Escape to the mountainous region of northern Spain from your armchair with food and travel writer Clare Hargreaves. Explore long-standing bakeries, famed soda bars and Michelin-starred restaurants, all from your sofa.
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It might be just a humble bean but growers of faba de la granja cherish this oval-shaped legume almost as much as they do their children. Its journey from being cradled by the warm spring soil to being plucked from its wizened pod in the autumn is a precarious one, and qualification for the faba de la granja label is extremely stringent. “Until the beans are in the bag, ready to sell, you can’t relax,” says farmer José Antonio Fernández, as he winnows his precious crop from its papery husks. The white-jacketed beans might look modest but they fetch more per kilo than steak.
I’m in the hamlet of Villademoros, in the west of Asturias, on Spain’s northern coast. Looking around me I can see why they call this region España Verde (Green Spain). Forget the flamenco-stomping south with its sun-scorched squares and Moorish palaces, or the apartment-block-blighted holiday playgrounds of the Costa del Sol. Asturias is rustic and rugged, with verdant fields that tinkle to the ring of cowbells and look more like Wales than part of the Iberian peninsula.
When it comes to food, the region’s towering mountains (including the Picos de Europa) join with its rocky coastline to produce a deliciously varied menu of blue-veined cheeses, ruby-fleshed meats and just-caught seafood. The narrow but lush belt between the sea and mountains yields walnuts, hazelnuts and apples, the latter often turned into scrumpy-style sidra (cider) or comforting pasteles de manzana (apple cakes).
This belt is also where those faba de la granja are nurtured. They’re used in fabada, a legendary Asturian dish which I head towards the mountains to try. I stop at the incongruously grand-looking Casa el Obispo (Bishop’s House) in the village of San Pedro de Paredes, a one-stop shop that serves as a bar and restaurant but also sells anything from nails to nylons. It’s possible just to grab a pre-lunch snifter here, or to settle down to a worker’s three-course lunch (a bargain at just €12) but I settle for a simple bowl of fabada. It arrives steaming, with fist-sized chunks of spicy chorizo, smoky morcilla (blood sausage) and salted pork nestled among the buttery beans. Both beans and embutidos (cured meats) are produced in the village, the latter using the meat from the annual November pig kill, the owner tells me. The result is gutsy, a dish for folk who have been labouring in the fields. I haven’t, so I’m grateful for the cider that washes it down.
Oviedo, the Asturian capital, is where I head to for more serious cider tasting. As I wander the tranquil squares around the city’s 14th-century Gothic cathedral, a troupe of musicians strikes up on bagpipes and drums. For cider, the guidebooks suggest the Calle Gascona, dubbed Oviedo’s ‘boulevard of cider’, but locals direct me to the sidrería restaurant at the Hotel El Ovetense. At 3pm – peak lunch hour – it’s heaving, so I bag a table outside and watch the tradition for which Asturias is famed: the pouring of cider from alarming heights to give it froth. I wonder if the pouring really makes much difference but it definitely adds to the sense of theatre. As punters down their inch-or-so of cider, back runs the waiter to perform the ritual all over again.
For a more orthodox lunch, there’s Casa Ramón, tucked beneath the geranium-decked walls of the city’s Fontan fish and fruit market, which is known for its super-fresh calamari. Or Casa Fermín, where you can try elegant takes on local dishes such as suckling pig and a stellar rice pudding.
Cider and restaurants are not Oviedo’s only foodie draws. It also boasts several confiterías (cake shops), the standout being Camilo de Blas, which has been in business since 1914. Its period interior, complete with Carrara marble counters and original cash register, is so picture-perfect it’s regularly used as a film-set. I meet Don Camilo, great-grandson of the shop’s founder, who hands me one of its famous carbayones. Invented by his grandfather for a 1924 trade fair in the nearby city of Gijón, it looks like an eclair but its filling is a mix of ground Marcona almonds and egg yolks rather than cream.
From here I make my way to the coast. Passing lovely Lastres, where red-roofed mansions cling to the cliffs overlooking the harbour, I reach Llanes, where ancient timber-framed houses cradle a marina. The must-try restaurant here is El Bálamu, on the top floor of a quayside warehouse, where Manolo González serves fish bought at the fish auction below. Get there at 4.30pm to see the auction in full flow, then tuck into a plate of monkfish or sardines upstairs. They’re simply grilled, and the only garnish is a smidge of potato and pimiento, but you’ll struggle to find fresher.
I head inland through the mountain town of Infiesto, which happens to be holding its annual hazelnut festival, then stop in Cangas de Onís for what the locals call a “vermouth” – pronounced “vermou”, it doesn’t necessarily refer to a vermouth (though you can have a homemade version) but to any pre-lunch drink, including beer, wine or cider. The bar I visit, La Sifonería, is famed for its soda – or, rather, its collection of vintage soda siphons. At the last count, owner Thelso reckons he has 1,100, in all colours, cramming the shelves. “People give them to me, so the collection builds,” he explains, as he hands me a plate of pungent blue-veined cabrales cheese, matured in limestone caves in the Picos mountains.
Lunch is at Casa Pedro in tiny San Juan de Parres. It’s a family affair: owner Pedro’s daughter, Aroa, serves, while her brother and mother cook. On the menu there’s fabada, lamb stew and cachopo, Asturias’s answer to schnitzel. But I plump for the more experimental – and extremely rich – liver pâté terrine, layered with apple and anchovies.
An Asturian chicken dish almost as famous as fabada is pitu de caleya, and the place to try it is at a remote converted mill called El Molín de Mingo, outside Cangas de Onís (Peruyes, 00 34 985 92 22 63). The chicken is rooster, around a year old, whose dark meat is slow-cooked then served with saffron-infused rice. Like fabada, it’s simple, filling fare of the kind that, in the past, would have kept Asturias’s livestock herders and miners going.
But if you think Asturias only does rustic, that would be wrong. In the hamlet of La Salgar, high in the hills, local chef Nacho Manzano has put Asturias firmly on Spain’s gastronomic map with Casa Marcial. It holds two Michelin stars, the only restaurant in Asturias to do so. In what was once his father, Marcial’s, bar-cum-shop, Nacho now runs a refined restaurant that puts Asturian flavours in the spotlight. Much of the building’s character has been preserved and a sense of family and heritage is key to the business (Nacho is assisted by two sisters, and you may well spot his parents working in the garden).
Like other chefs in northern Spain’s ‘nueva cocina’ movement, Nacho combines technical wizardry with a respect for fresh Asturian ingredients. Some dishes – such as sardines bought direct from the fishermen in nearby Ribadesella, served grilled alongside piparra peppers (like padrónes but long and thin rather than short and squat); or ripe figs from the village paired with fig-leaf ice cream – appear deceptively simple. But there are jaw-droppers, too, including the menacing-looking hake head, teeth and all, that’s brought to the table, then dissected so you enjoy the succulent fleshy bits, bathed in a cream sauce. Less intimidating, but no less ingenious, are the chocolate-clad ‘garlic cloves’ (bite-size morsels shaped like garlic cloves and infused with garlic syrup) that arrive as savoury petits fours.
There is space in Nacho’s kitchen, too, for more traditional Asturian dishes, though they’re given a subtle modern twist. That ubiquitous king of the bar snack, the ham croqueta, comes with an extra-runny centre and extra-thin overcoat. There’s a polished take on pitu de calaya. And, as José Antonio Fernández would be gratified to hear, the region’s precious white bean, faba de la granja, ends its journey here in two ways, either gently fried as an appetiser, or cooked within a full-blown, but impressively delicate, fabada.
Words and photographs by Clare Hargreaves