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Nov 28 2017

Seafood: the Jewels of the Rías Baixas

Small, tasty, fresh, iodized bites from the sea. During low tides, clams and cockles are harvested from the sand. Oysters are bred under supervision. According to origin and size, classes exist even among bivalves. Let's travel to Galician area known as Rías Baixas and taste its jewels: oysters, cockle and clams.

Text and images: Rafael Ruiz Moreno / Club de Gourmets magazine

Seafood from the Rías Baixas, Galicia: oysters


The Rías Baixas are a region of the Galician coastline. They occupy the west coast from Cape Finisterre to the Portuguese border. Corcubión, Muros, Noya, Arosa, Aldan, the rías of Vigo and Pontevedra, are characterized by their large size compared with the rest, and comprise a privileged space that is the feeding ground of a large colony of bivalves.

From October to March, when tides are low, the Ría becomes the meeting point and at sunrise ferments life. A human army, the majority women, bends over the water that is transformed into an unmoving, blinding mirror. The sun rises from the sea. The silhouette of La Toja island glimpses in the background, while the mountains of the O Grove peninsula and the rest of the landscape are enveloped by the fog. The millenary ceremony of life is reborn.

Small boats slide across the dazzling sea, the intertidal areas are animated at its borders where the land and sea wage their own battle. The seagulls' shrieks and women's voices mix as they bend over the water interpreting the role of harvesters, the simplest activity of all and the one most representative of its complementary nature, performed by housewives who use the same tools with which they cultivate the family's vegetable gardens: a weeding hoe, a fork. Any element is useful for digging up the sand and obtaining the cockles or grooved carpet shell clams, the reigning species of this type of harvesting. Common practice is to collect these on the production banks, on foot, though they are also extracted from boats using rakes that are dragged along the sea's bottom. Shellfishing from boats is an adaptation of the primitive agricultural tools used by clammers. It requires a vessel, therefore representative of a more advanced professional development.

The finest of the Ría

The most valued is the grooved carpet shell clam, with deserving gastronomic fame eaten raw; its price is considerably higher than the price of other varieties –banded, golden delicious and Japanese– that compete for sharing the same habitat. But not only is the delicate flesh of these clams what positions them at the top of the quality pyramid and in price, but also their greater conservation capacity. The clams live in sandy seabeds, in intertidal areas, and feed, as other bivalves do, by filtering suspended, organic particles. Reputable banks are found in the Ría of Pontevedra and near Ferrol. Over the last decade, capture of the grooved carpet shell clam has reached between 60-80 tons annually.

They are recognized for their oval shape. Adults may measures over 7 cm and weight of 60 g, compared with other varieties, all of which are smaller. Carril, very close to Villagarcía, has managed to have its name associated with the best grooved carpet shell clams. In this region shellfishing is not practiced. Instead, the bivalves inhabit privately-owned aquaculture installations (about 2,000 exist), starting in hatcheries, where the owners purchase small-sized specimens and augment them before they are harvested.

Cockles prefer canning

Bivalves in Galicia have other younger siblings, which though more modest are not less valuable. Among these are worth highlighting the cockles, quite abundant along the entire coastline, but especially in specific banks of the Rías Baixas. These inhabit salty waters, buried in white, fine-grain sandbanks in intertidal areas an in the beds of the rías, very rich in nutrients. They bury themselves in fine-sand or slimy areas of the coast, at shallow depth, only occasionally reaching a depth of 10 meters. It feeds by filtering the water through a siphon that purges sand and stores nutrients, with its main prey being the tiny plants and animals on the sandy seabeds. The best cockles in terms of size and quality are found in the Ría de Muros. Its fish market concentrates the largest volume of Galician canners, and their destination is canning. There are 3,000 tons canned annually, compared with the mere 300 tons reserved for fresh consumption.

Doing wonders

The Ría de Arosa is an imposing food pantry and intensive stabling model, given that a majority of these bivalves, particularly oysters, do not reproduce here, but are instead the result of nursing and feeding larvae imported from France, Greece, Tunisia or Turkey.

Oysters -the most appreciated species is the ostrea edulis- eat algae and other floating elements, and have the capacity to filter up to five liters of water per hour. Its feeding activity is greater when the water temperature is over 10ºC. These are found especially in the banks of the Rías of Arosa, Vigo and Ferrol. The samples that are marketed pass the strictest health quality controls that guarantee the quality of an internationally renown product that is a symbol in itself of Galicia. We have not yet forgotten the catchphrase referring to Arcade's oysters.

Their capture, in shallow waters, may be done by hand or using small rakes. In some areas mechanical methods are used, like a type of fishing dredger, in operations that require little human intervention and allow for extracting a greater amount of oysters in less time, though it certainly causes considerable damage to the seabed. (The capture of oysters using this method has been object of regulations since 1965.)

Always available for consumption

To have oysters available year-round, even during closed season, breeders have set up their culture facilities in specially-chosen marine water sectors, protected from strong currents and at a distance from the contamination of nearby urban areas. There large bags of oysters or large-shell varieties are hung from wooden structures anchored at sea. The seeds of other oysters attach themselves to these, and after 3 years reach sufficient size for being harvested and marketed; in other cases, the oysters, previously imported for augmenting, hang from large cages for feeding off of the Ría's plankton.

It is likely that the human consumption of oysters dates back to prehistoric times, given the evidence of oyster farmers found in all cultures close to the sea. We must bear in mind that it could have been a way for obtaining food along coasts, and together with the fishing industry, a main source of financial revenue. Overfishing and pollution has most likely decreased the amounts produced to almost ridiculous quantities for consumption in some places, but nevertheless, it continues being a highly appreciated mollusk, in some coastal towns the protagonist of oyster shucking competitions.*

These bivalves are considered exotic food in many cultures, though it is definitely an item for which the liking must be "cultivated", as some training is required to appreciate it. In nutritional terms, oysters are rich in zinc, one of the nutrients required for testosterone production. (Perhaps this is the origin of its fame as an aphrodisiac.)  

Article originally published in the Club de Gourmets magazine (Spanish). Translation by Lionbridge /@ICEX.

Seafood from the Rías Baixas, Galicia
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