Asturias: a paradise of artisanal produce

For memorable meals experienced nowhere else, Asturias offers enticingly unique cuisine.

Published 21 May 2021, 14:29 BST
Known for brightly painted cliffside houses above a sparkling marina, the fishing village of Cudillero is ...

Known for brightly painted cliffside houses above a sparkling marina, the fishing village of Cudillero is believed to have been founded by the Vikings.

Photograph by Asturias Tourism, Mampiris

When we talk about Spanish food, we’re really talking about regional cuisines. Asturias has its own rich, varied, and abundant gastronomy, drawn from a particularly fertile environment to be eaten and shared with gusto by a population who are naturally proud, but not especially boastful. Prime ingredients flow in two directions, from two traditions.

To one side, the blue Bay of Biscay, where squid, prawns, crab, and sea bass are hauled in to port at Avilés and Gijón (Xixón), and at small, pristine fishing villages like Cudillero, Puerto de Vega, or Llastres. To the other side, the green Cantabrian mountains, where pastoral farming has been practiced for millennia on fertile, sloping grasslands.

Asturian cows travel a kind of seasonal bridge between those environments, spending their winters close to the wilder, warmer coastline, and their summers roaming free in higher, cooler pastures. They serve as totems for the native cuisine too, their milk and beef so famously good because the land itself is so nourishing.

The Picos de Europa National Park ranges across dramatic peak placid lakes, and limestone caves, as well as high, cool grasslands for grazing cows.

Photograph by National Geographic/Raul Touzon

Much of that milk is used in prize cheeses – Asturias is home to more than 50 artisanal types, including Gamonéu, Afuega'l Pitu, Casín, and the world-renowned Cabrales. Named after its narrow production region in the limestone landscape of the Picos de Europa, that particular delicacy is sometimes made with a blend of cow, sheep, and goat milks, before being aged in natural karst caves, where conditions are optimal for bringing out its signature blue-green mold and salty, spicy flavour.

Cabrales has lately become so coveted as to hold a Guinness World Record for the most expensive cheese ever sold at auction: the highest bidder paid €20,500 for one wheel from the Quesería Arangas factory in 2019. The spreading reputation of such specialities has also made Asturias a global point of interest for World Cheese Awards, which will base its 2021 edition in and around the capital, Oviedo (Uviéu).

Often blended from cow, sheep, and goat milks, the world-renowned artisanal cheese Cabrales is aged in natural caves to bring out its strong flavour.

Photograph by National Geographic/Chiara Goia

Another regional farmhouse favourite, the buttery meat-and-bean stew fabada asturiana, is subject to an annual competition that decides the “world’s best” example of that dish, though the winners are inevitably Asturian.

Locals, meanwhile, will forever debate among themselves which establishment serves the closest thing to the ideal fabada. Across the cities, towns, and countryside are taverns where veteran chefs and loyal customers remain faithful to a particular recipe. Some will say the secret to their flavour is white granja beans from the coastal fields near La Marina  (Les Mariñes), while others prefer beans grown inland, around Pravia. Certain cooks insist on buying meat for their fabada from the same butcher their grandmother went to, others make their chorizos (kind of sausages) by hand, as they were taught by their own abuelas.

Fabada asturiana is the signature dish of the region, a rustic stew of white beans and sausage often made according to generations-old family recipes.

Photograph by Asturias Tourism, Ana López-Fernández

A powerful matriarchal heritage runs right through Asturian cuisine, upheld since 1997 by the Guisanderas Club of Asturias, a women’s collective dedicated to preserving certain traditions of stovetop cooking passed down along the female side of their family lines. Having a club member in the kitchen is an iron guarantee of authenticity when it comes to staple dishes like fabada or caldereta. The latter is a rich fish stew usually made with crab, lobster, and rockfish in a broth of tomato, garlic and white wine, though again the remit of the Guisanderas is still flexible enough to allow for all sorts of personal twists and flourishes on the base formula.

Another stamp of quality is the brand seal of the Mesas de Asturias, which marks out select restaurants across the region for “gastronomic excellence”. So, standards are high but it’s also a broad banner, making room for relatively basic, rustic taverns alongside avant-garde contemporary bistros and renowned modern Michelin-starred properties. Several stars are now scattered through Asturias, acting as spotlights to give the dining culture an international profile. They are widely spread between popular urban and rural landmarks – an excursion to eat at some remote farmhouse restaurant allows the landscape to feed into the meal itself, enhancing the particular Asturian effect of feasting on the produce of a natural paradise.

Overlooking the Bay of Biscay, Llastres (Lastres) exemplifies the coastal towns of Asturias, with hilltop restaurants and waterfront taverns famed for seafood.

Photograph by Asturias Tourism, Juan de Tury

When it comes to the simple pleasure of eating fresh fish within sight of the  sea it came from, you’ll find clifftop institutions known for gourmet ways of cooking bass, and beachfront eateries where prime lobster, spider crab, sole and red mullet are all cooked on grills or in charcoal ovens. Quality-wise, even the humblest stone shack along the shoreline will tend to offer superior product, serving fried monkfish and baked crustaceans alongside the cider that complements them so well. That drink is no less emblematic of Asturias than anything on the platter. The region is ripe with orchards, their apples pressed into sweet and sparkling or cloudy, natural ciders, which are often used as an active ingredient, with a la sidra recipes adding a distinctly earthy flavour to seafood.

Fishing boats in the tranquil harbour of Puerto de Vega, a traditional Cantabrian seafaring village where the daily catch is sold at auction.

Photograph by Asturias Tourism, Paco-Currás-SL

Specialist taverns known as sidrerías, meanwhile, are as endemic to this territory as pre-Romanesque churches, standing alone in the countryside or in lively urban rows and clusters, as found on Oviedo’s Calle Gascona, Gijón’s Cimavilla (Cimadevilla) quarter, the historic center of Avilés, and the coastal villages of Villaviciosa or Nava. These “cider houses” are not merely bars, but deeply traditional restaurants and essential portals into Asturian culture, with food served to complement the contents of those bright green or amber bottles.

There’s a sort of reverence expressed in the pouring and sharing of cider – custom demands that it cascade from a height into the glass, for the purposes of aeration, the liquid glinting in the lunchtime sun before frothing and pooling in small measures of about a mouthful’s worth. It’s a sight to see and a flavour to savour, as well as a habit said to date back a couple of thousand years.

Sidrerías are classic Asturian institutions, where natural cider is poured according to custom, and paired with dishes that complement the taste.

Photograph by Asturias Tourism, Xurde-Margaride

Though much better known for cider than wine, Asturias also produces its share of the latter. The rich soil beneath the grassy reaches of Cangas del Narcea has given rise to blooming vineyards and robust native grapes such as white Albarín and “black” Verdejo. The dominance of more southerly Spanish wines saw this greener, wetter region decline for a long while, but estates now grouped under the Protected Designation of Origin, Vino de Cangas, have lately been reclaiming those lush, terraced hillsides, and producing distinctive new vintages with growing reputations.

As a measure of abiding Asturian wildness, and the sustaining nature of this terrain, consider that wine country is also bear country. The higher, oak-and-heather covered slopes of Cangas del Narcea, extending into neighbouring Somiedo Natural Park, are among the last places where Cantabrian brown bears can roam free. The visitor may or may not see them, but still take comfort in knowing that they’re up there, and raise a glass to their continued good health.

Cantabrian brown bears still roam freely in certain mountain regions of Asturias, including the upper reaches of the Cangas del Narcea wine region.

Photograph by Ramon Navarro

At National Geographic, we want to inspire your next adventure but only when it is safe and advised to do so. Please, refer to official Covid-19 regulations and guidelines from relevant authorities for international travel and travel within Asturias.

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