cooks and chefs, like the unforgettable traditional lamb restaurant I wrote about in my first book – just eight minute’s drive from the city of Burgos where young lamb is roasted in wood ovens and served on enormous platters after an appetizer of Spain’s justifiably famous jamon ibérico and before a memorable dessert of leche frita, a sort-of-fried custard with cinnamon.

Just as the early pilgrims did “pilgrimages within their pilgrimage”, detouring off the main path, perhaps to visit a lesser shrine of personal significance, these little side trips are food pilgrimages within my pilgrimage. They are so easy  – taxis are readily available in most places and these experiences all add immeasurably to my understanding of the people and their culture.

Which paths have you followed in France?

After hearing time and time again about the beautiful  200 kilometre section of the pilgrim path from Le Puy-en-Velay to Conques, I had to walk it. And yes, it is truly beautiful, as the photos reveal in my second book, A Food Lover’s Pilgrimage to France.  I then continued on the remaining 500-or-so kilometers to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on this path from Le Puy-en-Velay which is officially called the via Podiensis.  I walked a day here and there in the Lot and Gascony regions, doing the rest by car.  The path passes through vastly different landscapes and cultures so it is like many pilgrimages in one.

The via Podiensis is probably the most popular of the four major pilgrim routes through France to have been retraced. The others start in Vézelay (via Lemovicensis), Paris (via Turonensis) and Arles (via Tolosana).  An all-too-short day on the pilgrim path leaving Arles left me yearning to return and see even more – at pilgrim pace – of the reclaimed marshes of the Camargue and of Arles with its long history back to the Romans and before.

Many lesser or secondary pilgrim paths have been identified in France and to my delight, a network of rediscovered Santiago paths crisscross Burgundy – Chemins de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle en Bourgogne. I followed one that runs right through the heart of this famous wine region. It shadows the main road through the Côte d’Or, the D974 that once, long ago, was a significant Roman road connecting Germany and Lyon. So today, pilgrims literally walk the same path that was trodden in those ancient times. It’s possible to continue south on another pilgrim path to Le-Puy-en-Velay.

Another “pilgrimage within my pilgrimage” took me to Lyon. How could a food lover not visit the city hailed as France’s gastronomic capital?  From there, a path goes south-west to Le-Puy-en-Velay.

Most of the first pilgrims to St James’s shrine were French. In France, you are never far from a Santiago pilgrim path – and always near people who really care about how their food is produced.