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Asturias: Spain’s North Star

Asturias: Spain’s North Star
The first part of S.Pellegrino’s 50 Best Restaurants list reads like a Spanish lullaby. Not one, but three iconic Iberian institutions made the cut, all of them from Spain’s lush north. Andrea Maltman travelled to Asturias to unearth some gastronomic gems.
 
For the longest time, Spain’s cultural identity has been projected to outsiders by the sensual, sun-drenched south. No longer. The north is wrangling back its share of international recognition via its gastronomic prowess.
 
The difference between north and south isn’t just in the taste buds – it’s also a sight to behold. Ascending through Spanish terrain from my base in Madrid, I was amazed to witness the country’s rust-red heartlands shape shift into rolling green hills shrouded in fog and Celtic mystery.
 
I kept waiting for the punchline, but there isn’t one. The north of Spain is just as she seems: a lush, green wonderland, home to a few bagpipes and lashings of delicious cuisine, which is the best in the country, the continent, and the world.  
 
This isn’t just my misty-eyed critique; in 2013, S.Pellegrino’s rundown of The World's 50 Best Restaurants named three Spanish institutions in the top ten, taking inspiration from the autonomous regions of the Basque Country and Catalonia, whose Celler de Can Roca snared top spot.
 
So what are the key ingredients for the acclaim and success rippling across the region? “Spanish gastronomy is heavily influenced by its proximity to France and its love for tradition,” explains Michelin-starred chef Marcos Moran. “Here in Asturias, we benefit from quality produce, effective tourism and new generations of chefs who are faithful to the traditions they were raised with.”
 
I experienced that tradition and commitment to fresh produce first-hand with a visit to Gijon’s “seafood cathedral”, La Zamorana. This is the Asturian city’s most prestigious seafood haunt, mainly because the owners, brothers Jose and Manuel Méndez, have every fisherman from Cantabria to Catalonia on speed dial, and they mine their contacts on a daily basis to secure fresh catches from the seas that roar yards from their doorstep.
 
The variety on offer in La Zamorana is unrivalled: the creamy nectar of cracked spider crab; velvety Scorpion Fish; and plump, grilled langoustines so tasty you don’t dare drizzle them with lemon for fear of killing the flavour. Owner Jose proudly informed me that the taste is particularly potent because local fish feed on rich, salty algae and build stamina as they power their way through the choppy Cantabrian Sea.
 
Back on dry land, mountain produce is also a cornerstone of the local cuisine. Asturian Mountain cow – also known as Casina – is the breed often used for beef. In Gijon, El Cencerro is the restaurant that has the last word in quality meat dishes.
 
Hosts Damian and Viviana are almost paternal in their approach to feeding their customers and providing them with “a gastronomic experience” rather than a simple meal. Viviana runs the kitchen, Damian takes care of the wine (over 200 varieties to be exact), and the result is a homely, personalised service that would blush at the mention of their Michelin Guide inclusion.  
The food is nowhere near as humble, though. Boldness and creativity are the hallmarks of dishes such as steak tartar with mustard ice-cream, and the variety of meat dishes – Aberdeen Angus, Dutch Frieisian and the revered Kobe beef – all have a deeply sensual taste and texture.
 
Any dish – be it meat, fish, or the famous fabada stew – has to compete with the local passion for sweets and pastries. Asturias has more cake shops per inhabitant than any other region in Spain, and the area’s abundance of dried fruits and fresh dairy produce means the contents of those cake shops are particularly sweet.
 
The city of Gijon provides a tour around its most distinguished pastelerías, and I was let loose with a book of coupons entitling me to savour each bakery’s star buy. My deliciously dangerous liaison began at the San Pelayo bakery, where I sampled the nutty local pastry known as Casadielles, and it ended with chilled confectionaries at Pomme Sucre – an innovative shop that takes local tradition and fuses it with styles from the US, France and beyond.  
Toasting the end of my visit to Asturias, there was only one drink that could possibly do the job – cider. While other parts of Spain favour wine and beer, tangy natural cider is the lifeblood of the northern social scene, so much so that quality brands like the Menendez house rely partly on apples from France and Germany to meet the demand in local bars.
 
I soon learned that drinking is a ritual, an art form to be studied and then executed flawlessly: the pouring of cider, called escanciando, must be done from a height so that the fizz can burst into life as the liquid hits the glass. What little is served, known as a culín, is drunk immediately before it goes flat, leaving just a trace to rinse the glass before passing it on to friends.
It’s a traditional, elegant and measured affair, much like the world-famous cuisine that it accompanies.
1 Comments | Add a comment

COMMENTS

Al Glez
1
As an asturian citizen not included in the group of "all from here is the best" I should say your comentaries are quite rigth! Just one consideration: el Cencerro is not just a great meat place but a great place!

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2 October 2013
By: Andrea Maltman
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