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Cooking in Asturias, Spain

Javier Salas

Photo: Javier Salas

Dusted in coarse cornmeal—an allusion to chicken feed—a little hunk of foie gras masqueraded as blood sausage in a pool of musky, hyper-reduced garbanzo broth; next to it was a chicken "bonbon" with a molten foie filling. Pote asturiano, a wintry extravaganza of cabbage and pig parts that normally cries out for Mylanta, was deconstructed into a Fabergé-pretty assemblage of porcine ravioli and quivery sausage mousses suspended in a diaphanous young cabbage purée.

This is food where each detail could be a star dish in itself—like the nuggets of lamb sweetbreads glazed with Pedro Jiménez (a raisiny sherry) accessorizing bream from the river Sella, in a play of sweet flesh against crisp skin. The pig in two textures was a study in altered states, the flesh "melted" in the oven to a smooth creaminess, the skin brittle—a savory crème brûlée from the fourth dimension. For dessert, Campo Viejo unveiled his latest experiment: a zany marriage of sweet peas and foie gras.

Save for a few master classes with Adrìa, Campo Viejo is entirely self-taught.

Before my second dinner in town, at Casa Marcial, I drove up to see the nearby mountain lakes. The serpentine road threaded beside plunging ravines and lookouts onto Kodak-moment alpine panoramas. El Cas’n, my lunch grail, turned out to be an idyllic shed with a view of glacial Lake Enol cupped by stony, primordial hills. Cowbells provided a Steve Reichean sound track to my meal of wild boar chorizo and baby goat, roasted until the meat fell apart into succulent shreds. When a monster cow approached and fixed its gaze on my wedge of pungent cabrales, I fled.

Casa Marcial, run by Campo Viejo's drinking buddy Nacho Manzano, is in an old farmhouse on a hill overlooking rolling foothills that are swathed in an eye-popping green. More green awaited me inside: an iced cucumber soup poured around a green pepper sorbet swirled with green olive oil. I went on to a silken-fleshed river salmon in a pool of melon gazpacho, and a backyard chicken braised a deep mahogany brown, its gizzards folded into one big raviolo. In retrospect, this was a fine meal. But after the bravura at Corral, Manzano's style felt a bit green.

My next restaurant, El Cabroncín, took me from the Picos to a weird suburb of Oviedo (the region's industrial capital, with a medieval core) that made the Jersey Turnpike look almost lyrical. My taxi driver—I would never have found the place if I'd been driving—circled around a car dealership and a cosmetics factory, then finally located the proper dirt road and deposited me in a suddenly pastoral patch by a stone house and an hórreo, one of those raised wooden granaries that are to Asturias what covered bridges are to Vermont. Before long, I was sipping Quercus—a new bubbly from boutique cava-producer Agust’ Torelló—and admiring a tableau of clams, berberechos (Cantabrian mini-clams), and percebes (Galician goose barnacles) arranged on a delicate fennel purée.

A fragrant sauté of wild mushrooms came next, crowned by a Day-Glo—orange egg yolk in a crunchy serrano-ham basket. It was exactly the kind of smart neo-rustic dish I wanted to eat here, beneath old wooden beams supporting a pitched farmhouse roof. Gilding the lily was a glass of elegant '96 Roda I rioja reserva recommended by Pepe Vega, Asturias's star sommelier. Pedro Martino, the practically teenage chef, makes a mean salmon in sidra, but his true calling is meat—whether it's an ibérico pig, as spoon-tender as good Memphis barbecue, or Castilian baby lamb shoulder, cooked to the same jammy softness and paired with tiny rare lamb chops. I adored the wooden box holding shot glasses of iced herbal infusions; the funky dessert wine from the Canary Islands; the cool sophistication of apple cannoli in a bittersweet licorice sauce. I also liked the ridiculously low bill.

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