The reconquest of the Iberian peninsula from the Moors began in 718 when king Pelagius (Pelayo in Spanish) defeated an Arab-Berber army at Covadonga in what later became the independent kingdom of Asturias. This region in northern Spain is bordered by the rugged Picos de Europa to the south and the Bay of Biscay to the north, with the easiest access along the coast from Galicia to the west and Cantabria to the east.
It was the second stop on Gerry’s itinerary, a place we knew well and were excited to revisit.
The Picos de Europa, lying in Asturias, León and Cantabria is a range of jagged limestone peaks, some of which are over 2,500 meters above sea level. The most famous peak is the Naranjo de Bulnes (‘Picu Urriellu’ in Asturian), challenging to climb but nonetheless a popular destination for hikers that is most easily accessible from either Sotres or Puente Poncebos (see the previous article about Tresviso).
Another popular route in the Picos is through the rugged gorge of the Cares river, a 12 kilometer trek from Puente Poncebos in Asturias to Caín, a tiny hamlet in León. My first hike there was in the mid-1970s when my wife, another couple and I drove to Caín on an unpaved track through a dense forest. When we reached Caín, the only building serving food offered a big piece of cheese wedged between two slabs of coarse bread, along with wine.
We hiked to Puente Poncebos and back to Caín to pick up the car. There were no crowds in either place.
The next time we hiked the gorge was twenty years later from Poncebos. We were surprised to see a number of tour buses parked in Caín, with several places to buy sandwiches, steaks and fabada, a delicious but filling Asturian stew made with large white beans that requires a siesta afterwards. Since we had to hike back to Poncebos, we ate something lighter. There were so many hikers on the trail that at times it felt like Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
On our third hike, we figured out the reason for the crowds. People would be dropped off in Puente Poncebos while a driver would make the one-hundred-plus kilometer drive around and through the Picos to Caín on the now paved road. There they picked up their passengers.
The Asturias tourism people must be happy about the increase in tourists to the Picos region. I only hope that overcrowding doesn’t spoil its breathtaking beauty.
The purpose of our stay in Asturias was for Gerry to spend time with his old friend Marino González. González is a cheese producer, a tireless promoter of Asturian products and a shareholder in Tierra Astur, a chain of six cider houses in the three most important cities in Asturias: Gijón, Oviedo and Avilés.
Hard cider is made all across the coastal areas of northern Spain: the Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia, but the best cider in my opinion is from Asturias. According to the website lasidra.es there are more than 200 native varieties of apples in Asturias but only 77 are allowed in cider protected by a DOP (Protected Designation of Origin).
Just like wine, there are single varietal ciders but most are blends. And just like ice wine, some industrious producers make an ice cider. It’s delicious.
Cider has its own culture, and Tierra Astur exploits it to perfection. When you sit down at one of their cider houses first you get a menu of the available ciders. After you order, a server, called an escanciador, holds a glass at hip height while the bottle is held over the server’s head. A thin stream of cider flows from bottle to glass. The server hands you the glass, which has about 100 ml of foamy cider called a culín that you’re supposed to drink in one gulp, except for a small amount that you throw on the floor to get rid of the dregs at the bottom of the glass.
If you don’t want someone to ‘escanciar’ for you, there are machines that will pour you a fizzy culín.
Hard cider isn’t very strong, about 6% alcohol, but you can definitely get high because you order it by the bottle and share it. At a one-hour sitting with Gerry and Marino, we drank four bottles. Fortunately we escaped inebriation by munching on a few plates of Asturian cheeses and hazelnuts.
Tierra Astur cider houses are one-stop temples to Asturian culture. You can go there by yourself, with a friend or a group to drink cider or to have a meal that usually consists of grilled Asturian beef, sausages, blood pudding and heaping plates of french fries . But you can order a burger, a breaded veal cutlet, a plate of Asturian cheeses, a torto (kind of an Asturian pizza), fish, fabada… Well, you can order just about anything, including Asturian wine.
In addition to eating and drinking, you can visit their on-site deli and gift shop. You can book the place for a wedding or a first communion meal and even attend a concert.
Tierra Astur’s flagship cider houses in Oviedo are on the aptly named ‘Bulevar de la Sidra’ (no translation necessary) on calle Gascona not far from the cathedral. Their biggest establishment is in a tastefully remodeled city bus depot in Colloto, a suburb of Oviedo with a reduced COVID maximum occupancy of 375. We had dinner there our first night in Oviedo, a Saturday, that happened to be the first weekend after movement restrictions in Spain were lifted. There wasn’t an empty seat in the house!
THE LAND OF 40 CHEESES
In addition to cider, Asturias’s other flagship product is cheese. Tierra Astur sells forty kinds of cheese according to their sales brochure. One type, Los Beyos, has received the IGP (Protected Geographical Indication) seal from the European Union attesting to its origin and production methods while seven have earned the status of DOP (Protected Designation of Origin – with even more rigorous standards than IGP.
These seven cheeses are Gamonéu, Cabrales, Casín and – four types of Afuega’l Pitu, two whites and two reds. The curious name of this last cheese has two possible meanings. According to José Manuel Escorial’s book Spain and its Cheeses, ‘Afuega’l Pitu’ means ‘to choke the chicken’ in Bable, the Asturian language. Escorial explains that In the old days, cheesemakers gave a piece to a chicken and if it had trouble swallowing it, the cheese was ready. Other sources say that it means ‘to choke the throat’. The ambiguity comes from the fact that ‘pitu’ means both ‘chicken’ and ‘larynx’ in Bable. In either case, in the red Afuega’l Pitu varieties, paprika is added, making them spicy.
The next day, Marino took Gerry and me to an artisan cheese fair in the old quarter of Avilés where 46 producers were showing their wares. After sampling quite a few, my favorites were the blue cheeses Gamonéu and of course, Cabrales. This last cheese is considered by many to be the best blue cheese in the world. To find it, check with your local cheese merchant.
In spite of our hectic schedule of eating and drinking, that Gerry calls “gastronomic research”, we had some time to sightsee in Oviedo, a city that we both knew from previous trips.
The old part of town has lots of picturesque squares, beautiful two-story buildings and lots of statues. Perhaps the most famous one is of ‘La Regenta’, the main character in a novel written in the late 19th century by journalist Leopoldo Alas. Ana Ozores is the wife of the director (regente) of the local court and called ‘la regenta’. The book is a scathing, thinly disguised account of the hypocrisy and decadence of Oviedo of that time, that Alas called ‘Vetusta’ (outdated or decrepit). It focuses on the pious Ana Ozores’s tormented existence. Her statue perfectly expresses her sad countenance.
Unfortunately we had to leave Asturias because Gerry’s schedule demanded that we move on to the winelands of Galicia.