- Food & Drink
Lakes, mountains, cows: Asturias has it all
Up until now, I’ve never wondered what it would be like to be buried alive in blue cheese. I’m not that kind of pervert. But standing at the entrance to the cheese caves of Carreña, I begin to consider it.
There are 7km of caves running under the mountains by this village in Cabrales. Not all of the walls are shelved with rounds of blue Cabrales cheese. But enough of them are racked to give the air that hot, sweaty tang that means penicillium roqueforti has met dairy and they have got on famously.
Manuel, who runs La Llosa dairy in the village, took us into the caves. There are cheeses from different dairies lined up on the shelves, their origins branded into their skins by plastic letters that sink in and leave their shape when the cheeses are being salted and turned. There are different sizes, too. Little palm-sized rounds up to thick-waisted wheels. Manuel is appalled at the idea of buying a slice of Cabrales, “Buy the size you need and share it.”
Another man who takes his cheese seriously is Javier Orta. The Director of Comunicactions for Tierra Astur, a mini chain of restaurants that are determined to keep traditional Asturian foods on the table. A passionate defender of the handmade, the artisanal and the quirky, Javier is keen on protecting the old, half-forgotten foods that can vanish as we globalise and homogenise.
“We have one man who makes 2kg of a particular cheese just for us every year,” he tells us as the cider bottles are brought out*. Because we are not at Tierra Astur for the cheese, we are there to drink cider.
Cider – or sidra if you want to practice your Spanish – is a serious affair in Asturias. “I can only drink cider in a few bars,” Javier tell us. “Many of them don’t pour it properly.”
Our waiter uncorks a bottle – chilled to 12°C in water, not the fridge. Never the fridge – and pours it from high above his head into a tilted thin glass so it splashes and fizzes in the glass. He hands me the glass with an inch of cider in it and I wait politely for the rest of the glasses to be poured, while the bubbles burst and the cider flattens. I’ve done it completely wrong.
I get it right with my next glass. As soon as the fizzing brew is handed to me, I bang it back in one gulp (or as close to one gulp as I can manage), leaving a little pool of cider at the bottom of the glass. It’s traditional to swill your glass round with this and empty it out into the gutter – a hang over from when friends would gather with lots of bottles of cider but just one glass. It was good manners to rinse the glass with the dregs before you passed it on.
We make our way through several bottles of tart, buttery apple cider. There is the ordinary Asturian cider, made with apples both from Asturias and abroad. Then there is the Asturian apple only cider, made without added sugar and nearly identical in flavour but proudly patriotic. Finally, the extra swish cider that’s made with just 12 types of apple. It caused uproar when it was launched and Asturians learned there would be a cider on sale that cost more than €2.50 a bottle (I can only imagine at their horror at the prospect of £5 pint in London).
When in bars where the waiters unthinkingly slosh the cider into glasses, Javier does have another choice: sparkling cider with the fizz already locked in. In the ritzier Asturian restaurants they’re often uncorked in place of champagne at the start of the meal. Our waiter pours out flutes of the pale, straw coloured cider. Dry, crisp and yeasty, it’s an easy mouthful.
We finished our tasting with a cider ice wine. Made by a company called 20 Manzanas (because there are 20 apples in each slim bottle), it’s a sweet, sticky after-dinner drink made with frozen apples. Drunk in cool little sips, it was the perfect match with smears of spicy Cabrales cheese on chunks of good strong bread. The circle was complete. Traditions, new and old, meet at the table and know that they are good.
*I never did find out which cheese this was. I must go back and try it.
I visited Asturias as a guest of the Spanish and Asturian Tourist Boards. There will be more posts in the next few days on eating out, where to stay and what to do. I may be biased, having been schmoozed, but I do recommend going. Only not too many of you. I still want to be able to get a room and a table for dinner.