The Green Coast: Asturias; The Ancient Land of Cheese and Cider
Asturias is a raw natural region of Spain lying on its northern green coast. The pilgrimage region of Galicia lies to its west and Cantabria to its east and the large autonomy of Castile and Leon lies southward.
Asturias, in spite of its beauty is often overlooked. It does not have your summer temperatures that can fry an egg in the south of Spain. Its coldest and shortest day is in January with temperature that can drop to 6 °C (43°F) with daylight that lasts for eight hours — while its warmest day is in August with temperature that reaches no higher than 22°C (72°F) with twice the amount of daylight. Not ideal for absolute sun worshippers but perfect for hikers, climbing and rigorous activity.
It is relatively unspoilt with coves and cliffs that span out onto pleasant beaches, picture postcard fishing villages and forms part of the Picos de Europa – literally meaning the peaks of Europe - that acquired its name when the ships arriving from the Americas viewed these mountains from afar.
Blue Cheese Health Benefits
Great for bones and joints
Prevents osteo-related illnesses
Reduces blood clotting
Recovers calcium loss after menopause
Helps cognitive functions
Can ease the pain of migraine and headaches
Picos de Europa
The Picos de Europa mountains are shared between Asturias and its neighbouring autonomies and its national park is a haven for birds, wild animals and wild flowers. Not surprisingly it is popular with twitchers (birdwatchers) naturalists, hikers and mountain climbers.
However, it is also home to domesticated herds of cows, sheep and goats. The milk of these animals is used to make many village artisan cheeses within Asturias including the famous Cabrales Blue Cheese.
The milk is heated, curdled and rennet is added. After the whey is removed it is then placed in cylindrical molds, salted and then left to cure. Two weeks later it is moved into the limestone caves of the animal’s grazing grounds. The high natural humidity promotes the growth of penicillin that gives the cheese the distinctive blue veins. The period of maturation varies from two to five months.
Cabrales Blue Cheese tastes great on its own, or with a salad. One of my favourite uses is to make scones with it using a half brown/white flour to improve the taste and consistency.
Did you know that the penicillin in Blue Cheese can help combat breast cancer and reduce the symptoms of gout? Some other benefits are detailed in the accompanying table.
Asturias is also rich in history dating back to the Palaeolithic Period. As well as the limestone caves used to mature the blue cheese in Cabrales there is also a prehistoric cave called the Cueva (Cave) of La Covaciella. There are over half a dozen of these caves but the most accessible one specifically designed to accommodate tourists is the Cueva de Tito Bustillo.
This cave is painted and superimposed over previous drawings. There are many of animals such as the horse and reindeer that were a part of the diet of the hunter-gatherers. Also the natural relief of the rock is used to supplement the drawings of the female body. There is also a Prehistory Teaching Room where graphic panels and exhibits will help you understand our pre-historical ancestors.
The Apple Orchards
The instincts of Pre-historic Iberian man and his creative ingenuity is carried through the ages. As early as the time of the Romans, the Moorish occupation and the Reconquista (Christian Reconquest) this green area of the North has grown, gathered, pressed and fermented the apple which the Romans called ‘pomaria’ and the Moors ‘siserio’.
The quality of what we call cider and the modern day Spanish call Sidra is taken very seriously in Asturias. It is given the same dedication as the artisan cheeses made here. So therefore the final production of the apple into cider is also given the ‘artisan’ label.
The apples used in the artisan process flower mid-April in the advent of the warming spring weather. The orchards of Asturias are then naturally pollinated by wild bees. There are over 30 varieties of apple grown in Asturias ranging from bitter to sweet varieties.
The careful balancing of bitter and sweet varieties of apple help to give each specific artisan cider its own particular distinctiveness.
Content per 100 grammes
When the fruit is fully grown which is usually from October through to November they are then gathered and collected by the Llager – the name for a Cider House in Asturias.
Only those that are collected from the tree are used. Those that fall to the floor are rejected.
The apples are then pressed, fermented in natural yeast and allowed to mature for 5 months before being introduced to the bottle.
This process makes the cider naturally effervescent.
Before they are finally bottled, whilst the cider is still fermenting in the barrel, it is a tradition to host an Espichas – a first tasting. This usually involves inviting family and friends to try the cider from the barrel with complementary food such as Cabrales Blue Cheese, jamon (Spanish cured pork/ham), sausage and bread.
After a successful Espichas they are then bottled and sent to the Chigre – the name for a Cider Bar in Asturias. Even here tradition is still necessary to enjoy the cider at its fullest. An experienced cider server called an Escanciador will pour the cider by holding the opened bottle at his arm’s extent and then tipping it into a glass at his waist. This helps boost the natural effervescence and increase the optimum flavour of the cider which must then be drank immediately by the waiting customer.
East of the capital of Asturias, Oviedo there is a town called Nava which hosts a Cider Museum and also a Cider Festival every July.
Authors note: For more information on Asturias, why not explore another Hubbers hub entitled Holidays in northern Spain: last undiscovered seaside resort, Asturias