Galicians traditionally don't overthink ingredients. Salt. Olive oil. Paprika. A dash of vinegar. Perhaps a little garlic. But what this culinary canon does prize, says Galician-born-and-raised Voyager Estate head chef, Santiago Fernandez, is produce, technique and heritage.
"At home as a child, just one kilometre from home, everything was there," Fernandez tells SBS Food of his Galician upbringing, citing a labour-driven agricultural economy as being largely responsible for an unembellished yet hearty diet.
Empanada Gallega is a large round pie from Galicia, Spain. The dough is slightly different to typical Latin American-style empanada dough. The empanada is often baked in a paella pan or in a pizza pan. The fillings of Galician and Portuguese empanadas usually include tuna, sardines or chorizo, commonly in a tomato, garlic, and onion sauce.
Atlantic flavours were the mainstay: bivalves, mussels, cockles, clams and smaller fish — sardines and anchovies. Pork as well. Grass-fed. Lots of tomatoes. Cheeses. Flour and strong breads. Simple flavours and large plates to satiate families who worked on boats and in fields.
But what Fernandez really calls home is his Galician grandmother's octopus dish.
"My paternal grandmother, I remember she was an excellent cook. A really great chef. She had this laugh and was really smart and clever," he smiles, reminiscing over Sunday lunches at her home. "Everything she cooked tasted of the love and the passion she put into it. And the way she cooked that octopus, the flavour stuck in my head."
"The way she cooked that octopus, the flavour stuck in my head."
Fernandez's head was where that octopus flavour stayed for many years, even though he looked for a world that was bigger and more complex than the Galician savour of his childhood.
The offer to join his father and take up knives in his family's village asador restaurant wasn't enough. He'd worked there since the age of 13, peeling potatoes and helping in the kitchen. Fernandez wanted something different, something more than meat and a traditional open grill and fire. So he packed up his memories, applied for ships captaincy studies at a polytechnic and was promptly handed his second choice: culinary school.
It didn't begin well: "We learned French cookery and the first two years were pretty much spent chopping, dicing and doing basic sauces. It wasn't interesting to me."
But a few of his teachers saw something in Fernandez and insisted he push himself. By the late '90s, he'd finished his studies just as acclaimed Spanish restaurants el Bulli and Mugaritz arose. Spanish cookery was making the world sit up and take notice. This creativity registered deeply with Fernandez and its wave carried him forward.
"I wanted to see what sauces you could make, what combinations," Fernandez recalls, the excitement of that time in his voice.
"I wanted to go to Japan. I wanted to go to India. I wanted to go to travel to Italy and of course to France. As soon as I had this chance I took off to work and travel and earn money. It was great."
By 2010, he'd arrived in Daylesford, Victoria, to take up a chef's position at Sault Restaurant Daylesford for what ended up being for six years. It was here that he contacted his aunt about making his grandmother's octopus.
"Even when I became a chef I could never cook it, could never figure out how it was done," Fernandez smiles at the memory of the frustration. "When I asked my aunty, she said, 'you need to fry it first'. And I said, 'the whole octopus?'. She said, 'yes, you need to fry it whole, sear it, keep the juices inside and then cook it slowly and gently'."
The result is a meaty, umami-laden tender experience of an animal that, according to Fernandez, is too often tortured over a flame or has its richness stripped away by excessive use of vinegar.
It's not lost on Fernandez that the simplicity of technique that he ran from became his fascination.
But even with that call to his aunt, it wasn't until the chef arrived in Western Australia's Margaret River with his family in 2016 that he truly brought that dish to life.
The octopus in Victoria wasn't suited to the Galician technique. "We tried but it was terrible," Fernandez grimaces. "But here in Margaret River, with this octopus from Busselton, it works."
"Here in Margaret River, with these octopus from Busselton, it works."
The Galician octopus recipe by his grandmother has taught Fernandez that technique can be dependent on produce.
Although Fernandez's position at Voyager Estate restaurant means he is a dab hand with a fancy sauce, what underpins his skill is the hand of his Galician traditions.
"You try the weird combinations, which is great fun and you learn things that way," Fernandez reflects. "But now I have this connection back to what's the produce, what's local, and what's the purpose of doing things."
Love the story? Follow the author here: Instagram @sarina_kamini. Photographs by Gavin Crawcour and Sarina Kamini.
- 200 ml olive oil
- 1 small-sized whole octopus, about 1 kg, head removed.
- 3 garlic cloves, crushed
- 30 g fresh ginger, diced
- Salt flakes
For the Spaniards, a tortilla isn't a flour wrap filled with meat and veggies but rather a deep dish potato bake. The goal is to have it lightly golden on the top yet soft and moist in the centre.
Gambas al ajillo is one of the most popular tapas in Spain and it also is one of my favourites. It's so simple and so fast - pan-fried prawns with garlic and chilli.
If you go to Spain in the winter, this is the soup that you're going to have, because it's comfort food. It's full of flavours, textures and a lot of personality.
Torrija is the Spanish version of French toast. Served during Easter celebrations, day-old bread is soaked in an egg, milk, orange and cinnamon mixture and then fried. Traditionally eaten as a sweet, this recipe offers a savoury twist to a Spanish classic that is perfect for either an entrée or to be served as canapés. The Chefs' Line