Specialties from Picos de Europa National Park, Spain. Discover hidden gastronomic treasures from the famous Cabrales to the hearty stew “Fabada.”
Picos de Europa is a small range of mountains in northern Spain a few kilometres away from the Atlantic Ocean, making it a “one of a kind” scenery with its 2000m high peaks perched right next to the ocean. It’s also Spain’s second most visited National park, although its low season is relatively calm. The park is divided into three regions; Cantabria, Asturias and Castilla y León, each with gastronomic particularities. So here are some Specialties from Picos de Europa!
Let’s start by talking quantities… being in a rigorous surroundings, the local’s diet is quite calorific and mainly consists of meat, beans and cheese. If you order any main dish at the restaurant, the odds are that you’ll get a huge quantity. Except maybe for those avid hikers, it’s a safe bet to recommend sharing plates.
Cocido Montañes and Lebaniego
The first stop is the beautiful little stoned village called Potes, situated in Cantabria’s centre of the Liébana Valley. Where, among other things, grows chickpeas and beans of all kinds. The most popular winter dish there is the famous Cocido Montañes (Mountain stew) which consists of white bean, collard green, pork pieces, chorizo and black sausage. Another similar stew, Cocido Lebaniego, is the same except for the aboriginal chickpeas instead of the white beans.
Both are hearty and delicious stews that warm you up after a long day in the cold mountains. Usually served at the table in a big pot and a ladle, you can do the quantity you need yourself. Those two substantial stews will undoubtedly give you that extra energy you need for your next day’s hike. A definite “must try” for beans lovers!
Orujo and Wine
On the southeast of Picos de Europa, around the Liebana Valley (Cantabria), they have a Mediterranean microclimate. Thanks to it, they can grow various crops, from wheat, corn, chickpeas, beans, apples, cherries, nuts, and olives but also vines. Of course, vines also mean wine making but not just that, it’s also making the famous liquor Orujo. Like the Italian “Grappa” or French “Marc,” this potent drink is made from the marc left from wine production. Usually distilled in the region with Arabic style stills or “Potas,” simplistic copper kettles installed over a food fire.
A system of Greek origin was brought to Spain by the Moors, and then the Christians took over the tradition and the Orujo was kept alive by the Monks. Then in the 19th century, liquor was banned throughout Spain. Although the locals would keep making their batches with the help of a “mobile” still, they would bring it from village to village.
The production is fast and easy, although the pronunciation of the drink can be pretty tricky for a non-Spanish. The “j” is pronounced like a resounding “r,” making it a festival of vocals in between “r”‘s, pronounced “O-ROO-RO.” In rural establishments around Spain, you’ll often get a bottle or two at the end of a meal to serve yourself a “Chupito” (shooter). This standard “liquor” comes in many flavours and colours; the Orujo Blanco is pure and contains about 40% alcohol. The flavoured ones are lower in alcohol and cut with a mix of herbs, coffee, honey, creme, etc.
The Bodega de los Picos
There is one winery/distillery that makes interesting guided tours called Bodegas Picos de Cabariezo. They still hand-pick all their grapes and use an ancient still system of Arabic origin to make their Orujo. They are proud of their products with reason! Thanks to their geographic situation and their unique Mencia grape variety. This winery can make great products ranging from ice wines to full-body wines.
They also have a great variety of Orujos, and this year they came up with a Gin made with special spices from the region. The guided tours are offered in many languages. They will let you know about the area and its production. Even give you some tricks to test the quality of an Orujo. The tour ends with a degustation of their products paired with cheeses and marmalades.
Canónigo, the Mother of all Desserts
Another highlight of the Liebana Valley in Cantabria is the fantastic Canónigo. A fluffy meringue cake floating in a creamy custard with side notes of lemon and cinnamon topped with caramel. An almost “out of your body” experience if you have a sweet tooth! It’s similar to a French dessert called Île Flottante but has more aromatics. This smooth and fluffy dessert is typical in every restaurant from the Liebana Valley. So make sure to keep some space for dessert if you pass by.
Bold Blue Cheese
The next stop is the famous blue cheese from the Picos de Europa. Each region has its variations; Cantabria has the Picón, Castilla y León the Valdeón, Asturia has el Cabrales, and a newcomer called de la Peral. They are all fantastic blue cheeses aging in caves with a perfect setup to produce top-quality blue cheese. A high humidity index, cold temperatures and natural Penicillium give the cheese its perfect marble blue colour. Although the Cabrales, a protected denomination de origin (DOP), is without contest the strongest. A pure joy for blue cheese enthusiasts.
Those cheeses are mainly made of cow milk (more than 90%) with a finishing touch of wild goat and sheep’s milk. Initially created in the farmer’s stone cabins up in the mountains to preserve the milk collected from the warmer months. Later, I used to “camouflage” a piece of meat past its prime time… Today, you’ll find many dishes in this region involving those blue cheeses. For example, the Escalopines al Cabrales (Beef Escalopes in Cabrales sauce), the Tallarines al Cabrales (blue cheese pasta), Tortos de maíz con Cabrales ( corn pancakes with Cabrales and apple purée or caramelized onion), potato wedges with blue cheese sauce, etc.
Asturia, the Land of Cider
Although its origin dates back to the Middle Ages in Cantabria, today’s production is mainly in Asturias, which makes up 80% of the cider in Spain. It’s impossible to pass by without stopping at one of their many Sidrerias. Restaurants around Asturias region are mostly called Sidreria, and wherever you’ll end up, you’ll get the “show” that comes with it. The art of pouring cider in Spain is quite an event! The servers pour it from the highest their arm allows it inside a much lower 45 degrees inclined glass. This method helps bring out the natural from the fermentation of endogenous carbon and enhances all the flavours and aromas. It also imitates how the fresh cider emerges from the barrels and recreates this thin foam.
In the Cantabria region, they use a different method to serve cider. A system is often fixed at the bars’ entrance or on the tables to do the whole cider bottle with extra pressure.
This particular cider is called natural, which means, in other words, without added gas. However, with the help of this unique instrument, you’ll get a few seconds of light bubbles and all the aromas you need. The cider here is nothing like any other you’ll find around the globe, it’s slightly frizzy, and they don’t add any sugar or taste enhancers. It feels and tastes like its name: natural.
Fabada Asturiana (Asturian stew)
This famous plate is known around Spain as “comfort food” by excellence or, as they call it: Plato de toda la vida. Eaten primarily in cooler months, you can easily find cans in any supermarket around Spain. It’s a fast, cheap and fulfilling way to get through winter and succulent. Its name means “bean stew,” and it’s inevitable to try if you pass by Asturias.
Fabada is quite similar to the Cantabria stews described earlier; the main difference is its colour. The response is the added saffron or sweet paprika (pimentón dulce), giving it a richer colour. It’s not a complex recipe; the importance of making a good Fabada lies in the quality of its ingredients, followed by excellent long cooking in a large clay pot—a definite pleasure for bean stew lovers.
This meal is a smashed veal steak filled with cheese and ham surrounded by fried breadcrumbs resembling a large schnitzel. And who doesn’t like schnitzels? It’s always in a “super size” format, meaning you better share it between 3 or 4 persons. They have different styles of Cachopo, some with Iberic ham or cheeses and even non-veal ones with pork or fish. You can find this dish only in Asturias, and it’s usually paired with a nice cider! A dreamy fest for meat lovers.
Tortos de Maíz
Another Asturian specialty is small corn pancakes fried in olive oil and topped with blue cheese, shredded chorizo, meat, egg or seafood. Influenced by the Mexican panuchos, they are used in many ways and are easy to make. You have an excellent gluten-free base for anything you can imagine with a simple mix of corn flour, water and salt. This plate combines Cabrales with apple purée and the others with caramelized onions. It was from a lovely little village called Bulnes, only reachable by funicular in the middle of the Picos de Europa. A must-go-to!
Other Spanish Yummy Destinations
Enjoy the ride!