The Cantabrian Sea in Spain covers a huge area from the Basque Country bordering France, heading west through Cantabria, Asturias and finally Galicia, where it collides head on with the Atlantic Ocean at beautiful Estaca de Bares. In the English speaking world we loosely refer to this sea as the Bay of Biscay, an English rendering of the Basque word Bizkaia or Vizcaya in Spanish. The artesanal fishing fleets along this coast specialise in line-caught Hake, Bonito or Albacore Tuna and more famously, Anchoa or Anchovy. Long considered by Spaniards to be one of the great gourmet dishes in Spain, the anchovies are filleted and then preserved in three ways, en salazón (salt), ahumadas (smoked) or in extra virgin olive oil. They are only slightly salty, quite firm texture wise (the Spanish use the wonderful word terse), and index-finger sized, nothing at all like the tiny, wormlike, swig of a salt cellar things you find strewn on pizzas, at least in the UK. Product transformation or sobado is done entirely by hand, hence the rather elevated price, a 180gr can or jar will cost around 20 to 30€ or more. Now on to the good cause bit. A Cantabrian company by the name of Cantabria En Tu Boca (Cantabria In Your Mouth) has come up with a unique way of easing the burden on those suffering from the consequences of the economic crisis that has been blighting the country over the last few years. Their recruitment policy is centred exclusively on people over 50 who are currently out of work and have had their benefits curtailed. In addition, 100% of the company’s profits are channelled into the same cause. Right now this service is totally unique in Europe in that nobody is offering top quality, own-brand gourmet products to the public in such a charitable way. They also plan to start similar ventures abroad once they establish a decent online presence. So who knows? Solidarity via fabulous gourmet foods from Cantabria could be happening in your town pretty soon. Round of applause. You can learn more about them here: wwww.cantabriaentuboca.net
Meet Iago Castrillón and Eva Pizarro, joint owners of Restaurante Acio in Santiago de Compostela, winners of the 1st prize in the “Revelation Restaurant” category at the prestigious gastro show Madrid Fusion 2013. The jury, made up of more than forty representatives from the Spanish gastronomic press, placed their votes in absolute secrecy. This year, for the first time, 2nd and 3rd prizes were awarded to Abadía Retuerta of Valladolid and Apicius of Valencia respectively. Congratulations are order.
Adrian: How did it all begin for you at Restaurante Acio?
Eva: We’ve always worked at high-end restaurants. While on holiday in Italy once, a dining experience we had one evening had a huge impact on us. The cook was working alone in the kitchen, calmly preparing dishes. Lamb was roasting slowly in the fireplace. Dinner that night was fabulous, most of all because the cook himself came out of the kitchen to serve us a few of the dishes he’d prepared.
Iago: It changed our perspective a little and we started thinking about having our own restaurant, for the both of us where we’d cook the food ourselves, provide a calm, unhurried service and actually enjoy doing something we like… away from haute cuisine where you have predetermined roles and a brutal pace of work. So this idea gradually began to take form till it became Acio, our restaurant, where little by little we’ve built a reputation for our cooking, unhurriedly, at our own pace, maintaining our philosophy. The awards and recognition came later, which came as a real boost enabling us to keep doing what we were already doing, without going crazy in the process.
Iago, tell us something about your experiences as a chef in Madrid and London and why they were so important to you in terms of your current success.
My time at these restaurants provided me with the basis of the cooking I’m developing today at Acio. At each restaurant, in each city, in each place I’ve spent time in, I’ve tried to absorb trends, ways of doing things, and of course, learn from the great chefs I’ve had the privilege of being trained by.
Adrian: A lot has been said in recent years about the concept of time and space, championed by people like René Redzepi, owner of NOMA in Copenhagen, until very recently the Nº1 restaurant in the world. What’s your opinion on these particular trends?
Iago: In the last few years it seems as if every restaurant has had to identify itself with one particular trend, or alternatively differentiate itself from that trend in order to have some kind of identity. I think that as chefs each of us has his or her own vision of cooking and he or she translates that vision into a set of ideas or trends that people will either identify themselves with or not.
Adrian: How do you select the ingredients you use in your cooking?
Eva: The essence of our cooking is based on Galician produce. Galicia is a magnificent, natural pantry of high quality food products. Iago goes to the Plaza de Abastos every day, the great market in Santiago de Compostela, and selects the ingredients he’ll use in his kitchen, placing great emphasis on seasonal items.
Iago: Having said that, we don’t rule out the idea of fusion so you’ll find Japanese products, for example, adapted to our dishes, rice dishes…
Adrian: How important are the local farmers when supplying your restaurant?
Iago: They’re the ones who guarantee the supply of seasonal products, the freshest ones, the ones that are in their prime. In order to achieve that, it has to be a two-way thing. You have to tell the producer what type of product you’re looking for and get him involved in your ‘cause’ so he comes up with the goods.
Adrian: Eva, what’s your opinion on natural wines?
Eva: Natural wine is wine made from the natural grape, neither adding nor removing anything from that grape. The net result will be a true reflection of the land the wine was ‘born in’. Using that definition of natural wine as a starting point and the commitment to environmentally sound growing methods, respect for the environment itself, the grower as the ‘author’, authenticity and singularity… I believe it’s the future of wine if we want unique wines that represent the terroir that produces them. In short, if we want wines to inspire and excite us.
Adrian: Do you have any one day of the week reserved for ‘special sessions’ as in other vanguard restaurants?
Eva: We don’t set aside a specific day of the week, but we do organize wine tastings, winery presentations and wine pairing dinners. It’s something extra that our customers enjoy and appreciate.
Adrian: Since the closure of El Bulli, the world of what some people call ‘molecular cooking’ has evolved substantially. Where does Acio situate itself amid all this change, new trends etc?
Iago: We do what we do, our cooking, the way we like it, the one we believe in. We don’t follow any kind of trend, we simply do what we think is best in any given moment. This means that at times you do traditional recipes that happen to sit comfortably on the menu with the very latest gastronomic techniques.
Adrian: On one occasion, Ferrán Adrià was asked if he ever ate ‘normally’. What are your favorite ‘everyday’ dishes?
Iago: I love my mother’s cooking, traditional Galician cooking, with its slowly cooked stews: el cocido gallego, with ‘all the splendor of the pig’, los callos… Traditional, home cooked food, made with all the love and affection of our mothers.
Adrian: Do you ever get customers that simply don’t ‘get’ your cooking, however much you try to explain it to them?
Eva: Normally the people that come to Acio already know something about us and our cooking. They know it’s a safe bet, a sure thing, though a very personal one. They tend to go with the flow and allow us to show them what we can do.
Adrian: Do you see yourselves opening a restaurant outside Galicia or Spain?
Iago: You never know. Right now, it’s ‘poco a poco’, the way we always wanted it to be. Taking short steps, but positive ones.
With the opening of the Galician Sea-Lamprey Season 2013 just around the corner on January 15th, I thought it only right and fitting that I talked to Nito Calviño of Casa Calviño in As Neves (Pontevedra), one of the ‘consecrated temples’ of Sea-Lamprey cuisine on Galicia’s River Miño. I have to admit that the first time I went to Casa Calviño I wasn’t exactly sure what I was letting myself in for. I was doing some research for a gastronomic piece which was later published in Living Spain Magazine, at the time the definitive journal on Spain and all things Spanish.
The very idea of tucking into what is essentially a parasitical fish with a hideous blood-sucking mouth, cooked Bordelaise style, i.e. in its own blood, albeit with the addition of red wine and some distinctly medieval spicing, seemed a little daunting. Little did I know at the time I would be transformed overnight into a total Sea-Lamprey nut, compelled to seek her out (she’s grammatically feminine in Spanish) at least three times a season, which runs from the beginning of January to the end of April.
As Neves is a pretty little village nestling in the hills that overlook the majestic River Miño and Portugal, it was in this idyllic setting that Casa Calviño’s host Nito Calviño spared me a few minutes to talk about his passion for Petromyzon Marinus or Sea Lamprey.
Adrian McManus: What are your expectations for the coming season, taking into the critically low water levels of last season and the bleak economic situation right now in Spain?
Nito Calviño: In spite of last year’s poor catches, the prospects for the coming 2013 season are looking very good, due mainly to all the rainfall we’ve had so far this month. The ban on the extraction of sand from the river bottom, introduced in 1999, has also gone a long way in improving annual catches. Given the fact that lamprey and other species lay their eggs in the sand, dredging and extraction had a catastrophic effect on their reproduction cycles. Regarding the grim economic situation the country finds itself in, we sincerely hope our clients will grasp the opportunity to come and enjoy a dish that can only be eaten for the first four months of the year. As front of house manager of the restaurant, I can assure you we’ll rise to the occasion and strive to ensure our prices are competitive.
AM: Casa Calviño has a long history. Where did it all begin for you?
NC: Casa Calviño was founded in 1935. I actually belong to the third generation of this family business. In 1935 it was a ‘tasca’ or simple village bar where my grandfather sold the typical tapas of the day and the local Rubiós wine, which of course is very well known today and absolutely perfect for pairing with lamprey. The second generation began to specialise more exclusively in the lamprey area and during the 1980s the business really took off with the house undergoing considerable structural change, but also introducing the necessary culinary developments along the way.
AM: Apart from the classic Bordelaise style, featuring freshly caught Sea-Lamprey, how else do you serve it?
NC: Basically, we prepare lamprey in three different ways: Firstly, in the classic Bordelaise style i.e. braising it in its own blood in an earthenware dish, served with boiled rice and crutons. Secondly, we offer stuffed and rolled lamprey, which contains good cured ham, hard-boiled egg and ‘piquillo’ peppers. Finally, there’s smoked lamprey which we grill ‘a la brasa’ or over charcoal and wood.
AM: What wines pair well with Sea-Lamprey?
NC: As I mentioned previously, the local Rubiós wine, a young, fruity red and made from a local grape variety is highly recommended as is the excellent Mencía red from the Ribeira Sacra appellation located upstream from us.
AM: Are there any other house specialities you serve if fear and loathing of ‘the beast’ gets the better of your customers?
NC: One of the most popular dishes is our ‘cabrito lechal’ or roast suckling goat which we serve either roasted or in the form of fried ribs that we call ‘costilletas’. You can also order our other house special ‘callos’, a classic, spicy stew made with tripe, chickpeas, shin of beef and homemade chorizo. For fish lovers our menu also features locally caught produce from the Galician rías or estuaries and some of the best veal and beef in Spain.
AM: Well it goes without saying that you’ll be seeing me quite soon, so I’d just like to wish you all, and especially Doña Maruxa, the ‘jefa’ and heart and soul of the operation, a very happy Christmas and New Year. Is there anything you’d like to add?
NC: Only that the lamprey season will begin on January 1st and run through to the 30th of April and that we look forward to seeing our friends, old and new. Have a very happy Christmas and a better 2013.
Highly recommenable tailor-made itineraries in Galicia, visiting Albariño wineries in jaw-dropping locations covering all five sub-zones of the Rías Baixas appellation: Val do Salnés, Val do Ulla, O Rosal, Sotomaior and Condado do Tea. Another excellent wine making region included in this tour is the stunningly beautiful Ribeira Sacra in Lugo, where wine-lovers will have the opportunity to taste wines made from the red Mencía grape and other native to Galicia varieties such Brancellao and Merenzao. For white wine there’s Godello in its mono-varietal form and some innovative blends of Godello, Treixadura, Torrontés, Loureira and Doña Branca. In 2013 GrapeHop Tours plan to make an incursion into the neighbouring Bierzo region, internationally much talked about due to the Parker Guide 90+ ratings for mencías from splendid artisan vineyards such as Tilenus, Descendientes de J. Palacios, Pittacum, Altos de Losada and more. The gastronomy of both regions, seafood in Galicia, botillo, goat’s cheese, roasted red bierzo peppers, empanada de patacas in El Bierzo are good enough reasons for an extended stay in the region, whatever the time of year, though GrapeHop Tours offers you the chance of visiting in late spring or early autumn, when the north-west of the Iberian peninsula is at its most captivating.
Photo: Californian winemaker Richard Longoria tasting Albariño with winemaker Paula Fandiño at Mar de Frades winery.
An epiphany moment, which, after nearly twenty years of gastronomic adventures in this gorgeous corner of Spain, is an achievement in itself. That special occasion calls for a mariscada como Dios manda, as the Galicians will tell you. So what does this actually mean? Something about God ordering seafood platters? Well, yes. A seafood platter fit for God himself? Well, yes. Ask a native Galician what constitutes a mariscada como dios manda and he will invariably reply ‘patitas’, i.e. little feet.
This in local seafood speak means crustaceans, and preferably local ones. That means we have to politely reject gambas (prawns) and langostinos (bigger prawns), as they’re not native to Galician waters. No, the only thing any self-respecting Galician seafood nut will order is centollo (spider crab), percebes (goose barnacle), camarónes (shrimp), nécora (velvet swimming crab) and cigalas (norwegian lobster/dublin bay prawns/nephrops-nephrops)and, if they’re available, the very rare and much prized santiaguiño known to all and sundry by their easy to remember scientific name Scyllarus Arctus.
With this in mind, and the special occasion being the visit of my dear nephew James, we headed to Restaurante Suso in La Coruña, tucked away in the same street (C/ Angel Rebolledo, Nº 50) as that other La Coruña institution O Bebedeiro. The place is small and pleasantly unassuming, a far cry from the starched table cloths, napkins and snooty waiters you get in some marisquerías or seafood restos.
As you head upstairs you get a tantalising glimpse of the precious ‘raw material’, piled onto pristine worktops, with bubbling cauldrons overseen by the charming cooks, all beaming smiles and warm greetings. We were shown to our reserved table and within minutes the order was taken, the bread basket plonked on the table and the wine served, a delicious Pazo de Señoráns Albariño Rias Baixas, the obvious and correct choice for such a feast.
About ten minutes later our platter arrived, all freshly cooked, no cold cabinet chill in this place. We started off with the goose barnacles, uniform in size and simply exquisite. After that we moved on to the spider crab, wisps of ‘marine moss’ still on his back, a sure sign that it was locally caught. The norwegian lobsters swiftly followed and finally the velvet swimming crabs and the shrimps, a riot of different though subtle flavours and deathly silence reigned as we chomped our way through legs, sucked gleefully on heads (yes, the Brits do do this) and weedled our way into legs and claws, stoically putting into practice the old Spanish refrain, Oveja que bala, bocado que pierde, i.e. the sheepeth that bleateth doesn’t get to eateth. Wise words.
We were far too stuffed for either café or pudding, and left the place very contentiños, as the Galicians say. Restaurante Suso is a must do it experience for all marisco buffs, i.e. those that are after the pure experience, i.e. without the unwarranted ‘distraction’ of molluscs, bivalves and other lesser creatures, which are perfectly acceptable as stand-alone dishes, though not as part of a ‘proper’ mariscada fit for the Gods and the more discerning mortal.
Photo: James Harrison
Pementos de Padrón, uns pican, outros non… This Galician refrain translates roughly as ‘Peppers from Padrón, some are hot, while others are not’, thus initiating the unwary diner in a time-honoured Galician food experience – a sort of hot pepper roulette. The farmers that grow them have yet to come up with a convincing theory on why they’re so volatile, usually fobbing us off with blarney about weather conditions and ‘ambiental factors’. For something so central to the Galician summer experience, they’ve only been around since the early 17th century, when Franciscan missionaries brought them from the Americas to their Friary in Herbón, not far from Santiago de Compostela. By the end of the 18th century the trade in dried and ground pepper had become an important source of revenue for folk in the area. With the passage of time, the plant began to adapt itself to the mild climate and rich soil in the Ulla and Sar river valleys, producing pementos or peppers smaller than those that first came from the Americas, but stronger in flavour and not quite as fiery (what must those early peppers have been like!?). According to local government figures, there are about 14 hectares of greenhouse production and about another 20 hectares of open-air cultivation, giving a total annual production of about 1.3 million kilos. Each bag of peppers bears the official ‘Denominación de Origen Protegida’ label that guarantees they are the real deal and not some dodgy equivalent grown elsewhere in Spain, or, horror of horrors, in France or North Africa. So remember,’Pementos de Padrón, uns pican, outros non’, you’ll soon be wearing the t-shirt.
TRADITIONAL COOKING METHOD
Wash and thoroughly dry peppers, removing all the stalks (important). Deep fry in extra-virgin olive oil, adding the peppers while the oil isn’t too hot. Fry to taste, some people like them semi-raw, others well fried and quite blackened. Sprinkle with a good pinch of coarse sea salt. You can either eat them as an aperitivo or have them as an accompaniment to grilled meat or fish.
Info in Spanish and Gallego: http://www.apementeira.com/es/es_index.htm
Parrochitas or Baby Sardines
Lechuga de Mar Porto Muiños (Sea Lettuce)
Cured Spanish ham
Pimentón (Spanish paprika)
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Fresh orange juice
Soak the sea lettuce to remove the salt, changing the water several times and cut into fine julienne strips.
Dust the parrochitas or baby sardines in flour and fry till golden.
Cut the green beans into julienne and boil for 10 minutes.
Prepare an ajada with the olive oil, garlic and pimentón. **
Dice the potatoes and boil.
Beat the mayonnaise and add the orange juice to taste.
Chop the ham, and sauteé lightly with slivers of garlic, the green beans and the potatoe.
Garnish with a few cherries and serve warm.
** Ajada is a classic Galician accompaniment to potatoes, greens and white fish like hake, salt cod etc. Take a frying pan and heat up three or four tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Take three or four unpeeled garlic cloves and bruise them a little. Add them to the olive oil and fry till golden. Remove frying pan from the heat and add a heaped teaspoon of good quality Pimentón (De la Vera or Murciano) and stir gently. You have to take great care that the pimentón doesn’t burn, allowing it to settle on the bottom of the pan. It’s the garlic and pimentón flavoured oil that you’ll be drizzling over the dish.
For excellent recipes, in Spanish, using Porto Muiños edible seaweed products, check out ‘cocinar con algas’ on their superb website. http://www.portomuinos.com/index.php?idioma=es
Tarta de Santiago, Galicia’s most famed dessert, was not long ago declared, in gastronomic terms, a protected species. The designation itself, known as an IGP which stands for Indicativo Geográfico Protegido, is basically a tool which affords this most Compostelan of desserts a means of protecting its image and reputation in the modern world. The declaration was greeted with satisfaction by the those in the industry, who pointed out that it was only the beginning, but that together with the authorities, real steps could now be taken to control what is sold in many establishments as Tarta de Santiago. Several months on, it’s still possible to encounter tartas labelled de Santiago but whose ingredients are not strictly in compliance with those approved under the new regulations, but cases brought before the Tart Inquisition are now thankfully few are far between. In accordance with the declaration, the authentic Tarta de Santiago must be made exclusively of almonds, sugar and eggs in exact proportions: 33% Mediterranean almonds, 33% sugar and 25% egg. Other ingredients such as grated lemon rind, sweet wine, brandy or aguardiente de orujo may be added, as long as the proportions of the basic ingredients remain unaltered. The Cruz del Apóstol Santiago or St.James’s cross that adorns the tart and makes it easily distinguishable from others is ‘drawn’ with icing sugar as the final touch. Any other added ingredients, however cool or trendy, will surely detract from the true essence of this Galician dessert par excellence and, therefore, damage an image wrought over decades of toil in the pastelería. So the next time you’re looking for Tarta de Santiago, be sure to check the list of ingredients and the all-important IGP label. It’s not just any old tart, you know.
UBI EDO, UBI EDO, repeated Ángeles, the guide assigned to me by the Oviedo Tourist Board. I repeated the words back to her, parrot fashion. It all began here in 761 she proudly declared. Fair enough, I thought; it must be the ancient rendering of the name Oviedo, a fairly close approximation of the modern day Oviedo. After some Visigoth archbishop, perhaps? She grinned, repeating the words again, as if impressing upon me the need to comprehend the profound symbolism of the words: UBI EDO… it means ‘where I eat’ in Latin. How wonderfully appropriate I thought, as Oviedo is a gourmet’s dream, but more of that later.
Where it all began indeed. Back in the 8th century, Oviedo was the seat of the tiny Asturian monarchy, independent, but hanging on by the skin of its teeth. The Moors had crossed the River Duero, an imaginary border between north and south for many northerners even today. They organized military campaigns called ‘razzias’ from time to time, mainly to keep the Asturians on their toes, for they had little interest in conquering what was for them a remote, inaccessible area populated by savages. With the fall of the south to the Moors, many of the holy relics were brought to the mountains of Asturias and hidden in secret locations till better days came along.
With the fall of the Caliphate of Cordoba, the Moorish grip on the country began to lessen and the Christian kingdoms in the north gradually began to recover land in what came to be known as the ‘Reconquista’. At this time Oviedo was a major pilgrimage centre as the Holy Crypt in the Cathedral housed, and still houses today, some pretty serious pilgrim-pulling relics, including the Santo Sudario or Holy Crucifixion Shroud and two 10th century jewelled crucifixes, the Cruz de los Angeles, symbol of Oviedo and the Cruz de la Victoria, symbol of Asturias.
With the alleged discovery of the remains of the Apostle St. James in the 9th century, on the site of that was later to become Santiago de Compostela, the ‘Reconquista’ of Muslim territory was well and truly underway. Within a couple of decades, the Moors had overrun the peninsula, with the spiritual aid of the Prophet’s arm and the Christians of the north now had something to rally around too.
The Cathedral of Oviedo is a hotch-potch of architectural styles, ranging from Pre-Romanesque to Baroque. Whilst not as dramatically eye-catching as its purely Gothic sisters at Burgos and León, it is still a most impressive building, particluarly the cloisters and the crypt containing the holy relics.
The first thing that catches your eye in Oviedo is how spotlessly clean the city is. I was told that they’d won several awards for being Europe’s cleanest city and it was certainly a pleasure not to be scrutinising the pavement Jack Nicholson style, dodging doggy deposits. The ten minute or so walk from the bus station was a real eye-opener. Normally drab, run down and slightly seedy areas, in Oviedo, you can stroll, suitcase and rain permitting, up and down well lit, spacious boulevards. When you turn into Uria and head towards the city’s lung, the lovely Parque San Francisco, it’s feast your eyes time. I spotted belle époque, art-deco and eclectic styles side by side, jostling for your attention, some of them extraordinary examples of how to flaunt your wealth and not give a damn.
The 400 year old Universidad de Oviedo is a grand old building. It seemed strange to think that this was the scene of bitter fighting during the Spanish Civil War. The bullet-pocked pillars of the cloister bear grim testimony to what happened here. Unlike the rest of Asturias, the aristocratic and very bourgeois Oviedo put its money on General Franco’s ‘National Crusade’ and so became a target for some of the most vicious Republican bombing of the Civil War. As you walk under the clock tower in the Plaza de la Constitución, look up to your right and you’ll see a memorial plaque on the wall. It commemorates the Generalisimo’s 1940 visit to the city to reopen the newly restored Town Hall and attend a very symbolic thanksgiving mass. Franco likened his crusade to the Christian re-conquest of Spain in the middle ages.
Walking down Fiero from the Plaza de la Constitución you’ll see the Fontán, a lovely wrought-iron glass-canopied market place, built in the early 1900’s. It opens all day from eight to eight and has some spectacular fish stalls. While I was there I witnessed a bunch of marujas or old ladies being terrorised by a stall-owner with a live 3 ft cazón, a small shark known as tope in Britain. As he struggled to keep it from taking a chunk out of his arm, I asked him how it would be prepared, locally. He came back with what seems to be the standard reply to that sort of question in this part of Spain; a parsley, garlic and olive oil marinade overnight and doused in flour and deep fried for two or three minutes, or simply boiled and served with potatoes and olive oil. Perfect.
EATING AND DRINKING
Oviedo is fabulous for wandering from bar to bar, tapeando as you go. The trick is to order your caña or vino, then wait, if necessary, for five minutes. Read a newspaper, engage somebody in conversation, but just wait a while. More often than not, the waiter will eventually bang your first free ‘pincho’ down on the counter in front of you. If this doesn’t happen then you’ll just have to choose from the selection behind the glass case in front of you. All of the following establishments serve some imaginative and beautifully presented tapas: Siete Plazas Cimadevilla 11, La Consistorial Plaza del Sol 2 and Casa Amparo Arco de los Zapatos. Ask at the Tourist Office for the gastro mapa, an excellent route map that will direct you to over 50 establishments across the city that turn out quality pinchos and tapas.
For some hearty, exquisitely prepared Asturian cuisine, look no further than El Raitán Plaza Trascorrales. This restaurant got a deserved thumbs up from Woody Allen who’s a frequent visitor to the city. Their repertoire includes the Asturian classics of Fabada Asturiana and Pote Asturiano, both bean based stews, laden with saffron, chorizo, morcilla or black pudding, greens (pote) and assorted pork bits, you would definitely only eat this at lunchtime. Their €32 set lunch is incredible and features crema de andaricas, or cream of velvet swimming crab soup, cebollas rellenas de jabalí or whole onions stuffed with wild boar, pote, fabada and three types of pudding, frixuelos, similar to crepes, casadielles, a type of walnut pastry, and a divinely creamy arroz con leche or rice pudding. A well-deserved siesta is obligatory after stoically munching your way through this lot!
For a more modern take on Asturian gastronomic experience, try the superb Carta de Ajuste in Alfonso III El Magno. The hamburguesa de ciervo, or minced venison with cherries, foie gras and onion confit was simply sublime, as was the pato asado estilo carta de ajuste, crispy roast duck, served with a superb wild mushroom risotto and sopa de frutos rojos or red fruit soup. After lunch or dinner you can retire upstairs for a stylishly prepared and served gin and tonic where the owner Luisma and his staff will make feel most welcome.
On the fish front, Pixín or monkfish is very popular, as is bonito or tuna, so popular that the Cantabrian fleet from the Basque Country in the east to Galicia in the west caught 18 million kilos of the stuff in 2006. La Gran Taberna Plaza Porlier 1 is a very elegant and refined eatery. Whilst there I tried the cazón, which I’d seen harassing the marujas in the market earlier in the day. It was served boiled, probably just for a few minutes, with new potatoes and was exquisite. Towards the end of lunch, the Archbishop of Oviedo arrived, causing quite a stir, with several folk standing up to kiss his ring. It still happens.
CIDER WITH ROSIE
Asturias is cider country and in Oviedo there’s a whole street dedicated to its quaffing. Gascona-El Bulevar de la Sidra is where it all happens. I was told there’s a strict etiquette to follow and that it’s not the kind of thing one should do alone as it’s a social thing. Basically, the waiter brings you and your gang one bottle of cider and one glass. Then the spectacle begins. After uncorking the cider the waiter raises his right arm and the bottle aloft, the other arm, holds the glass down by his left side. He’s not allowed to look at either the bottle or the glass, so looks nonchalantly into the distance, through the window to the street perhaps. He tilts the bottle and the cider pours down into the glass below. As it hits the side of the glass, it froths up a bit, at which point it’s swiftly handed to the first person to stick their hand out. You must drink it in one go, but always leave a little to swirl around the glass, so as to ‘clean’ the area where your lips have had contact with the glass, and so on, till the bottles are done, you’ve killed each one and the table is full and overflowed.
One of the best, if not the best, places on Gascona to experience this is La Pumarada. It’s also a great place to have lunch or dinner and is always packed to the door and buzzing. Specialities of the house are Parrillada de Mariscos, a kind of assorted seafood platter, Chuletón de Buey a la Piedra, this is a humungous ox t-bone weighing up to two kilos or more and cooked on a scorching hot stone slab. I had the mind-warpingly scrummy Paella de Bugre which is made exclusively with local clawed lobster. The delicious Pastel de Cabracho, or red sea scorpion mousse here is reputedly the best in Asturias. Another atmospheric place for some cider swilling is the Plaza de Fontán , the old market place. Its pretty 16th century colonnaded interior is often used as a film set and when the tables and chairs are set out it’s a perfect place to lunch, dine and while away the hours.
Oviedo certainly bewitches all who visit her, from the famous to the humble, so prepare yourself for something truly special when you step off that train, bus or plane.
After a fishy conversation with Ruth of http://www.costadelsol-vacationrentals.com, I decided to take a look at the distinctly nondescript use of ‘Seabream’ in recipes translated from Spanish. There are many different sparidae or bream species available in plazas up and down the country, and in gastronomic terms, some are far more spectacular than others. Ask any Spaniard and you’ll guarantee a table-thumping debate.
Let’s take a look at just a few examples:
1. Besugo-Pagellus Bogaraveo-Red Seabream
2. Urta-Pagrus Auriga-Red Banded Seabream
3. Dorada-Sparus Aurata-Gilthead Seabream
5. Sargo-Diplodus Sargus-White Seabream
6. Aligote/Pancho-Pagellus Acarne-Axillary Seabream
7. Chopa-Spondyliosoma Cantharus-Black Seabream
8. Mojarra-Diplodus Vulgaris-Two Banded Seabream
As I said before, a visit to any Spanish ‘plaza de abastos’ will acquaint you
with most of these individuals, so it pays to know the Spanish name for
them, though they can, of course, vary from region to region, and sometimes within the same region, bizarrely. The names I’ve given seem to be the most common throughout the peninsula and are in a one to eight open-to-debate order of culinary quality. Besugo is a popular Christmas/special occasion dish up in Galicia, for example. No ‘ama de casa’ or housewife would consciously buy aligote/pancho if the occasion actually demanded Besugo, though they do look very similar. It’s the black mancha or mark near the gill cover of the Besugo that gives them away! For this reason they are also known as Ollomol in Galicia, as ollo means eye in the Galician language. The citizens of Rota near Cádiz, for example, are convinced that the Urta is the king of them all and even have a summer fiesta dedicated to them where bars and restaurants vye, in direct competition with each other, the preparation and presentation of their exquisite Urta la Roteña. So next time you’re trawling a plaza de abastos, ten cuidado que no te den gato por liebre, or literally, take care they don’t give cat for hare, a besugo is a besugo and pancho is a pancho. Photo: Urta or Sama Roquera