Back in the glory days of cigarette advertising, one brand's slogan was "I'd walk a mile for a Camel." OK. So, today, how far would you walk for a perfect potato omelette, some wild strawberries, a dish of country-style chicken with chestnuts, or a $600 bottle of red wine? If you're José Andrés, the answer is: about 160 miles.
Since medieval times, Catholic pilgrims and the otherwise spiritually inclined have trod El Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James — a series of routes from all over Europe leading ultimately to the city of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, in the far northwest of Spain. The St. James in question — called Santiago in Spanish — was one of the Twelve Apostles, known as St. James the Greater, or Elder, to avoid confusion with another, lesser, younger James who ran with the same posse. James the Greater was beheaded by the Romans in Jerusalem in 44 A.D., and his remains are said to have somehow subsequently found their way, for one reason or another, some 2,500 miles or so to the west to be interred in this Galician city, and specifically in the 11th- and 12th-century Romanesque cathedral that today bears Santiago's name.
Though their numbers have lessened considerably over the past century or two, tens of thousands of pilgrims still annually make the trek, or at least certain portions of it, going on foot or, nowadays, by bicycle through this corner of Spain, stopping to eat and sleep at an informal network of albergues, or pilgrims' inns, and collecting visa-like stamps on pilgrim passports along the way. Those who walk at least 100 kilometers (about 62 miles) or cycle at least 200 (about 124 miles) receive a certificate of accomplishment, or compostela; as many as 100,000 are awarded each year, to pilgrims from more than 100 countries. Under some conditions, Catholics may also be granted indulgences, basically blanket forgiveness of their past sins.
The symbol of the Compostela pilgrims, for many centuries, has been the scallop shell, and medieval pilgrims would attach these to their garments after making the journey. In fact, in French, scallops are called coquilles St-Jacques — shells of St. James. There are various theories as to how the symbolism evolved, but the shells are common on the coastline of Galicia, and may have originally been simply tangible proof that the pilgrim had made it all the way to the region (though Santiago is 20 miles or so from the Atlantic). Some also point to a metaphorical association: The grooves in the shell come from a wide rim to converge in a point, much as the various routes to the city do. Pilgrims also used to use scallop shells — large ones, presumably — to eat and drink from along their route.
There is no record of what the inns of an earlier time served those who followed the Way of St. James, but these days, there is plenty of good food and drink to be found along the road. (The Australian writer/editor Dee Nolan has even written a splendid large volume called A Food Lover's Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.)
José Andrés, the relentlessly energetic, peripatetic "Chef/Owner of ThinkFoodGroup, star of Made in Spain, and culinary creator and advocate" (as he describes himself in his Twitter profile) has been walking a 257-kilometer portion of the Way of St. James, and tweeting ceaselessly along the way. See some of the highlights of his trip here.