Returning to Galicia was one of the main reasons Gerry Dawes and I put this trip together, but the opportunity to explore more of northern Spain, some for my first time, put it over the top for me personally. The region of Asturias, known for its mountains, beef, beans, sidras (ciders) and quesos (cheeses) amongst other things, was one of those places.
We left Galicia after our snacks of pulpo and more at Bar El Dorado, but before we could get to Asturias, we had to go through Castilla y Leon and, of course, we couldn’t do that without stopping for refreshment. Had we been in the United States, the place we stopped at, Moncloa de San Lazaro, could easily have been taken as a thematic tourist trap, but here, in Spain, along the venerated Camino de Santiago, it was entirely legitimate. Yes, it was geared for travelers, as has everything along the Camino for centuries. With its large gift shop, demonstration areas and a busy tavern and restaurant, it could easily have been hokey, expensive and entirely medicocre, but it was of excellent quality and a legitimate reflection of the area.
While just the idea of sugar saturated chestnuts put a rise to my blood sugar, the complex, time-consuming process of creating them was fascinating. I stayed away, but in retrospect, this was something truly reflective of the area and the season that I should have brought home as a gift for those with a greater sugar tolerance than I.
Such is not the case with Vermouth, which I happen to tolerate very well. Vermouth is essentially aromatized and fortified wine and Spain, as a nation, has embraced Vermouth almost as much as it has embraced the “gintonic.” One of the things I love about Vermouth, or Vermut as it is called in Spain, is the incredible variety of flavors and styles that define the spirit. At Moncloa, I managed to conjure up a tasting of a variety of Spanish vermuts, each from a different part of Spain and based on a different grape varietal. Amongst them, there was a Txacoli based one from the Pais Vasco, an Albariño and Absenthe vermouth from Galicia and a local Mencia based spirit from Bierzo. The latter was in fact the house Vermut and was quite delicious. I liked them all for different reasons, but the house Guerra, served with a dazzling dried orange slice, was, if for no other reason than that it represented the home team and was as delicious as any, my favorite. As such, I picked up a bottle in the now conveniently located gift shop to bring home as a personal souvenir.
I still did not have super high hopes for lunch, but with the dining room packed with Spanish speakers and on a Monday, no less, I should have known better. I soon learned. The fare was rustic and eminently traditional of the area. House made embutidos were superb including a hearty chorizo, meaty lomo and our first taste of one of the specialties of northern Spain, especially Leon – cecina, often called “beef ham.” This silky, cured beef, similar to Italian bresaola, is one of Spain’s best kept secrets, on a par with the best cured meats of any kind when at its best. Though not quite up to the level of the very best examples that I’ve had, this cecina, as well as the rest of the embutidos were amply satisfying and delicious.
Roasted peppers were suitably sweet, smoky and delicious. The Spanish, like the Italians, roast peppers as an art. They work equally well as an accent or a primary focus.
Empanadas are ubiquitous in northwestern Spain and who am I to complain, especially when they are as good as all of the examples that we had had. This one of beef and potatoes was up there amongst the best.
It wouldn’t be a meal in Spain with Gerry Dawes without some great wines to wash it all down. On this occasion, we had the pleasure of the company of Gonzalo Amigo, one of two brothers who owns the Madai winery in Bierzo. This winery is one of the crown jewels of the Spanish Artisans Wine and Spirits Group – Gerry Dawes Selections portfolio. Both their white Godellos and red Mencias are of stunning quality and here with one of the two Amigos presenting them, they were stellar accompaniments to the very wine-friendly fare.
Having been eating throughout the day, we had neither the appetites nor the time for a big meal at Moncloa, but we did finish up with some very tasty roasted lamb and pork ribs to accompany the beautiful Madai Mencias.
Back on the bus to head up to Oviedo in Asturias, it was getting dark out and the weather was rainy. Though the weather throughout our trip was for the most part good to excellent, this was unfortunate as the route to Oviedo was taking us through the stunningly craggy landscape of the Picos de Europa. I did manage to get a sense of the humbling scenery before it got too dark, but I was left wanting more and hope to return to get a better sense of it.
Our hotel in Oviedo, Hotel de la Reconquista, was a true stunner and one of the most beautiful of the entire trip. A former hospice and children’s home, the classic Spanish building with a large central courtyard was built in the 17770’s and converted into a hotel two centuries later. Well appointed and well situated, it made a perfect base for what was too brief a visit.
Asturias is well known for its sidras or apple ciders, which are quite different from those available elsewhere. Happily for us, the weather cleared, we were met by Marino Gonzalez, one of the main saviors and resurrectors of Spanish and especially Asturian cheese traditions in the post-Franco years¹, and we strolled across town through a park and some of the older sections of the city to a part of the city, Gascona, dedicated to sidrerias, or cider taverns.
We made two stops, both owned by Marino Gonzalez. The first was at a classic sidreria along Gascona, “the boulevard of cider. ” Tierra Astur Gascona, was the first of what now number five sidrerias throughout Asturias. Here, we enjoyed a few snacks and “welcome” sidras poured by two young servers. Much like the Txacoli wines of the neighboring Basque country, sidras require a special pouring technique to fully aerate them and bring out all the nuances of flavor. The pourer raises the bottle as high as he or she can then tips it to pour into a wide glass held below the waist.
The technique was not at all easy and a number of us, including Gerry and I tried our hands at it with limited success.
Spillage is not an issue and indeed in the next place we visited, Tierra Astur Parrilla, the wooden floors have wooden boards with wide separations making it easy for the excess, spilled cider to descend and be absorbed in the dirt floor below.
At Tierra Astur Parrilla, we sat down for a light meal, which, of course, included more sidra. We tried a few cheeses including the classic, local blue, Cabrales, perhaps the most well known Asturian cheese outside of Asturias. When I have this cheese in the US, it is often overaged, extremely salty and quite strong. Here, however, it was at its creamy peak with a manageable level of salt and delicious penicillium funk that satisfied without overpowering. Afuega’l Pitu lay next to the Cabrales. This orange hued cheese formed in the shape of a pumpkin was made in central Asturias from pasteurized cow’s milk and the addition of pimentón to give it color and a bit of piccante. Tierra Astur Vaca, a pasteurized, semi-soft, washed-rind cow’s milk cheese was flavorful and pleasant with smoky nuances. Membrillo, cooked quince paste is a natural accompaniment to cheese and rounded the corner of the plate. Beyos is a semi-hard, chalky, full flavored and delicious cow’s milk cheese. The final cheese on the plate was Gamonéu, a mixed milk, funky and beautiful cheese from the area of Canga de Onis. This one was made by Marino Gonzalez himself.
Corn is not something that I typically associate with Spain or Europe, but its use has been commonplace in northwestern Spain for years. At Tierra Astur Parrilla we had a dish that reminded me of Mexico. Tortinos con Revueltos de Picadillo Tierra Astur use what is essentially a pillowy, fried corn tortilla (not sure that the tortino is made in quite the same way as a Mexican corn tortilla) as a base for a ground wild boar. The feeling is very much like eating a crisp-fried Mexican tostada, although the flavors were not particularly ones that I tend to associate with Mexico. Regardless, it was quite tasty and satisfying in the same way that a good tostada is.
We had our first taste of Fabada Asturiana, a hearty traditional dish that is the local version of pork and beans. The beans are a local variety, while the pork used is in the form of morcilla, bacon and chorizo, all of which help characterize the dish as distinctly from Asturias and distinctly Spanish. The area is known for its beans, and though we were to have a version that surpassed this one, it was still quite satisfying.
Asturias is also beef country and we finished our meal with some grilled steaks over fried potatoes. Once again, this was an excellent dish, but surpassed elsewhere on this trip.
Unfortunately, we had but one night to spend at the beautiful Hotel de la Reconquista, but we were not yet done with Asturias. Our friend, Marino, met us and took us to visit his production/storage facility, Crivencar, where he makes some cheeses and other Asturian products and ages and stores many more.
From Crivencar, Marino took us to visit one of the best sidra producers in Asturias, Casería San Juan del Obispo, which turned out to be one of the personal highlights of the trip for me. I could tell that this was going to be a great visit from the moment our bus pulled up into the driveway.
The facility, which makes sidras and aguardientes using strictly natural techniques, is a modern design that incorporates some really fascinating architectural features, foremost amongst them the exterior walls. They consist of stainless steel mesh skeleton containers filled with rocks to allow ventilation and climate control within. In the winter, the interior is ventilated at an appropriate temperature, but the main value occurs in the hot summer, when water is run over the rocks to allow cooling along with ventilation.
We arrived at the height of the harvest with plenty of apples already plucked from trees, but plenty more still on them within the substantial pomeradas (3500 trees) or orchards on the property. Twenty two different varieties are used within the Denomination of Origin. The harvest begins in November and continues into January.
The trees are picked then placed in large, burlap bags.
The bags are then collected and the apples placed in a central location to be fed into the juicer via a water trough.
The apples are chopped up to little bits by these blades then the must is transferred to a have metal press for juicing.
The fresh pressed juice is every bit as sweet and delicious as one would expect.
The juice is then placed in large, refrigerated steel vats for fermentation. After three months of active fermentation, the cider rests on its yeast mother for another eleven months before bottling, where it is then further aged for another six months prior to release.
Sidra is not the only alcoholic product that comes from apples here. Some of the cider is further distilled into an apple brandy using traditional copper stills called alquitaras. The distillate is brought to an alcohol content of 43% then aged in American oak from Ohio with results rivaling the quality of the finest French Calvados.
While the process of sidra production was fascinating, the proof is in the tasting and taste we did. José María Díaz Díaz, known as “Chema,” gave us the tour of his facility. The master of both the cider production and the brandy and a partner in the company, Chema brought us upstairs to a tasting room overlooking the apple collection point. We tasted his sidra in conjunction with a tasting of Asturian cheeses provided by Marino Gonzalez.
Chema’s sidra, bottled under the label Tareco, was just plain delicious. Dry with great acidity and body, the sidra had plenty of underlying fruit flavor and a satisfying carbonic presence.
The cheeses were superb throughout and included cheeses made from goat, sheep and cow’s milk, including this semi-hard cheese made from all three. They each paired wonderfully with the sidra and were augmented by a number of local fruit preserves.
We finished our tasting with Chema’s two apple brandies. The first, L’Alquitara, a clear distillate of cider, is clean, smooth and quite delicious. The second, Aguardiente Viejo de Sidra Salvador del Obispo, also made directly from sidra, was aged in oak barrels from Ohio over nine years before being bottled in 2010. It has a dark amber color and gradients of caramel, smoke and apple. The finish is elegant and quite extraordinary.
Sadly, we bid our adioses to our host and got back on the bus, but not before he gifted each of us with a bottle of sidra and another of aguardiente. The good news was that we were not quite done with Asturias just yet. We still had two more stops.
The first of these was at a nearby, small artisanal cheese producer, Quesu Ovin, owned and operated by Isaura Souza Ordiales. Using both milk from her own animals as well as that from nearby farms, Ordiales showed us her process for making different varieties of cheeses from different milk types. Of course, we tasted and we enjoyed.
Between all the tastings of the morning, one might conclude that we had no appetite for lunch, but that would be a mistake. We had initially planned on visiting the renowned Casa Gerardo for lunch on this day, but being a Tuesday, it so happened that they were closed. Discovering this well before we were in Asturias, we were able to adjust our plans to substitute another fine restaurant, Restaurante Los Arcos in the small town of Cangas de Onis. If an experience at Casa Gerardo is significantly better than what Los Arcos turned out to be, then it must be an extraordinary restaurant indeed, because the meal at Los Arcos, under the chef, Ramón Celorio, was superb and a great reflection on the cuisine of the region.
We did not drink a lot of beer on this trip, but we tried a local artisanal brew here and it was quite good, full bodied, yeasty and a reasonable alcohol content of 5.5%.
Opening bites of cecina were silky, delicious and the best of that delicacy from the entire trip.
This was followed by a “creative” dish featuring a local product, bonito del norte (Cantabrian Sea albacore tuna). The tuna was given a bit of an Asian treatment with ginger and soy sauce along with peppers, tomatoes, microgreens, herbs and more. The result was delicately and well balanced. Quite delicious, it demonstrated a real finesse and understanding of ingredients and their interplay.
We kept with bubbles to wash the morsels down. This time, however, we returned to the product of the grape, a beautiful, traditionally made sparkling 2013 Rosat Reserva from AT Roca in the Penedes. A blend of Catalan varietals including Macabeo (50%), Monastrell (40%) and Garnacha (10%), this was all finesse and nuance. Elegant with a fine bubble, the wine had delightful acidity that cut through the richness to follow.
We had already sampled a version of Fabada Asturiana that was quite good, but the one that came here, more appropriately for lunch, proved to be a major league all-star compared to the reliable every-day player of the evening before. This was a smoky, hearty dish in which each component was superior. The meat products were exceptional and put the beans into the stratosphere. That such a wholesome dish could be so good to people from outside its usual sphere of influence, is a testament to its true virtue and essential deliciousness. The northern Spanish have a way with beans and nowhere more so than with this particular dish.
Dessert utilized a technique and style that was ubiquitous 10-15 years ago, but for a good reason – it was (and still is) delicious. Here the “molten cake” was not of the classic chocolate, but of hazelnut.
After our lunch, before we got back on our bus to head to Bilbao and the Basque country, we had a chance to stroll through Cangas de Onis, to do a little shopping and to take in the local Asturian atmosphere. The most impressive aspect was the old Roman bridge pictured at the top of this post, but the view from the top of that bridge wasn’t too shabby, either. Asturias was not the main reason that people went on this trip, but, I believe that most, if not all, of our travelers, like I, became totally enchanted by it and desirous of returning.
¹Spanish artisanal cheeses nearly became extinct under the nationalist regime of Francisco Franco after the Spanish Civil War. Franco was vehemenantly centralist and wanted nothing to do with regional traditions, especially those from parts of Spain that did not support his side during the war. He introduced centralized, industrial production techniques and essentially outlawed artisanal production of regional foods during his long regime. As such, many of the people who knew how to produce the traditional, artisanal products of the country brought their secrets and techniques to their graves. A large part of the nation’s cultural patrimony was lost or nearly so. Fortunately, after Franco died, restrictions were eased and a number of people set out to rediscover and restore much of what had nearly been extinguished. When it comes to Spanish cheeses, the two most prominent names of this particular reconquista are the same Marino Gonzalez, who we were fortunate to meet here, and the Catalan cheese legend, Enric Canut, whom I first met in 2006 at The Spain and the World Table event at The Culinary Institute of America/Greystone campus.