I checked the time on my phone and laughed. 14:46. I made my train with only four minutes to spare. I breathed a sigh of relief as the train zoomed out of the city at 175 miles an hour. I knew it’d be ambitious to rush right from school to an unfamiliar train station on the opposite side of Madrid, but I didn’t want to waste a moment of my weekend in Asturias. Soon we were winding up and tunneling through rows after rows of jaw-dropping, jagged, snow-capped mountains, to the northern coast of the Iberian peninsula, the city of Gijón.
It’s funny, the weather in the northwest region of Spain is similar to the weather in the States’ pacific northwest: RAINY. What I love is the fact that this dismal weather has actually influenced the regional cuisine. This area of the country is known for warm, hearty dishes – “comfort foods,” the kind you instinctively crave when its chilly, rainy, and gray. Think soups, stews, and heavy meat-and-potato dishes. I know what you’re thinking, “Meat and potatoes? I thought that was for Ireland and northern Europe.” Well, there is actually a strong Celtic influence in northwest Spain too, and similar climate, so the food culture is linked!
Like most of my adventures abroad, I was lucky enough to be shown around by a local! One of my best friends from high school, Jill, previously studied in Oviedo, and was back visiting her girlfriend Paula, who has lived in Gijón her entire life.
Asturias is the autonomous region that encompasses the cities of Gijón and Oviedo and Fabada Asturiana is the region’s signature dish. It is a stew made with fabes (large white beans), chorizo (spicy sausage), morcilla (“blood sausage”), and – what else – pork. Traditionally, it’s served family style – the waiter brings a large pot with a ladle to the table and you can help yourself to as much as you want. But as you might expect, this is a heavy dish and it was only our first course! The broth was aromatic and full-bodied with mild spices. It was a new experience to have to use a knife to eat stew… (dense chorizo can’t be parted with a measly spoon) 😛 , but delicious nonetheless!
(El Jamonar, Gijón)
Good God Almighty. Just look at that thing. Almost a foot-and-a-half long, and nearly a foot wide, this monstrosity was supposedly for four people. It’s made of two thin layers of beef or veal, filled with cheese and – you guessed it – ham, then battered and fried. But what makes it spectacular is the quality of the meat and cheese. Because the region gets so much rain, they have plenty of green pastures and are known for their grass-fed beef and dairy. This was crispy on the outside, gooey on the inside, melt-in-your-mouth meaty goodness. It’s times like these I appreciate that Spaniards eat the large meals in the afternoon – I definitely needed the rest of the day to digest this bad boy.
(Tierra Astur, Oviedo)
The region is also famous for a drink – Americans know it as hard cider. It is the most popular drink in the region, which is why when you walk through the city, every other storefront is a sidrería (cider bar). Law mandates this cider be made from local apples only and its flavor is a bit different than most U.S. ciders. It’s more bitter than sweet (some might argue “sour”). While the taste is similar, the presentation and drinking customs are a WHOLE lot different. Sidra pouring is an art form, and waiters go through a long training to learn how to do it properly. The waiter takes the bottle in one hand and fully extends that arm above their head. In the other hand they take your glass and fully extend that arm downwards, holding it at a 45 degree angle, creating the maximum distance between the bottle and glass. Not looking at the bottle nor the glass, but staring straight ahead with an expression of fierce concentration, the waiter pours about 2 ounces of sidra from the bottle in a thin stream down onto the inner rim of the glass with amazing precision. It’s really a sight to see. This process isn’t just for show, but to aerate the cider, making the carbonation less intense and bringing out the best flavor.
Because the carbonation quickly fades to a weak effervescence, you drink it by the 2-ounce serving at a time, similar to a shot. However, according to tradition, you should leave just a little drop in the glass. Originally, people dumped that last drop of alcohol out of the glass on the side their lips touched to sterilize it and pass it to someone else! I’ve also heard this is done to avoid the most bitter compounds that settle at the bottom. Either way, I forgot this my first time, but after regularly making social faux pas for months at that point, I wasn’t too embarrassed. Living abroad sure is humbling!
Queso de Cabrales, pâté & other food adventures!
We also popped into one of Jill & Paula’s favorite stores, La Gijonesa, which offered a dizzying array of pâtés and we tried ALL the cheese samples. As I mentioned earlier, this region is prized for their pastured meat and cheese. One cheese in particular, queso de Cabrales, is a very strong blue cheese. It’s name is protected by European law, so that you know when you buy it that all of the milk used in its production came exclusively from herds raised in a small rural zone in Asturias. Paula makes a MEAN tortilla, which we devoured for dinner one night along with a baguette, and some really stinky cheese and morcilla pâté that we bought at La Gijonesa.
The weekend could not have been better – I saw, did, ate, and drank everything I wanted to and more, and magically never even felt rushed! That practically never happens when traveling as I’ve come to learn, so it was a nice change to have a trip go pretty much exactly according to plan 😛 !