Our regular food writer, Orlando Gough, set off with James Seaton and Boyd Webb to walk the Cares Gorge. Along the way they stopped at Ribadesella and were struck by the serving of the cider...
Jamie, Boyd and I arrive at La Guia, a restaurant in Ribadesella, a small seaside town in Asturias, northern Spain. There’s a bar with a TV showing a football match between two sides called something like FXS and RMO, so we’re not entirely grasping the significance, but there’s quite a crowd watching, and they’re excited, despite the fact that the score is 0-0. There are tables in the bar where people are eating, and there’s eating in the main room next door, and there’s eating outdoors - eating and shivering. The place is rocking, families, students, couples, tourists (us).
We are seated in the main room, which has a TV too, but no one’s that interested, until there’s a roar from the bar, and it’s 1-0 to someone. Everyone looks up to watch the replay.
The first thing to notice is the serving of the cider. Cider is a big thing in Asturias. It’s excellent - dry, flat, fruity, intense in taste, refreshing, low in alcohol, cloudy – like scrumpy, but it doesn’t tear your brain apart. The act of serving is glorious performance art. The server holds the glass in one hand, at a slight angle, as low as possible, and the bottle in the other, as high as possible. A small pause, to get psyched up. At this stage there’s something in common with tennis, the ball and the racket, the anticipation. He/she then pours a small amount of cider into the glass in a graceful arc – here’s the crucial part – while looking straight ahead. This is what makes it so beautiful, so strange, so choreographic. The concentration is directed straight ahead horizontally, while the flow of the cider is vertical. At this stage it’s like juggling.
The level of skill varies between the waiters. Some are tentative, the upper hand surely not high enough (who are we to judge?). Some are masterful, nonchalant, confident, minutely adjusting the location and angle of the glass to minimise spillage and splashback. There’s a contraption for catching the spillage, looking like a metal pissoir, which can be wheeled around the restaurant, but an accomplished waiter doesn’t really need it. Some are so masterful that they can pour and watch the football on the TV at the same time.
The pouring itself takes only a few seconds, and then the waiter snaps back into the real world, presents the glass to the guest. For those few seconds he/she has been in a zone of the most intense concentration, far far away from the scene in the room, and then suddenly it’s all smiles and sociability.
Apparently this way of pouring is about aerating the cider, giving it a temporary effervescence. Which is presumably why so little is poured at once; you’re expected to slug it down quickly. Which of course means the waiters are kept extremely busy. Traditionally everyone at a table shares one glass, though here everyone has his/her own.
Meanwhile, we’re working our way through the tapas menu, or rather, we’re not, because our waiter won’t let us. The reason becomes obvious. This is not small-plate tapas but huge-plate tapas, which turns out to be a much better idea, because everyone gets a decent amount, rather than futzing about trying to cut a prawn into six. There’s chorizo in – what else? – cider, there’s a spectacular grilled octopus, black and terrifying but delicious, there are deep-fried anchovies with ham, and, most memorably, in response to a request from Boyd, who is always on the lookout for interesting experiences, there are percebes, gooseneck barnacles. A gooseneck barnacle looks at first sight like a tool from a specialist ironmonger, but then turns out to be a lot sexier. There’s a thing that looks like a hoof attached to an articulated rubbery sleeve (the ‘gooseneck’) which peels back to reveal a finger of glossy, chewy flesh. You boil them in brine for a couple of minutes, you peel, you eat. Even more than an oyster, it’s like eating the sea. They can be quite cheap, as they are at La Guia, and they can be eye-wateringly expensive. They are impossible to farm. Pickers risk their lives foraging for them on the rocks.
There are various things we are not eating. We are not eating vegetables, because there don’t appear to be any on the menu. If you made too much of a habit of dining at La Guia, you’d end up with scurvy. What we’re also not eating, because we had it for lunch, which is apparently when you must eat it, or risk exposing yourself as a nincompoop, or tourist, or worse, is Fabada Asturianas, the local bean stew.
400g white beans (ideally alubias, which are like smaller, rounder butter beans, but cannellini or haricot beans will do fine)
200g tocino, or pancetta, or salt bacon, in one piece
2 bay leaves
several sprigs of thyme
a head of garlic, halved crossways
a generous pinch of saffron
150g soft cooking chorizo
salt and pepper
a handful of parsley, chopped
Soak the beans overnight in cold water, and drain.
Put the beans in a large pot with the tocino, the bay leaves, thyme, garlic, onion and saffron, and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil and simmer for about two hours, covered, skimming off the foam occasionally if necessary, keeping the water topped up, until the beans are almost soft.
Add the morcilla, whole, the chorizo, also whole, and cook for another half-hour. Remove the herbs, garlic and onion. Test for seasoning. Slice the tocino, the morcilla and the chorizo and mix them, along with the parsley, into the beans.
Serve with Asturian cider, poured from a great height.
La Guia is a restaurant of the kind you don’t find in Blighty, mainly, I think, because we have such an uneasy relationship with our own cuisine. Here, the atmosphere is informal, raucous, café-like, but the food, while simple, is sophisticated, locally sourced, and beautifully cooked. Lovely.
Words by Orlando Gough
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