Specialities from the region of Picos de Europa, Spain is a world of its own. From the famous blue cheese Cabrales to the hearty stew “Fabada” you’ve got to come to discover some of the hidden gastronomic treasures of Spain.
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 the second most visited National park in Spain although its low season is fairly calm. The park is divided in between 3 regions; Cantabria, Asturias and Castilla y León each having their own gastronomic particularities.
Let’s start by talking quantities… being in a rigorous surrounding the locals diet is quite calorific and mainly consist of meat, beans and cheese. If you order any main dish at the restaurant, the odds are that you’ll get a gargantuan quantity. Except maybe for those avid hikers it’s a safe bet to recommend to share plates.
Cocido Montañes and Lebaniego
The first stop is the beautiful little stoned village called Potes situated in the centre of the Liébana Valley in Cantabria where, among other things, grows chickpeas and beans of all kinds. The most popular winter dish around there is the famous Cocido Montañes (Mountain stew) which consist of white bean, collard green, pork pieces, chorizo and black sausage and also another similar stew called Cocido Lebaniego which is basically the same except instead of the white beans they use aboriginal chickpeas from the region. Both are equally hearty and delicious stews that will warm you up after a long day in the cold mountains. Usually served at the table in a big pot and a ladle, so you can serve yourself the quantity you need. Those two substantial stews are without a doubt going to give you that extra energy you need for your next day hike. A definite “”must try” for beans lovers!
Orujo and wine
On the south east of Picos de Europa, around the Liebana Valley (Cantabria) they have, surprisingly, a Mediterranean microclimate. Thanks to its favorable climate they can grow all kinds of crops from wheat, corn, chickpeas, beans, apples, cherries, nuts and even olives but also vines. Of course, vines means also wine making but not just that it’s also making another speciality; the famous liquor Orujo. Similar to the Italian “grappa” or French “marc“, this strong drink is made out from the marc left from the wine production. Usually distilled in the region with an Arabic style stills or “potas”, which is a simplistic copper kettles installed over a food fire. A system from Greek origin and brought in 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 the liquor was banned through out Spain but the locals from the region would still be making their own batches with the help of a “mobile” still they would bring from village to village where the locals would give their grapes to distilled.
The production is fast and easy although the pronunciation of the drink can be quite tricky for an non Spanish speaker. The “j” pronounced like a deep “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 in the end of a meal to serve yourself a “Chupito” (shooter). This common “liquor” comes in many flavors and colors; the Orujo blanco is the pure one and quite strong with an average of 40% of alcohol and the flavored ones which are lower in alcohol and cut with whether a mix of herbs, coffee, honey, creme, etc.
A visit at the bodega de los Picos
There is one little winery/distillery that makes interesting guided tours called Bodegas Picos de Cabariezo. They still hand pick all their grapes and still use an ancient still system from Arabic origin to make their high quality Orujo. They are proud of their products with reason, thanks to their geographic situation and their unique Mencia grape variety, they 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 nicely done Gin made with special spices from the region. The guided tours can be done in many languages and they will let you know everything about the region, their production and even give you some tricks to test the quality of a Orujo. The tour ends with a nice degustation of their products paired with some nice cheese and marmalades.
Canónigo, the mother of all desserts
Another highlight from the Liebana Valley in Cantabria is the fantastic Canónigo. A type of 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 the sweet tooth! It’s quite similar to a French dessert called Île flottante but with a tad more aromatics. This smooth and fluffy dessert is typical and in pretty much every restaurant from the Liebana Valley, so make sure to keep some space for dessert if you pass by.
Blue cheese heaven
Next stop is the famous blue cheeses from the Picos de Europa, each region having their own variations; Cantabria has the Picón, Castilla y León the Valdeón and Asturia has the superstar of all Spanish blue cheeses el Cabrales and a newcomer called de la Peral. They are all fantastic blue cheeses aging in the caves with a perfect setup to produce a top quality blue cheese; a high humidity index, cold temperatures and natural Penicillium that gives the cheese it’s perfect marble blue color. Although the Cabrales, a protected denominacion de origin (DOP) is without contest the strongest and stinkiest of them all, a pure joy for blue cheese enthusiasts.
Those cheeses are mainly made of cow milk (more than 90%) with a finishing touch of wild goats milk and sheep’s milk. Originally created artisanally in the farmer’s stone cabins up in the mountains to preserve the milk collected from the warmer months. Later on, used to “camouflage” a piece of meat past its prime time… Today you’ll find many dishes in this region where those blue cheeses are involved like the escalopines al Cabrales (Beef Escalopes in Cabrales sauce), the tallarines al Cabrales (blue cheese pasta), tortos de maíz con Cabrales (*see below – a corn pancake with Cabrales and apple purée or caramelized onion), potato wedge with blue cheese sauce, etc.
Asturia the land of Cider
Although its origin dates back from the Middle Ages in Cantabria, today’s production is mainly in Asturias which makes 80% of the cider in Spain. It’s practically impossible to pass by without making a stop 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 the cider in Spain is quite an event! The waiters pour it from the highest their arm allows it inside a much lower 45 degrees inclined glass. This method is help bring out the natural from the fermentation endogenous carbon and enhance all the flavors and aromas. It’s also imitating the way the fresh cider comes out from the barrels and recreate this thin foam.
In the Cantabria region they use a different method to serve cider. A system fixed often at the entrance of bars or on the tables themselves to serve the whole cider bottle with extra pression.
This special cider is called natural which means in other word; without added gas. However with the help of this special 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 type of sugar or taste enhancers. Its feels and taste like it’s name: natural.
This famous plate is known around Spain as “comfort food” by excellence or as they call it: un plato de toda la vida. Eaten mostly in cooler months, you can easily find cans of it in any supermarket around Spain. It’s a fast, cheap and fulfilling way to get through winter, plus it’s succulent. It’s name literally means “bean stew” and it’s an inevitable to try if you pass by Asturias. Fabada is quite similar to the Cantabria stews described earlier, the main difference here would be it’s color. The responsible is the added saffron or sweet paprika (pimentón dulce) giving it a richer color. It’s not a complex recipe, the importance to make a good Fabada lies in the quality of its ingredients followed by a nice long cooking session in a large clay pot. A definite pleasure for bean stew lovers.
The simplest description for this meal would be a two smashed veal steak filled with cheese and ham surrounded with a crunchy fried breadcrumb resembling a gargantuan schnitzel. And who doesn’t like schnitzels? It’s always coming in a “super size” format meaning you better share it between 3 or 4 persons. They do have different styles of Cachopo some with iberic ham or different style of 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 speciality is a small corn pancake fried in olive oil and topped with whether blue cheese, shredded chorizo, meat, egg, seafood or anything you’d like. Influenced by the Mexican panuchos mexicanos they are used in so many ways and terribly easy to make. A simple mix of corn flour, water and salt and there you have a nice gluten free base to anything you can imagine. This plate with a mix of Cabrales with apple purée and the other with caramelized onions was from a nice little village called Bulnes only reachable by funicular in the middles of the Picos de Europa. A must go to!
To finish this post on funny note! Here’s a nice welcoming goat from the Picos de Europa.
Enjoy the ride!