Specialties from Picos de Europa National Park, Spain. Discover some 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 the second most visited National park in Spain although its low season is fairly calm. The park is divided into 3 regions; Cantabria, Asturias and Castilla y León each having its own gastronomic particularities. So here are some Specialties from Picos de Europa!
Let’s start by talking quantities… being in a rigorous surrounding 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 gargantuan 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 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 consists of white bean, collard green, pork pieces, chorizo and black sausage. Another similar stew called Cocido Lebaniego is basically the same except for the aboriginal chickpeas instead of the white beans.
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’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 all kinds of crops from wheat, corn, chickpeas, beans, apples, cherries, nuts, and olives but also vines. Of course, vines means also wine making but not just that, it’s also making the famous liquor Orujo. Similar to the Italian “Grappa” or French “Marc“, this strong drink is made out of the marc left from wine production. Usually distilled in the region with Arabic style stills or “Potas”, which is a 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 own 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 quite tricky for a non-Spanish. The “j” is 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 at the end of a meal to serve yourself a “Chupito” (shooter). This common “liquor” comes in many flavours and colours; the Orujo Blanco is pure and contains about 40% of alcohol. The flavoured ones are lower in alcohol and cut with whether 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 region 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 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 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 own variations; Cantabria has the Picón, Castilla y León the Valdeón and 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’s milk and sheep’s milk. Originally created 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. 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 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 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 helps bring out the natural from the fermentation of endogenous carbon and enhances all the flavours and aromas. It’s also imitating the way the fresh cider comes out from the barrels and recreates 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 pressure.
This special cider is called natural which means in other words; 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. 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: 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. Its name literally 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 here would be 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 to make a good Fabada lies in the quality of its ingredients followed by a nice 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 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 styles 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 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 Mexicanos they are used in so many ways and are 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 others with caramelized onions. It was from a nice little village called Bulnes only reachable by funicular in the middle of the Picos de Europa. A must-go-to!
Enjoy the ride!