The unsung cuisine of Spain's comfort-food capital, Asturias

By now, you probably know your tapas from your pintxos and your Rioja from your cava. Manchego may grace you...

Posted: Sep 27, 2018 1:59 PM
Updated: Sep 27, 2018 1:59 PM

By now, you probably know your tapas from your pintxos and your Rioja from your cava. Manchego may grace your cheese boards and smoky pimentón might spice up your soups.

But unless you're a booksy food geek or diehard Hispanophile, chances are you haven't discovered the unsung cuisine of Spain's comfort-food capital, Asturias.

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That's because most people who go to Spain stick to its sunnier vacation spots such as Madrid, Barcelona and Sevilla -- a misstep since Asturias boasts such standout scenery, music, religious sites and cuisine.

Ask any Spaniard -- Asturias' shamrock-green pastures, teeming seas and fertile farmland bear some of the most prized delicacies on the Iberian Peninsula, from aged Asturian Valley beef to dayboat sea urchins to pungent mountain cheeses.

The best part is, Asturias remains so far off the tourist track that -- at least for now -- you're more likely to run into herds of cows than hordes of selfie-snapping foreigners.

So get there stat, and eat up: It's worth visiting for these nine dishes alone.

Fabada

Fabada is to Spain what feijoada is to Brazil and cassoulet is to France: a special-occasion bean stew that hinges on hyperlocal ingredients, exacting technique and the patience of a Tibetan monk.

Every other neighborhood tavern lays claim to la mejor fabada, so your best bet is to ask a local for a recommendation. Great fabadas start with real-deal fabas de la granja, slender, finger-like white beans of outstanding quality that have been cultivated in Asturias for centuries.

After being plumped to ultra-creamy perfection in a serrano ham broth for six to eight hours, the beans get a final hit of smoke and fat from compango, a medley of Asturian porcine delights including garlicky chorizo, morcilla (blood sausage), and pancetta. If a fabada is in your future, be sure to pencil in a postprandial siesta -- the body-warming broth and heavy meats induce a fairly immediate food coma.

Chorizo a la sidra

A recipe for chorizo a la sidra goes something like this: simmer chorizo in cider; serve. Deceptively simple and dangerously addictive, it's quintessential Asturian bar food -- a saucy, no-nonsense tapa that demands hunks of crusty bread for sopping and bottomless glasses of hard cider.

Since chorizo a la sidra calls for just two ingredients, there's no cutting corners: Only the best oakwood-smoked chorizo and dry Asturian cider will suffice.

Cachopo

Walk into any mom-and-pop joint in Asturias, and you'll find dozens of diners tucking into cachopo, an Asturian specialty of deep-fried beef cutlets stuffed with ham and cheese and served with roasted red peppers and french fries. Forget what you've heard about European portion sizes -- this glistening hubcap of carne packs more caloric heft than a Cheesecake Factory entrée in Texas.

The dish has such a cult following that an unofficial Spanish Academy of Friends of the Cachopo hosts periodical cachopo throwdowns, and every July, Madrid ushers in a hotly anticipated Cachopo Week.

Cabrales

One of the world's finest blue cheeses, Cabrales (cah-BRA-less) gets its signature tang (and pleasant putrescence) from six months' maturation in the dank mountain caves of eastern Asturias (some of which you can visit).

The cool, dark environment -- always humid thanks to dripping stalactites -- is a perfect petri dish for the penicillin mold that slowly impregnates each wheel of cheese.

Cabrales is on most restaurant menus and also makes a wonderful if odiferous souvenir: In local cheese shops, seek out ones made with a mixture of cow, sheep and goat milk if your cheese taste could be summed up by "the stinkier, the better."

Otherwise, spring for a milder all-cow variety. Cabrales is so pungent and rich that it needs nothing more than hot toast and a butter knife to be a satisfying first course. And like most Asturian delicacies, it tastes best accompanied by an ice-cold glass of sidra.

Cider

Since pre-Roman times, sidra (hard cider) has been the tipple of choice in Asturias, whose cool, rainy climate favors apple trees over grapevines.

Cloudy, briny, and refreshingly effervescent, sidra bears little resemblance to the one-note, oversweet Strongbows and Magners most of us are used to drinking.

In chigres, the old-timey cider taverns you'll find across the region, bartenders make a show of pouring cider into glasses from high overhead, a technique said to aerate the wine and give it its characteristic fizziness.

Chug down your glass in one gulp as tradition dictates, or risk disapproving looks from locals.

Pastel de cabracho

Often inelegantly translated as "fish loaf," pastel de cabracho is a delicate rosy-pink mousse made from onions, celery, cream, and the sweet flesh of the scorpion fish, which inhabits Asturias' rocky coastal areas.

The humble dish got a high-brow rebrand in the 80s when Basque chef Juan Mari Arzak featured it front and center on his Michelin-starred menu at Arzak in San Sebastian.

Spread the pastel on a toasted baguette slice, add a dollop of mayonnaise (a traditional sidekick), and wash it down with a crisp Galician albriño.

Frixuelos

When February's Antroxu (carnival) festivities roll around, Asturianos of all ages flock to the fairgrounds for frixuelos, hot crêpes rolled in sugar and eaten out of hand. Purists gobble them down plain, but Nutella, caramel, and strawberry jam are usually at an arm's reach for those with a sweet tooth.

Frixuelos are so universally adored that you'll find them on dessert menus throughout the region.

Afuega'l Pitu

Handmade in small dairies called caserías, this crumbly cow's-milk cheese stands out for its striking roxu (red) varieties flavored with smoky, piquant pimentón.

Nobody knows how the spice found its way into the traditional recipe, but it was probably a happy accident -- a bag of paprika toppled into the fermentation vat, perhaps. What's certain is that afuega'l pitu has long been prized in Asturias, so much so that in the 18th century, farmers used the cheese as a currency to pay taxes.

If you can't find it on restaurant menus (sadly, it's often eclipsed by the more widely produced Cabrales), seek it out in local queserías and gourmet shops.

Moscovitas

With more pastry shops per capita than any other region in Spain, Asturias lays claim to some of the country's most delectable sweets --case in point: moscovitas.

These chocolate-dipped cookies, baked in a small pastry shop in Oviedo called Confitería Rialto, have devotees across the peninsula. One taste and you'll understand why: Each silver-dollar-sized wafer is suffused with toasted Spanish almonds, crunchy toffee, and bitter chocolate.

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