I first started eating a plant-based diet at the beginning of 2017, but wasn’t sufficiently committed to keep it up on my camino last year. However, as soon as I returned home I jumped in 100% and haven’t wavered since. I know some vegans decide to take a break from their restricted diet whilst walking the camino, assuming it will be virtually impossible to find sufficient sustenance in the wilds of Spain. But I was committed to a plant only diet for the long haul and was not about to cave-in once I stepped into my walking boots. So a little advance planning was in order, particularly as this year I would be hiking lesser walked caminos in very rural Spain and Portugal.
Having eaten a plant only diet for a year or more, and this being my sixth camino, I had a good idea of the difficulties I would face.
First I needed to consider what additional equipment I would take. And these are the items that found their way into my pack
- Thin nylon cutting board
- Good paring knife
- Titanium cutlery set
- Microwave bowl with vented lid
- Storage pot (hummus packaging)
- Small silicone half-cup measure
- A small lightweight nylon sieve
- A square storage container big enough to carry a salad
- Peanut butter powder
- Nutritional yeast (a vegan’s best friend)
- Faux parmesan
- Vegetable stock cubes
- A small pack of spice mix
- Marmite (because there are some things worth their weight in gold)
I think I got it just right.
- The knife and cutting board were used very often.
- I could have done without the cutlery set, but there is absolutely no joy in eating from a plastic spork, and I hoped to be fending for myself more than I had in the past so considered the small additional weight worth while.
- The microwave bowl earned its place on the many occasions when there was no kitchen, but almost without exception there was a microwave.
- The old hummus pot had a multitude of uses.
- The silicone dish was used to rehydrate the peanut butter powder, amongst other things.
- I knew I would be eating chickpeas (garbanzos) and pulses when possible as they are a great source of protein and if buying in jars they need to be strained and rinsed. Consequently the sieve was put to use quite frequently.
- The larger storage container was used less often but was useful to carry fruit that might have bruised if shoved into my pack, and it carried the occasional salad and left-over dinners.
The peanut butter powder (which I didn’t know existed prior to researching for this camino) was a great success. It is a fraction the weight of its hydrated cousin and lacking most of the fat whilst retaining all of its protein. It was good on toast (with a smidge of marmite) and often added a welcome dimension to cooked meals.
Nutritional yeast is a very useful ingredient that lends a ‘cheesy’ taste to any dish. If you are not eating a plant-based diet you would have no need to know about this wonder-food. But if you don’t eat dairy and miss cheese, you need to try this product.
Faux parmesan is the vegan’s go-to topping that can enhance the taste of any dish. I have been known (a little too often) to just eat it from a spoon. It is made from a blend of cashew nuts, nutritional yeast, garlic flakes and salt. Yum.
I took some of my favourite vegetable stock cubes, but other brands are easily available in any general store in Spain.
I used the spice mix whenever I cooked.
And the marmite as never an option – I even asked a camigo who was joining me later along the trail to bring me a new supply.
Some albergues had good kitchens with excellent equipment and I made the most of them whenever I could. I would cook up a a storm with jar of garbanzos, frozen or jar of spinach (very rarely came across fresh), tomatoes, bell peppers, onion and garlic – always with a view to getting a good portion of protein. Garbanzos, beans and lentils are always available in Spanish shops, even if there are no fresh goods. As are cans of tomatoes, jars of spinach, roasted peppers, potatoes and a variety of other vegetables. Obviously fresh is best, but in a tiny village, any fresh goods may well have been sold earlier in the day so these items can be a good fall-back. You will also always find rice and pasta. On several occasions I cooked for 4 or 5 of us for a total cost of around 8 euros.
The microwave pot was great for times when a hob wasn’t available. Dried goods can be cooked quite successfully in a suitable vented pot. Whenever I came across quinoa (only in larger cities with a good supermarket) I grabbed a packet and rinsed it in the sieve and cooked it in vegetable stock – with some onions and mushrooms and something fresh and green it is a meal packed with nutrition.
On the rare occasions that I came across a sizeable supermarket in a large town (my favourite is Mercadona) I would make a beeline for my favourite products and over-indulge in goodness that evening and the next day. Not surprisingly, these big towns are also the places where I was most likely to find a good meal in a restaurant, but home cooking always won out if there was a choice. In recent months Mercadona has begun to sell a few vegan products, including Seitan, vegetable burgers and falafels. They also sell pots of cooked rice, quinoa and a rice/quinoa mix which do not need to be stored in a fridge. I’m sure other large supermarket chains must be doing the same thing. I know Eroski sell lots of these products, including tempeh and of course tofu. The world is opening up to us!
Often though, there was either no means of cooking, or no shop, or more likely a shop that was closed for the day and I had to make do with whatever I could find in local bars and restaurants.
It happened on a couple of occasions that it was just too much of a slog to walk into town from an outlying albergue to try to source some food, and we would pool our resources and dine on crisps, wraps and biscuits.
Whilst I was pleasantly surprised that no waiters ever slammed their eyes to heaven when I discretely explained my dietary requirements, for the most part they didn’t really understand the concept. I would often be asked if I wanted tuna, eggs or cheese. But without fail the waiting staff would try to accommodate me. On my first day I was offered a baked potato. Not so great without being slathered in butter, but nevertheless reasonably tasty with a sprinkling of faux parmesan. Salad and chips were a stand-by, and luckily chips in local Spanish bars are usually very tasty, if not very healthy! And I love salmorejo (cold tomato soup, similar to gazpacho but more substantial) which was available throughout Andalucia. In Portugal Caldo Verde (delicious potato and cabbage soup) was my stand-by. Occasionally I would be offered a plate of grilled vegetables, which was manna from heaven.
For breakfast tostada con tomate became a firm favourite. Lunch would be whatever was available, often left-overs from a meal I had cooked the previous evening, or a salad I had prepared the night before, or a bocadillo (bread roll) with tomato and avocado. I always bought good fruit when it presented itself and usually had a supply of nuts and sultanas to nibble during the day. And there is a reasonable selection of biscuits that do not contain animal products for the moments when something sweet was required.
Hot drinks weren’t a problem because I don’t drink tea or coffee, just hot water which was easily available, and for the most part not charged for. A lot of white wine and beer isn’t vegan and nor apparently is some cava – my drink of choice (until a few minutes ago I believed cava was ok, but in checking out for this post I discover I was misinformed. ) See this article if you are interested in the animal products used to clarify wine and beer. I am only slightly ashamed to admit to drawing the line at my dedication to the cause where cava is concerned. I shall just hope that the brands I mostly drink use a non-animal clarifying product.
Although I use the V-word for ease of description – I fall short of being a true vegan. As such I would not wear or sit on leather, wool or silk and not swat really annoying flies. I conform to a whole food plant-based diet, avoiding processed foods. And am working towards eschewing leather products – although I also hate waste, so would not chuck out any items I already own.
There were a couple of negatives though. Often when stopping for a drink with my camigas, we would be presented with a wonderful selection of free tapas, which almost without fail included animal products and so I would just sit back and watch as they were devoured with relish by my friends whilst I starved in the corner. And I could never quite understand why a restaurant could provide a three course menu del dia, with drink and bread for 8 euros, but would charge me perhaps 12 euros for a plate of vegetables and a piece of fruit. I definitely paid a premium in restaurants because I was eating off-menu.
In big cities I was able to use the App ‘Happy Cow’ to source vegan restaurants, or restaurants with vegan options, and had a few exceptional meals. I was glad to have the company of my non-vegan pals on one occasion (in Granada – Wild Food) and they thoroughly enjoyed the food on offer.
I will always remember the wonderful meal I was given by the friends of my Portuguese camino pal – an amazing array of vegetables cooked to perfection. Such a kind gesture to a complete stranger.
And I discovered a new food whilst walking. My eyes must have skimmed over them hundreds of times on the grocery store shelf without noticing them. Altramuces are lupin seeds that are soaked in brine. I was presented with a dish as a tapa in the tiny Spanish village of Alba de Yeltes not far from the Portuguese border. I needed a lesson on how to eat them – it being necessary to nibble a hole in the skin so that the seed can pop directly into your mouth. I soon became an expert and now always have a supply at home. 100g of these little gems contains a reasonable 129 calories and a whopping 11.5g of protein. And in looking on the internet for a photo to include in this post, I came across a recipe for a lupin ‘cheese’ which is definitely going on my list of things to try. Who knew?
All in all, walking the camino on a plant only diet was definitely more of a challenge – but then we’re all up for a challenge, or why would we be walking the camino in the first place? Probably the biggest challenge though was carrying some extra weight – around 1.5 kilos, which obviously reduced a little as I progressed.
I did it, I remained nourished and healthy and had sufficient energy to get me through each day with some left over for exploring my destination. If walking one of the more popular routes, with the infrastructure built to service pilgrims, it would be a great deal easier. But hey, who wants an easy life!