The Boardwalk of San Lorenzo Gijón
Text by Nancy Harmon Jenkins ©2008
Asturias is a small region, the size of Massachusetts if you add in Vermont, wedged between the Bay of Biscay on Spain’s north coast, where waves beat against rocky cliffs and lap sandy beaches, and the heart-stopping heights of the Picos de Europa soaring up to the region’s southern border. A rainy Atlantic climate, mild winters, and high green pastures make for great dairy country and Asturias is well-known for its array of cheeses, many of them aged in limestone mountain caves. But the region is equally noted for magnificent seafood—monkfish, sea bass, hake and tuna (although these two are rapidly Oneta Waterfalls in Villayónbeing fished out), bígaros (periwinkles), mussels and spider crabs, as well as fresh-water trout and even some of the last salmon rivers in Europe. It’s a difficult geography, however, which is the reason why even modern Spaniards say that Spain begins with Asturias—it was the one region never conquered by the Moors, the region from which the long, tough saga of the Reconquista began.
But say Asturias to just about anyone in Spain and other things come to mind:
• Sidra (cider): Like neighboring Cantabria, Asturias is not a wine-producing Region; instead the drink of choice is fizzy sidra, made from one or more of 22 different varieties of apples permitted in the Controlled Denomination (DO). In fact, there’s a whole culture around sidra, which is ideally served in a sidrería, a cider bar, poured from a green bottle held at a great height in order to aerate the drink, enhancing both natural carbonation and flavor. Traditionally, the most popular variety is unfiltered, unpasteurized, cloudy, amber-colored, and only lightly alcoholic. Drink it all at once but leave a little in the bottom of the glass to be tossed onto the floor of the sidreria.
• Cabrales: Of more than 25 different varieties of cheese produced in this intensively dairy region, deeply veined, blue-green cabrales, made from a mixture of cow, sheep, and goat milk, is the best known outside the region, although similar (but more elusive) gamoneu (gamonedo), somewhat firmer and dryer, and fiery afuega’l pitu, made from unpasteurized cow’s milk, also have coveted DO status. Richly aromatic cabrales is one of the finest blue cheeses in the world, much sought after by connoisseurs who might pair it with a robust reserva from Ribeira del Duero, for instance—although in its home cabrales is treasured with a flavorful sidra.
• Fabada asturiana: Truly the national dish of Asturias, this huge and hearty bean stew is made with fabes grown especially around Villaviciosa, Pravia and Cangas. These are very large, plump white beans that have the distinction of absorbing more flavor while remaining buttery soft than almost any other bean. (These are New World beans and not fava beans, though the word is sometimes mistakenly translated that way.) Fabada asturiana has been called the masterwork to which all Spanish cocidos, potajes, pucheros, caldos, and other bean-based one-pot dishes should be compared. In a proper fabada, the beans are cooked for hours with lacón (cured pork shank), morcillas (blood sausage), spicy chorizo, perhaps salted unsmoked bacon, and flavored with saffron and sweet unsmoked paprika (pimentón).
Iconic Dishes and Products of Asturias
Merluza a la sidra: fat fillets of hake poached in delicate Asturian cider and served with potatoes and clams.
Caldereta asturiana: a fish stew made from what’s in the market (or on the boat) plus lots of onions, parsley, and white wine.
Chosco: a hearty but acquired taste, pork loin and tongue, seasoned with pimentón, garlic, and parsley, stuffed into the pig’s stomach, then smoked and cured.
Escanda: an ancient variety of wheat that is conventionally translated as “spelt,” but is more likely a type of durum wheat called emmer (Triticum dicoccum).
Pote asturiano: White beans, potatoes, and curly kale, stewed in a terracotta vessel with chorizo, morcilla (blood sausage), and other hearty bits of cured pork, including, sometimes, the ears and snout of the pig.
Casadielles: fried pastries filled with sugary chopped walnuts and flavored with anisette.
Frixuelos de manzana: delicate crepes rolled around a filling of chopped apples.
Arroz con leche: sweet rice and milk pudding, often with a burnt crust, like crème brulée.