- Food & Drink
Tortilla ice cream on a rice crisp with Joselito ham at Casa Gerardo
In Casa Gerardo, Marcos Morán is explaining why we’re eating a bowl of potato skin broth. It’s to do with his grandfather’s hands. When Marcos was little he remembers his granddad bringing potatoes into the kitchen, freshly dug up and still rich with soil.
His hands would smell loamy, warm and human. And so there is a soup made from barely washed potato skins, simmered in stock, with fresh garden peas on the menu at the restaurant Marcos runs with his father Pedro. Served at the same time is a scoop of creamy-fleshed potato ice cream speckled with ham in a crisp curl of baked rice. It’s clever, it’s a witty, and it’s a memory. A moment of longing, cooked and shared.
There are stories attached to most of the dishes on the tasting menu we’re eating for lunch. Some of them are simple riffs on Spanish favourites, like the single pork meatball cut with capers and spiced ketchup. Or the soft hake jowls, Spain’s fish of choice, with thistle, leek and a green sauce that tastes like swallowing the sea.
Then there are the traditional Asturian dishes given a Michelin gloss. Fried pitu is a little ball chicken gravy, battered and deep fried. They’re served on a dish of roast corn, the food the local pitu de caleya (hen of the road) fatten themselves up on.
Fabada is Asturias’ county dish. A stew of white beans simmered with pork shoulder, morcilla and chorizo, it’s the kind of heavy fare that demands a nap afterwards. We eat a small bowl of it, the beans gently cooked till they’re silky, while the meats are lined up on a separate plate so you can admire them as you slide your spoon through them.
One dish, the last dish, didn’t need any Michelin spangle. A large plate of rice pudding with a crème brûlée top, our waiter served us all spoonfuls then waited while we scooped up the creamy, cinnamon spiked rice. Would we like seconds? We’d had 19 courses, I was drunk with food and worryingly wedged into my chair. Of course I said yes.
Marcos’ grandfather may only be present as a memory in Casa Gerardo, but Ricardo González Sotres’s grandma can still sometimes be found in the kitchen in Restaurante El Retiro. I like imagine she pops in to rap a few knuckles with a wooden spoon now and then. Although I can’t imagine she is anything other than burstingly proud of her grandson, who cooks exquisite Michelin star food in the quietest, most out of the way village.
The restaurant is also quiet; even the Best of Queen soundtrack on the speakers has the good taste to murmur. At 9pm we are, obviously, the first diners through the door. A pack of elegantly dressed pensioners start to fill up the room at 10pm, and are still outside smoking cigars when we leave at midnight.
There is a freshness to the food at El Retiro, which marries Spanish ingredients to classic French techniques in a way that lets the most delicate flavours sing through. And it is so beautifully plated that taking a fork to most of the plates seems like a crime against art.
We start with little mouthfuls of watermelon soaked in vermouth and orange, followed by strips of sardine dotted with tomato and black olive emulsions. And then the beauty paraded begins in earnest. A bowl of chilled apple soup is semiset, with balls of coconut foam, chunks of apple and the tiniest basil leaves all suspended in a tart apple gel.
A fat oyster in its shell is dotted with pumpkin purée shaped into bright yellow rounds that look like escapee egg yolks, while a blood orange sauce and strands of saffron bring warmth and zest.
Cockles, out of their shell and looking more naked than any limbless creature has any right too, swim in a chilled tomato broth with samphire and avocado. Hake escabeche trails seaweed while a chunk of beef sitting proud in a bowl of broth falls apart into strands at the touch a spoon.
We finish with a chocolate cake that barely holds together, served with a rubble of hazelnuts and a perfect oval of coffee ice cream. Outside Ricardo is talking to a young couple who stop us to tell us how brilliant their meal was and want to make sure we tell lots of people to drive to Pancar and eat at El Retiro. The old folks mooch up and down the dark street, cigars in hand. We walk into the night.
The next day, we are back at grandma’s house. This one is perched in the lush green hills that are quiet, apart from the ring and rattle of cow bells. Plenty of pitu de caleya run past the door of Casa Marcial, Nacho Manzano’s two Michelin star restaurant based in what was his grandmother’s shop.
Aubergine with walnuts, lemon & lime sauce, black garlic & herbs at Casa Marcial
His father opened a restaurant in the building and Nacho joined the kitchen aged 13. It’s still a family affair, with his mother’s recipes appearing on the menu. Down the road, his sister Esther runs La Salgar, although she was cooking with Nacho the day we were there.
Lunch began in the porch with a series of little bites served on plates that would delight We Want Plates. Curls of crisp cod skin came on a solid chunk of salt cod, while the best croquets I’ve ever eaten were lined up on a cow’s shin bone. Cornmeal puffs filled with egg yolk and topped with sardine and red onion had to be eaten in one hot, crunchy bite, while limpets came plain and fresh from the sea.
The meal proper started with a square of frozen tomato topped with slithers of almond and garlic: when gazpacho met ajo blanco and got clever. A plate of clams with seaweed, parsley and radish ice cream was followed by a wedge of roast aubergine garnished with walnuts, lemon and lime sauce, black garlic and herbs.
This dish had been paired with a bottle of toasted wheat beer, which made me sit up. Michelin restaurants can be a bit stuffy, especially when it comes to drinks. We had already had sparkling cider in place of champagne, little sips of dry sherry and a white wine from Jura.
The beer’s buttered toast flavour sat companionably with the earthiness of the aubergine and walnuts. It was obvious that the sommelier, Juan Luis Garcia, had ditched faun dining convention and, instead, chosen to match the food with flare and anything goes consideration for the flavours.
The meal, previously a pleasure, was now a total joy. Over five hours we made our languid way through beautifully prepared dishes, including a theatrical showpiece of red mullet and seaweed cooked on hot plates in salt at the table, served with extraordinary drinks.
My favourite was a pigeon course that had an Quo Vadis amontillado sherry matched with the breast (cooked with seaweed cream) and a Villapanés oloroso seco sherry to go with the leg (cooked with liver and kalamata sauce).
We ended the meal sat on the terrace, looking down the valley and drinking cider brandy from glasses as big as my head. I have eaten a lot of meals in my lifetime. I will eat many more. But I doubt few of them with live on in my heart as long as that lunch at Casa Marcial will.
Casa Gerardo, Crtra AS-19, km 8,5, 33438, Asturias. Website here. Find them on Twitter here. An 18-course menu similar to the one we ate costs €60 and matching wines generally brings the total to €110.
Casa Marcial, 33549 Arriondas – Parres, Asturias. Website here. Nacho manzano is on Twitter here. An 11 course menu similar to the one we ate costs €89. Wine pairing costs an extra €30 – for the love of God, let Juan Luis choose your drinks for you.