Asturias - Apple Town

Apple Town

Join Dave Matthews on a cider bar crawl around Villaviciosa, in northern Spain

 

The province of Asturias in northern Spain is home to the world’s most enthusiastic cider drinkers. In towns like Villaviciosa, known as ‘Apple Town’ to the Spaniards, drinking cider is almost a religion, and the twenty-plus cider bars (‘sidrerias’) are the places of worship. Let’s take a stroll around Villaviciosa, and stop at a selection.

 

You could do worse than to stay at one of the hotels on Calle del Carmen, where you will also find our first sidreria, El Cañu. It’s bright and welcoming, with collections of cider glasses, corks, labels and bottles all on display. In the corner there’s an old wooden cider press, and the cider available is from El Gobernador. You buy it by the 70cl bottle, and the idea is to share it with your friends. This ‘Sidra Natural’ is unfiltered and unpasteurised, still and tasty, and extra life is given to it by the remarkable pouring technique. The barman holds the bottle at arm’s length above his head, the glass by his waist, and pours a shot (‘culin’, which means ‘little arse’!) with unerring accuracy. The idea is to drink it before the thousands of foaming white bubbles subside, and the effect is an invigorating and refreshing drink with a beautiful appley flavour.

 

We’ll turn right into General Campomanes, and walk up the hill to La Ballera. It’s the sidreria that currently has the reputation for selling more cider than any other in the town. But it’s a title that moves about, for as our guide and friend Osoro told us ‘the cider drinker is a nomad!’, and they will happily switch their allegiances to another sidreria if they feel that the cider quality may be better. Anyway, La Ballera has certain features shared by all sidrerias: a tiled floor, wooden table and chairs, hanging hams, a telly that’s always on but no-one ever watches, and various bits of cider paraphernalia – including, in this case, a wall painting of a cider pourer (‘escanciador’). The cider is from M. Vigón, and we share a bottle with some friendly folks from another sidreria, who are in town for a photoshoot after getting a placing in the national cider pouring championships.

 

If you’ve got time, and it’s a nice evening, continue up General Campomanes for a fine view over the town, surrounded as it is by hills on all sides, but with an escape route via the estuary. Drop back past Ballera, then turn into Manuel Cortina, where you’ll find a couple of sidrerias. La Espicha has a good reputation, and there was obviously much merriment and cider drinking going on inside, but the sign on the door said ‘Do not disturb, family holiday’! Over the road El Portal is welcoming, and gives us a chance to try a ‘DOP’ cider from Val d’Ornón. The DOP legislation is the equivalent of our PDO, which gives a guarantee of origin, and can be used to specify production techniques. In this case ‘DOP Sidra de Asturias’ can only be made from any of 22 classic Asturian cider apple varieties, out of a total number that various estimates put at somewhere between 2500 and 5000!

 

Let’s continue to the town hall square, and on Generalisimo we can find several sidrerias. Congreso de Benjamin is a good place for a bite to eat. In Britain, it’s becoming fashionable to eat seasonal food from local suppliers. They’ve never stopped doing this in Asturias (why would they?), so in the spring you can tuck into a plate of sea urchins, and in the autumn you might spot a local walking in with a basket of fungi, and a few minutes later be able to enjoy it fried with garlic. It’s also got one of those tanks of live crabs and lobsters, allowing you to point out your dinner to the waiter. Cider is the perfect accompaniment to good food, and Benjamin offers a selection, including bottles from Trabanco and Contrueces.

 

Just next door is one of my favourite sidrerias, El Furacu. Its steel-topped bar and strip lighting give it a no-nonsense feel, and everybody is drinking the cider, on this occasion from Cortina. The Cortina family have been successful over the years, and production levels are now at around 2 million litres per year. All of this is natural cider – unfiltered and unpasteurised – made in a state-of-the-art cider mill on the outskirts of Villaviciosa. There’s a lesson to be learnt here, so British cidermakers please pay attention – success and expansion does not mean that you have to ruin your cider with filtration and pasteurisation.

 

Retracing our steps down Generalisimo, past the tourist information centre, we’ll walk along Marques de Villaviciosa, stopping at Galeon, a nautically themed sidreria. There’s some free tapas on the bar, and more Sidra Cortina to be drunk. There’s an African Grey parrot, and I absolutely insist that you go over and ask it ‘¿pues, quien es un chico bonito?’ (‘who’s a pretty boy, then?).

 

Now turn right into Victor Garcia de la Concha, and you’ll find a fine sidreria along on the right. La Cuarta has a really matey atmosphere, helped, I’m sure, by the staff bringing free hot tapas (including lovely little tuna pasties) around to the tables. The cider is from Trabanco, and although I’ve never visited Asturias’s largest cidermaker, the mill is apparently located in an old railway tunnel in the side of a mountain. Retracing our steps back to Galeon, we’ll turn right, and pass around the old town until we arrive at Eloisa Fernandez, and Sidreria La Oliva. Bright and clean, some of the tables are made from the circular ends of huge chestnut cider barrels, and further barrel ends decorate the walls. Chestnut is preferred to oak, since new oak would taint the cider’s flavour (think of those bloody awful oaked wines), whereas new chestnut has no such faults. At the cider mills, cider is fermented and stored in huge horizontal chestnut barrels, maybe four metres high, each holding thousands of litres. To sample each barrel, the cidermaker fits a small brass tap, from which the cider shoots out horizontally some two metres to be caught in a glass. Foaming and fresh, this is the origin of the pouring technique seen in the sidrerias.

 

Let’s walk back towards the hotel down Cavanilles, with one last stop before we turn in. La Torre is another bright and welcoming sidreria, where both the landlord and his son have trophies on display from success at cider pouring tournaments. The cider is Roza, and is perhaps our favourite. Made by the inscrutable Señor Roza at Nava (the ‘Cider Town’ of Spain, inland from Villaviciosa), his rows of traditional chestnut barrels produce a cider that is perhaps a little fruitier than most, and with a touch more tannin too. It is poured for us in the usual way – with the usual accuracy – and the wafer-thin sides of the glass resonate to release the carbon dioxide from solution. Reassuringly, the white foaming bubbles clear from the outside of the glass inwards, always the sign of a good cider. We are reminded of the time when the cider pourer, in a sidreria we won’t name, accidentally-on-purpose brushed the top of the cider bottle against a hanging ham. He had hoped that the grease would stop the foaming bubbles rotating – a suggestion that the cider is below par.

 

Time to hit the sack, and we can sleep easily, safe in the knowledge that we’ll wake with a clear head. After all, we may have shared a few bottles, but it’s all been pure, unadulterated, Natural Cider.

 

Getting There

Fly with Easyjet, Stanstead to Oviedo (Asturias).

 

Staying There

Hotel El Conventin, www.hcasaespana.com

 

First published in CAMRA's What's Brewing, and reproduced with their kind permission.'

 

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