European hospitality

Each year around the time of my birthday Wendy, Steve and I set sail for somewhere interesting in Europe. This year though we are without our dear friend Lin whom we have toasted several times and who I am consequently blaming for my hangover today. In the last 10 years we’ve experienced some real wonders from the ruins of Pompei to the grand bazaar in Marrakech. This year we are in Northern Spain and have just finished two days in Santiago de Compostela, an ancient town on the pilgrimage route and with a wonderful old city still full of mystery and charm.

A warm welcome…

It’s amazing how even in just two days you can be made to feel like a local, or certainly a regular. Even a girl who was sitting on the train with us and tried in vain to ask us a question in Spanish remembered us when we met again in a tapas bar in the Old Town. She greeted us as if we were old friends. It just goes to show, it’s the people who make the difference. The most fantastic food can be made to taste rancid, if accompanied by indifferent service. The lightest cappuccino can taste flat with poverty of interest from barista and any hotel can feel cold when greeted by teams who simply don’t care.

Forget trips to the USA to experience customer service get yourself over to Santiago! For a place to stay head for Hotel Altair where the teams offer fantastic service and the rooms are contemporary, stylish and comfortable but still ooze old building charm with their exposed stone walls and wooden furniture.

Tapas

For authentic tapas you need to go to Gato Negro in the old town. Don’t be fooled by the shear underwhelming nature of the small bar as you walk in. The functional marble counters and barrels of local wine all served in ceramic beakers, hide a wealth of great food. The melt in the mouth liver and onions, the clams in tomato sauce and local cheese were outstanding.

My final recommendation is for a tapas bar on a Michelin level but without the price tag. Located in little alley and almost looking as if it’s closed is the ‘O Curro da Parra’ bar. From the minute I walked through the door they made the first move and greeted me. Even the chef behind the grill called over to welcome me back. Informal and relaxed, the service was borderline flirtatious but made me feel special and important. It’s no wonder we went back a second time in two days, something we wouldn’t have done, if the service had not been outstanding. The croquettes coated in breadcrumbs and grated hard cheese were perfection and the house speciality, medium cooked burgers, topped with Foi Gras and a truffle cream, were the finest quality I’ve ever tasted.

Great people make all the difference

In a world where profit margins are cut to the bone and we have to get smarter about keeping our tills ‘ka-chinging’ through these recessional times, Santiago (Saint James) provides the answer as he has for pilgrims for the last thousand years. His message for our times; great people with generosity of hospitality will make the difference people want.

My earliest food memories are of my mum’s baking; coconut pyramid cakes were my favourite.

More from Wendy Bartlett