Travel editor Jim Eagles reckons eating is one of the best reasons for travelling. He selected this story from 2008 to show that a foreign trip, in this case to Spain, is best centred around the food and wine on offer.

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An elderly woman in an ankle-length skirt and wrapped in a shawl tends crops with a long, wooden-handled hoe. Behind her family's stone cottage, across a ploughed field, her husband piles hay on to a horse-drawn cart. In a shed along the road, their neighbour squats over a tin bucket, hand-milking a cow.

These are not scenes from Asia or Africa (or New Zealand 60 years ago) but from Spain, leading light in the European Union and with a standard of living similar to ours.

I'm in Galicia in the northwest corner of Spain, at the end of a road trip which began 800km east, near the border with France. Green, largely rural and dotted with fishing villages, the northern coast defies the Spanish image of red ochre plains, raw heat, toreadors and flamenco.

For one thing, it rains a lot and exposure to the Atlantic means it can be quite cool, even in summer. Not for nothing is it called the Costa Verde (Green Coast).

The coast is a rollercoaster of pasture and forested hills, estuarine valleys and wetlands, peppered medieval villages, sprawling modern cities, and fishing villages which have lived off the Atlantic fishing grounds since pre-Roman times. Cut off from the interior by sierras (mountain ranges) and alpine peaks, the coastline of broad surf beaches, limestone cliffs and craggy coves is very different from the Mediterranean bath where the America's Cup was held.

Our trip is billed as following the pilgrim trail to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, a route which, since the 9th century, has drawn pilgrims from Europe and beyond to the alleged tomb of St James. People supposedly follow the coastal trail to walk off mid-life crises or figure out life's purpose. But our quest is devoted to food.

Galicia is the fourth province we've visited in a week - time enough to appreciate that, far from being a unified nation, Spain is a collection of regions. The Basques may make the point loudest, but Cantabrians, Asturians and Galicians are also at pains to distinguish themselves from neighbours and from central government in Madrid.

This is achieved mainly by celebrating traditional cuisine. Occupation of different regions at various times by Phoenicians, Visigoths, Romans, Celts, Germans, Muslims and French has left an independent streak and a determination to uphold differences in language, culture and cuisine.

This heritage is reflected in diverse ways by, for example, Galician crop farmers using traditional growing and harvesting techniques, Cantabrian fishermen braving the Atlantic in tiny dories, and Asturians drinking in tavernas where cider is consumed with religious fervour.

The Spanish would rather buy fresh food from artisan shopkeepers and produce markets than supermarkets. Working days are sandwiched around long, late lunches and dinners which start later and linger even longer.

Our food-as-culture immersion starts in the Basque Country, with txakoli, a slightly sparkling aperitif which prepares us for anchovies and cod served either with vizkaia, a red pepper sauce, or pil pil, an olive oil and garlic sauce which emulsifies in reaction with the skin of the fish while cooking.

In the Cantabrian port of San Vicente, we taste a tuna and potato stew first made to sustain fishermen on long sea voyages.

In Asturia, peasant stews based on the faba (haricot) bean, often with chorizo, black pudding and jamon, have revered status. Asturia also boasts the best cider, but don't tell the Basques.

In Galicia, tender beef from Morella cattle goes well with a plate of pimiento di Padron, small, seedless green peppers fried and salted.

Contemplating a four-course dessert at four in the afternoon, our guide Cristina de Hevia is resigned to our fate. "You can't do anything about it - it's just the way it is."

Laid out before us is apple tart, baked cheesecake, fried milk (a light, sugary custard) and the Galician specialty, a moorish almond cake.

We've been eating for two hours, starting with shellfish - spider crabs in croquettes, prawns with onion sauce on filo pastry, horseback clams, anchovies - followed by turbot as the main. There might have been vegetables.

It is the height of rudeness to serve just one piece for each guest. "If you're hosting 10 people, you cook for 50," said Cristina.

Foods originally developed for their lasting qualities - like bacalau (salted cod), jamons (cured hams) and chorizo - still take pride of place on dinner tables. Desalted in fresh water for three days, bacalau tastes as fresh as if it's just off the boat. The humble egg has revered status in the Basque country; it was something to rely on in times of deprivation.

Some ingredients date from Spain's conquistador heyday, when seafarers plundered gold, silver, pulses, peppers, tomatoes, paprika and chillis from the Americas. These staples are celebrated in dozens of fiestas marking the first (or last) harvest, anniversaries of patron saints and historic battles, religious dates and civic occasions.

Even within regions there are local specialties: peas in Hondarribia, green peppers in Guernica, asparagus from Navarra.

Scenery fills the gaps between meals - green hills and alpine ranges on one side, coastline on the other. Wherever we can, we swap the super-fast A8 highway for winding, narrow roads linking ancient villages.

Fishing is not what it used to be, thanks to falling stocks and EU quotas, but most coastal villages still have working fishing ports where women mend nets and the men sit and think outside quayside taverns.

The ports - we visit Hondarribia, Mundaka, Bermeo, Castro Urdiales, San Vicente, Llanes, Cudillero and Figueras - are so quintessentially quaint that I suspect those who linger over their cerveza may never leave.

Around mid-afternoon, the cobblestone streets are empty as locals indulge in siesta - not so much heading home for a nap as to the nearest taverna for lunch. They return to work for a couple of hours then find a seat in the town square to watch the sun cast soft light on pastel-painted houses with wooden windows and granite walls.

In Galicia, most rustic and remote of all the Spanish provinces, the reverence for tradition extends to the revival of traditional farming practices.

There's just one problem: they are struggling to find enough oxen capable of pulling a plough. It's been bred out of them. Not like the people - yet.

* Geoff Cumming visited Spain as guest of Turespana.