1.31.2021 Dinner in Asturias, Spain
Marinated Olives, Almonds & Valdeón Cheese
Google image “Asturias.” Or better yet, search “Picos de Europa,” part of the Cantabrian mountain range in Asturias. Not what you thought of when you pictured Spain, right? Dramatically isolated between the Cantabrian Mountains and Cantabrian Sea lies perhaps the best cheeses in all of Spain, maybe even Europe. In France, when people mention a cheese cave, they’re typically referring to a dark, damp, carefully controlled environment. In Asturias, it’s a literal cave, made of stalagmites and tufas where men with flashlights and helmets essentially spelunk to their inventory, protecting it from stray foxes and thieves. While most regions of Spain specialize in specific types of cheese, Asturias is affectionately known as “The Land of Cheese”, its tableau of topographies and various types of grazing animals providing infinite variations. Cabrales, an Asturian cave-aged, strong blue cheese is perhaps the most famous. We weren’t able to find Cabrales but did manage Valdeón, essentially the same cave-aged blue cheese made in the Picos de Europa but on the other side of the mountain range in León. We’ve tossed the Valdeón in marinated green olives and toasted marcona almonds for a spectacular nibble. Contains dairy, almonds; vegetarian, gluten free.
Croquetas de Pollo
“Asturias es un paraíso croquetero,” (Asturias is a paradise for croquette lovers) reports a popular Spanish newspaper. According to the Asturian chef José Andrés, “Asturias has the best croquetas in Spain and the world.” While chicken croquettes are hardly a novelty in terms of Spanish tapas, they are singularly loved and appreciated in Asturias, where local restaurants have repeatedly won Madrid’s “Best Croquettes in Spain'' award. Croquettes and the bechamel that fills them originally came from France, but Spain has transformed them into one of their national dishes, oftentimes filled with jamón or cheese. Our croquettes are a riff on José Andrés’ recipe, with shredded chicken and a luscious, velvety bechamel. Contains dairy, eggs, gluten.
Patatas Asturianas en Salsa Verde
Northern Spain is generally differentiated from the rest of the country, commonly called “Green Spain” in juxtaposition to the rest of the country’s burnt orange hue. It’s also the part of Spain that is the least ethnically and linguistically homogeneous - with Galicians, Asturians, and Basque, to name a few. The Asturian people (and Galician) are descendants of Celtic invaders who inhabited the Northwest of the Iberian Peninsula and whose influence can still be seen: from the pale freckled faces of many (think Fernando Torres if you follow soccer) to the gaita, essentially a bagpipe still part of local festivities (check out our playlist to hear some Spanish-style bagpipes)! We wanted to do a dish that pays homage to the verdant landscape and Celtic traditions. Potatoes are fried and then braised before being tossed with garlic and parsley. Gluten free.
Chorizo a la Sidra
Asturias has been known for its cider, or sidra, since at least the times of the Greeks. While Spain might be known as a powerhouse of wines, the reason cider is so popular in the north is simple: grapes can’t grow in such moist and humid climates. Instead, like in Normandy, Wales and some parts of Germany, apples flourish. There are over 30 types of apples used in traditional Asturian sidra production, most of them fairly sour. The fermentation and bottling process is similar to grapes and most Asturians use it in lieu of white wine in cooking. Read our drink recommendations to find out more about sidra’s idiosyncrasies. Chorizo, on the other hand, is omnipresent in Spanish cooking and of particular importance in Asturias. Asturians produce various types of chorizo as a means of preserving meat for consumption year-round. Historically, families would only kill one pig a year during the Christmas season, and the meat would have to stretch for a full year. This dish of chorizo braised in cider is about as simple, and as Asturian, as you can get; the richness of the sausage is perfectly counterbalanced by the tanginess of the cider, in a ubiquitous snack available at any sidrería. Gluten free.
In addition to being the spot in Spain for cheese, croquettes, and cider, Asturias is renowned for its incredible array of seafood and shellfish hailing from the cold, deep North Atlantic Cantabrian Sea. In fact, more seafood is fished in Asturias and Galicia, Asturias’ western neighbor, than the whole of Spain’s Mediterranean coast combined. From sea urchins to razor clams to gooseneck barnacles, it’s all there. Given we live in Michigan and are a delivery company, fresh shellfish is hard to pull off. Luckily, Asturias is also known for their conservas culture, canning and preserving everything from fish to asparagus. There, the belief goes, the ingredient lives a second life, where flavors become pure and concentrated, lingering indefinitely. For this dish, onions are hollowed out and stuffed with Spanish tuna conserva, fire-roasted piquillo peppers (also a conserva) and eggs before all being simmered in a rich tomato and cider braise. Contains fish, eggs, gluten.
Here it is, the things everyone’s been waiting for, the pièce de ré·sis·tance in all its glory…Fabada Asturiana. Known as the most “solid” or hearty single dish in Spain, faba beans are slowly simmered with tocino (slab bacon), chorizo, and morcilla (blood sausage). The tastes of the differently cured forms of pork mingle and mix in cooking until the beans absorb the smoke and fat of their porcine partners. It’s perfect for Asturian miners in snow-blanketed mountains or fishermen setting out into the Atlantic gales. In terms of Spanish gastronomy, Fabada Asturiana is part of the cocido class - slowly simmered stews of legumes and pork that bridge together all of Iberia’s regional cuisines. When Spaniards think of Asturian food, the first thing that comes to mind is this stew, often served throughout the country during the winter months. With garlic, onion, pimentón, and saffron, there’s only one way to make this dish, and we’ve stuck to the recipe. Gluten free.
Boroña de Maíz
To enjoy all the tapas and soak up the sauces, you’ll need bread. Asturians favor a hearty, dense cornbread called boroñato to accompany all their meals. A rarity in Spain and in most of Europe, the cornbread is spongy and yellow like a cake, but not at all sweet like American cornbread. In the seventeenth century, Spaniards brought corn from the Americas to Europe, which catalyzed an agricultural and socioeconomic revolution in Asturias. Corn consumption skyrocketed relative to native rye, spelt, and wheat, which meant that people were better nourished and the population doubled. Nowadays, this bread is often stuffed with chorizo or bacon, but we’ve opted for the simple version as a foil to the rest of the meal. Contains gluten; vegan.
Arroz con Leche
The Spanish word for dessert, sobremesa, is literally translated to “on the table.” In reality, it’s less about the dessert itself, and more about the tradition of lingering around the table long after the pudding has been eaten and the brandy has been sipped. That said, Asturias is known for some delectable desserts, but our favorite is arroz con leche. Rice pudding is hardly a unique concept, making its way to the Iberian Peninsula via the Moors who occupied it for 700 years, and now found throughout the world. But Asturians have truly perfected the dish. Rich and creamy, it is a perfect balance of cinnamon, vanilla, and sugar. And to top it off, caramelized sugar like in a crème brûlée. You’ll definitely want to linger for this one. Contains dairy; vegetarian, gluten free.
Available at Arbor Farms - $6
If you’re ever going to have cider with a meal, this is the day - Asturias produces over 80% of Spain’s cider and Asturians are the largest cider consumers per capita in the world. And while we couldn’t find true Asturian cider, this Isastegi from the Basque Country in Northeast Spain is just as delicious. But before jumping right in, there are a few faux pas to avoid that will make the experience more delicious and memorable. This cider is made with over a dozen native varieties and if poured incorrectly, can taste a bit funky, musky, and acidic. That’s because of the natural yeasts used to ferment the apples. In order to avoid this, watch this video (seriously) on how Asturians pour their cider. While we’re not advocating for a full arm stretch pour like the video, you should pour the cider into a wide cup angled away from you from a height. Only pour a little at a time, making sure it splashes and gets frothy. This aerates the cider for a very short time, allowing all the wonderful ripe apple taste. Drink it quickly, in one go before the froth dies down. Repeat!
Available at Arbor Farms - $19
If you’d like to stick with wine for tonight’s dinner, we recommend a hearty red to pair with the Fabada Asturiana. Just south of Asturias in the León region lies Cigales, a region known for producing a deeper, darker, and more brooding representation of the tempranillo grape (the same grape used in traditional Riojas). This Reserva has notes of blackberry, vanilla, roasted nuts, and mild spice along with firm tannins that stand up well to this hearty meal.
“Asturias es España; lo demás es tierra conquistada.”
“Asturias is Spain. The rest is conquered land.” That is one bold statement and effectively defines the Asturian anima in eight simple words. Asturians are fierce, independent minded, no-bullshit people defined by their relative isolation yet outsized impact on the course of Spanish history. Asturias is not the Spain of your imagination; there’s very little sun, no flamenco dancers, no sangría. Instead it’s a land compressed between the rugged Cantabrian Mountains and the cold Cantabrian Sea - emerald green valleys with snaking rivers full of pink salmon, mountain lakes, cavernous caves, cool mists, and a hissing ocean. If you haven’t already, do a quick Google image search and see for yourself.
Asturians are bound to their past, their identity practically defined by resistance to anyone who would threaten their home or way of life. After all of Hispania was conquered, only Asturias and neighboring Cantabria remained free from Roman occupation. Asturians used their mountainous perches and guerilla tactics to devastate the Roman army so badly that emperor Caesar Augustus himself oversaw the conquest of Asturias, a process that took 10 years and cost 50,000 Roman soldiers’ lives. Seven hundred years later, when the Moors conquered all of the Iberian Peninsula, Asturias again became the last bastion of resistance. Christians, led by Visigoth nobleman Don Pelayo, took a page from Sparta’s playbook and funneled the Moorish forces into a narrow valley in the Picos de Europa, thereby forcing the Moors to retreat. For 700 years, Asturias remained the only part of Spain never to fall to Moorish rule. It was also the center of the Reconquista, the process where Northern Spanish Christians began to expand south and eventually expel the Moors from the peninsula, essentially creating present-day Spain. It is so important to nation-building that since 1388, the Crown Prince of Spain is styled Prince of Asturias.
So it comes as no surprise that Asturians believe in their exceptionalism. More than anywhere else in Spain, their culture and food is bound by geography. Until the advent of railroads, during the winter months when the mountains were snowed in, the only way Asturians could trade or get in contact with Madrid was by sailing around the peninsula to the port of Cádiz and then traveling north. This insularity led to a unique cuisine that is a byproduct of the harsh realities of mountainous life: extreme simplicity paired with exceptional quality. Cheese is aged in caves, guarded by farmers. Cider is fermented using local yeasts borne out of the humid climate to produce its distinctive zippiness. Preserved meats such as chorizo and morcilla are the rule, not the exception. Seafood is cooked with a two-item pantry of salt and olive oil, grill smoke being the only condiment (even black pepper and lemon are considered heretical attacks to the purity of the product). In all regards, Asturians are fiercely devoted to their traditions - if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it, at least with the food.
Like most small, rural areas of the Iberian Peninsula, recent history hasn’t been so grand, with many emigrating to South America or larger cities in Spain in search of economic opportunities (mining and metallurgy aren’t what they used to be). Despite this, however, interest in Asturian food has grown exponentially, especially with cultural ambassadors like José Andrés, owner of several Spanish restaurants and founder of World Central Kitchen, a food service for families in the wake of natural disasters. Additionally, northern Spanish cuisine such as Basque and Catalan, centered around San Sebastián and Barcelona respectively, has undergone a huge surge in popularity. San Sebastián currently has more Michelin stars per square meter than anywhere else in the world. And Ferran and Albert Adrià put Catalan cuisine on the map with their paradigm shifting restaurant, El Bulli. All this to say, Asturian cuisine is perhaps the most “authentic” Spanish cuisine of them all, and we predict that we’ll be seeing much more of it in the future.
Featured Recipe: Cebolla Rellenas
Makes 8 stuffed onions
9 medium onions
225 g of canned bonito or tuna in olive oil (not in water)
320 ml of crushed tomato
5 piquillo peppers or roasted red peppers
1 boiled egg
100 ml cider
2 clove garlic, finely minced or grated
1 tablespoon of flour
1 bay leaf
Extra virgin olive oil
To prepare the filling, crumble the bonito and place it in a bowl. Chop the boiled egg and 3 piquillo peppers into small cubes, and add them in. Add six tablespoons of crushed tomato and mix everything well until it is homogeneous
Peel and cut the top and bottom of 8 onions so they lay flush with your cutting board. Using a melon ball or small spoon, remove the inside of the onion carefully, making sure not to break the outer layer. Reserve the inside pieces to make the sauce.
Season the inside of the onion with salt and fill the onions with the fish stuffing. To prevent the filling from escaping, take a chunk of the leftover onion and use it to cover the filling. This should almost look like a lid for the onion
Put plenty of oil in a pan and brown the stuffed onions on the bottom. Set the pan aside.
To make the sauce, finely chop the remaining onion and the onion insides. Fry in a separate pan with a drizzle of oil. When they are soft and translucent, add the tablespoon of flour and cook for a minute. Chop the other 2 piquillo peppers and add them in along with the rest of the crushed tomato and the bay leaf. Pour in the cider and 200 ml of water. Add the garlic and salt, then let everything cook together for 5 minutes
Pour the sauce into the pan of the stuffed onions, sprinkle them with chopped parsley, cover and cook over low heat for 2 hours. Sprinkle with more chopped parsley and serve.
Recipes Inspired By:
José Andrés’ cookbook Tapas is a great starting point to understanding the vast array of small bites that make up a Spanish meal
The Cooking of Spain and Portugal: this is old school
Explore Parts Unknown, Bourdain’s website has some great recipes
Matt Golding has some fantastic stories and anecdotes in his perfectly titled Spanish memoir: Grape Olive Pig
Roads and Kingdoms has a fun listicle on Asturias
Besides the recipes, Explore Parts Unknown also has interesting articles on cider, conservas, and books about the region