Text by Nancy Harmon Jenkins ©2008
Nestled between the Bay of Biscay to the north and the barrier mountains of the Cordillera Cantabrica to the south, wedged between the Basque Country to the east and Asturias to the west, Cantabria is an integral part of “green” Spain, España Verde, the rainy north coast, its rocky shores and sandy beaches washed by the Atlantic, its rolling green hills climbing to the high snow-capped peaks of the Picos de Europa. This is an altogether different Spain from the usual tourist brochures, but one that is equally compelling.
As befits the climate and green meadows, this is a region where cows rule. Cantabria is said to have more cattle than anywhere else in Spain, most of them dairy cows who graze, along with sheep and goats, on impossibly green, high-mountain pasture and produce rich milk that makes delicious butter and creamy cheeses, among them spicy Picón Bejes-Tresviso, streaked with blue-green mold, and Ahumado de Áliva and Quesuco, smoked and unsmoked versions of the same mixed-milk cheese that are part of the over-all designation Quesucos de Liébana. Enchanting mountain villages like Potes, which serves as capital of the Liébana region and a gateway to the mountains for hikers, climbers, and shepherds alike, are where culinarily curious visitors find varieties of cheeses, from creamy just-made to long-cured, savory hard cheeses, that rarely make it to markets outside the region, plus tasty hams and sausages, cured in the dry mountain air. (Chorizo de Potes is a recognized specialty.) As a bonus, there’s a whole succession of deliciously rustic, cool-climate dishes, combinations of meat, beans, and greens braised together slowly in clay pots that have withstood the test of time—cocido montañés and cocido lebaniego are but two examples.
But Cantabria has a coastline as well, and fishing fleets arrive daily in small ports and large with remarkably high-quality fish and shellfish from the cold waters of the Atlantic—anchovies, crabs, mussels, lobster, squid, sardines, tuna, sea bass, sometimes the over-exploited hake. (Most of the tuna landed here is albacore or yellowfin, caught by hook-and-line, a more sustainable method than dragnetting.) Santoña, a small city east of Santander, the regional capital, is famous for its production of very high-quality canned fish, especially oil- or brine-packed tuna and anchovies, while San Vicente de la Barquera is renowned for its sorropotún, a stew of fresh tuna, similar to Basque marmitako but using sweet red potatoes grown high up in the mountains.
Sea and mountains are contiguous throughout this zone. From Santander, the capital, with its gorgeous broad sandy beaches, it is a matter of minutes (by car) to climb toward the highest peaks of the Picos de Europa—the European peaks, so called because they were a landmark for sailors returning from weeks at sea. In the mountains or at the seaside, however, the local drink, as it is throughout these regions of Green Spain, is sidra (cider), poured from a height to make a pleasant fizz in the glass. But the crowning glory, the finishing touch, is almost always a quick shot of orujo or asorujo, a powerful distilled spirit that’s considered the only proper way to end a meal. (Note: tostadillo is the name given to orujo in Potes.)
Iconic Dishes and Products of Cantabria
Tudanca beef: an ancient, autochthonous breed of Cantabrian cattle, well adapted to steep mountain meadows where the cows spend summers grazing on a sumptuous diet of grasses. Once used as draft animals, Tudancas are now grown primarily for their superb meat as well as their milk.
Quesucos de Liébana: mostly small (one-pound or less) cheeses, made from mixed milk (cow, goat, sheep) from the comarca (county) of Liébana in the Picos de Europa in southwestern Cantabria; this over-all controlled denomination includes Picón, Quesuco, and Ahumado de Aliva.
Picón Bejes-Treviso: a special blue-veined cheese with a DO that specifies it must be made from the milk of specific breeds—Tudanca, Brown Swiss, and Holstein cows, Pyrenean goats, and Lacha sheep, all grazing in high meadows; it is aged up to five months, often in abandoned mines.
Cocido montañés: a hearty mountain stew made with white beans (alubias), pork and pork sausage, and cabbage or collard greens.
Cocido lebaniego: a similar stew, only made with beef as well as pork sausages, and with chickpeas from Liébana; fried breadcrumb dumplings are often added.
Sorropotún: a tasty fish stew that can be made with any firm-textured fish but is traditionally made with onions, potatoes from high mountain fields, and chunks of fresh tuna.
Cachón en su tinta: squid cooked in its own ink and a tomato sauce.
Quesada pasiega: a rich and creamy custard made with fresh cow’s milk cheese from the Pasiego valleys; traditionally quesada is sweetened with honey and flavored with cinnamon.
Frisuelos: sugar-coated thin crepes from the Liébana region.