At Tierra Astur You Dine in a Cider Barrel
As if in a premonition of things to come, my stomach growled as our plane descended into Aviles, Asturias, over the dune-bordered beach, and onto the runway. 21 hours after I left my home in upstate New York for a week of (debauchery and hedonism) work – it was noon when my friends and I arrived. The plan was to eat, drink, and play our way through the natural wonderland that is the little region of Asturias on the northern coast of Spain. All to tell the world how great it was to be here.
We quickly found out that cider houses are very popular in Asturias as they are throughout northern Spain. We dined in several that week. But lunch that first day at Tierra Astur, was the biggest “experience meal”, meaning everything was simply over the top.
You don’t realize how big cider barrels are until you are inside one or climbing the staircase of cider-barrel tops up to a loft of “booths” each with a picnic table inside a horizontal cider barrel. On our way to our booth, we passed a table of men pouring over coffee-table books of food. I imagined those diners were in publishing, going over a new release. Little did I know those books were the menus! For us, the food was pre-ordered, the menus were just for show, we were in for a blowout of a meal!
Everything is served family-style in a cider house. Some I’ve been in don’t even serve plates. That was when my companions and I each had a fork and a knife to help ourselves out of the serving platter. But this time, perhaps in a nod to the pandemic, or simply different sensibilities, Basque vs Asturian, we each had our own plate. There were eight of us eating our way through Asturias, so two servings of each course weighted down our table.
Cider is traditionally poured from a bottle held overhead, splashing into a tilted glass, the server all the time looking you in the eyes. Besides the theater of it, the cider is oxygenated by the pour and meant to be drunk immediately and completely to enjoy the best flavor. This was our first cider house meal of the trip, but the only one without a pouring ritual.
Cider in this establishment is poured out of sight with glasses delivered to the table in a wooden tray. The cider, a scant 2 inches of it in a glass, is meant to be chugged, leaving a tiny bit in the glass and replacing it on the tray when you are ready for another slug. (This is because traditionally the cider was homemade, and there was always a bit of residue in the bottom of your glass. Today’s commercial cider rarely has that problem. Still, the tradition persists.)
After the cider, service began with a bowl of good crusty bread and charcuterie platters of cured meats: sliced chorizo, salami, Jamon (ham), cecina (cured beef), and lomo (pork tenderloin). There was olive oil to drizzle over the meat on some of that great bread. At this point we were starving and had no idea how much food was coming, so we ate it all. The meat in Spain is so good you can’t not.
The next course was one I’d never tasted before: cabracho. Basically, it is a golden fish pate or “pudding”, served with a white mayo-based sauce. It came with bread to spread it on. I had a schmear. It was not my favorite course of the meal, but it was tasty enough. After all that meat I just wasn’t ready for fish.
A tapas-style plate of fried corn fritters topped with eggs was pretty, but the fritters were very greasy as if the oil wasn’t quite hot enough when they were cooked. Done correctly, these can be a “pop-in-your-mouth” burst of flavor and texture. These were reminiscent of that.
Next came a platter of mussels steamed in a spicy cider broth. I love mussels! Besides meat, Spain, northern Spain especially, is known for its fresh seafood. In Asturias – it comes straight out of the Cantabrian Sea. These mussels were served briny fresh with delicious heat, in a spicy broth that begged for more bread to soak it up, if only because I didn’t have a spoon.
Along about now, my I-haven’t-eaten-anything-except-airport-food-for-24-hrs hunger was beginning to be satisfied – but my eyes were still bigger than my stomach. Along with the mussels came plates of Spain’s ubiquitous ham croquettes – those creamy, delicious, deep-fried bechamel wonders available all over Spain. They are not to be passed up!
Service paused here while dirty plates were collected. For a moment I thought it was for a dessert setting, but I forgot I was in Spain. No, finally we were done with the appetizers. The main courses were about to begin. For a rare moment, I had a clean empty plate in front of me. Then – my absolute favorite course – the racks of ribs – came. They glistened with fat and gave off this fantastic aroma of grilled beef, so that, even full, I dove in. Crispy, tender, and moist as only great ribs can be, these were phenomenal! After thirds (but who’s counting?) I uncovered the fried, sliced potatoes beneath the mound of meat, now moist with the drippings from the ribs. I had to have more.
Finally, we decided that was enough.
Of course, there was more to eat. A salad bowl was refilled regularly throughout the meal, plates of Asturian cheeses appeared and were quickly emptied, and our cider glasses frequently replenished creating a half-full/half-empty conundrum that occupied our conversation between platters of food.
Then there was dessert. Fortunately, I rarely eat sweets, so I didn’t have to pass up all that good food just to save room for some sugary delights. Even so, it had to be tasted. “It” turned out to be two desserts, served one atop the other. The very traditional Tres Frixuelos de Escanda (spelt crepes with sugar on top) were folded and served on top of equally traditional Nuestras Casadielles (hazelnut hand pies, also with sugar on top). I can see why they are traditional, and why people love them, but they were too sweet for me. Enough is enough.
Fortunately, after espressos, we had a long walking tour of Aviles, something to burn off all those calories. We saw pretty markets and squares lined with tables, statues of heroes and dignitaries which popped up where the pedestrian-only streets of the old section crossed amazing architecture and medieval fountains, and the crypt where the remains of Palacio (victorious Asturian leader of Spanish forces in the Reconquista) were buried. Then we crossed the barricades into a park under construction to see the statue to Palacio, ignoring all the do not enter signs to admire the monument to the hero of Asturias.
Finally, we crossed into the port to see Centro Niemeyer, the modern square the architect Oscar Niemeyer designed for the city. The great thing about Spain is that you can see the ancient quarter, then look across the square to see the most modern building, sometimes the old and new are even placed side-by-side, with a reverence for each shared equally.
Having walked for miles, we returned to the old quarter and our hotel, the Palacio de Aviles a converted palace with centuries of history and beautiful, formal gardens to relax in, to get ready for dinner. Six hours into a week-long exploration of Asturias, and I couldn’t believe I was ready to eat again!