We head back down and visit the famous Virgin of Covadonga, a shrine in a curiously mesmerizing chapel cut into a cave above a waterfall. Then we’re supposed to steer toward the coast and lunch. But as we’re approaching the turnoff, Andrés can’t help himself. “If you love food and you’re in Asturias,” he says, “you must visit Cabrales and taste the cheese.”
Soon we’re in the village of Arenas de Cabrales, at a bar that feels like every other Spanish bar. The television is blasting, patrons are carelessly dropping paper napkins on the floor. But the wood is polished to a gleam, there’s frosted glass in the windows, and instead of a soccer match or a soap opera, a cooking show is on. The best Cabrales cheeses, Andrés tells me, are blended from equal parts cow’s, sheep’s, and goat’s milk, then aged six months in one of the caves that dot the Asturian landscape. A ración arrives, crumbly and veined with blue. It’s a revelation, fruity and nutty, faintly spicy, and completely irresistible.
As a chef, Andrés’s greatness is rooted in his painstaking technique, which allows him to harness and direct his soaring creativity. But as an eater he’s all about the intense flavor of particular ingredients, especially when they conjure up emotional attachments. I’ve never seen him happier than when he’s alone with a plate of pata negra ham in a Spanish bar; the shambolic smile that curves across his face reminds me of a five-year-old. Here in Arenas, his trancelike expression as he devours the Cabrales comes close.
After an exhilarating drive down from the hills, we hit Llanes, a town of tidy clapboard houses bisected by a canal. It reminds me of coastal Yorkshire with a touch of Copenhagen. Turned around, Andrés keeps stopping to ask directions. He’s recognized each time, even by the pensioner with a cane and a loden overcoat who looks glum until Andrés lowers his window. “Hey, it’s the chef,” the man says, and grins hugely. When we pass an abandoned monastery on a marsh, Andrés remarks that his dream is to retrofit it as a hotel/restaurant. I’d scoff at that from anyone else, but Andrés opens restaurants the way some people open bank accounts. It’s just the kind of ambitious and unexpected swerve his career might take.
The traditionally Asturian lunch that follows at La Huertona, a wood-paneled restaurant with a view of the Picos, is spectacular: a classic fabada, baby eels sizzling in garlic, and half a dozen other dishes that whiz past in a blur. Over three days in Asturias, we haven’t had an hour without eating, drinking, or traveling at high speed. Every place has been compellingly beautiful, somewhere I’d willingly return to.
After lunch Andrés drives to a nearby seawall, stops the car, and steps out. That night, we’ll end up in Avilés and tour the Centro Niemeyer. I head to bed, but Andrés will go out drinking cider until three, and then, racing to get to the airport in the morning, he’ll slam the rental car against a post in a parking garage, waving down a taxi to make our flight to Madrid. For the moment, though, he’s placid. He stands by the rocks and tracks the tide, letting the spirit of Asturias calm his soul. “Every place has its own rhythm,” he says quietly. “I’d recognize those waves if I heard them anywhere in the world.”