It’s apple harvest time, and it’s another crisp Saturday night on Calle Gascona (below right) in downtown Oviedo, an old university city that’s the genteel, postcard-pretty capital of emerald-green Asturias in north Spain, with happy-faced students and snazzy locals of all ages roaming the sloping three-block stretch and jamming the café and eatery terraces.
Looking closer, you realize this isn’t just another restaurant row in yet another Spanish college town. I spot waiter after waiter executing a maneuver I’ve seen nowhere else but this off-the-beaten-track corner of Iberia: hoisting wine-style green bottles above their heads and aiming streams of golden liquid into wide-mouthed glasses held just below waist level.
Welcome to the Asturian culture of sidra natural. This artesanal hard cider – unpasteurized, unfiltered, lightly alcoholic – is a way of life all across the bucolic rolling landscape the size of Massachusetts plus Vermont (officially a principality; Spain’s royal heir Leonor is the Princess of Asturias just like Charles is Prince of Wales). Between its Cantabrian Sea coast to the north and the towering Picos de Europa mountains to the south, Galicia to the west and Santander to the east, it’s a world away from the dusty, olive-tree-dotted aridity of Andalusia and Castile – far more akin to Ireland and northern France, with which it shares a Celtic heritage. Here, sidra‘s been part of the scene since before the 8th-century Visigothic era.
Sidrerías (cider pub/restaurants) line every block in every Asturian town. You can get it any way you want it – rustic, medieval, cave-like bars in Xixón (Gijón), cider-mill motifs in the town that is the industry’s epicenter, Villaviciosa, and sleek, industrial-chic hangouts along Oviedo’s Calle Gascona. (See those floor drains running along the bar? You leave a little sloshing around the bottom of your glass, then toss it into the drain.)
What Makes Asturias Cider Different
So what’s Asturian-style sidra natural like? Think drier European ciders such as England’s Strongbow and Étienne Dupont from Normandy but less carbonated and even drier. It ranges from slightly cloudy yellow to amber, from 4.5- to 7-percent alcohol, and is served at 10-14° Celsius (50-57° Fahrenheit). On the palate: fresh, crisp, and astringent, with notes from floral to grassy, sometimes with yeasty and/or woody undertones. The carbonation’s natural – that’s why it’s poured from overhead, to “awaken” the bubbles. Each pour delivers a culín or culete – a couple of fingers – and you imbibe slowly but steadily and without stopping.
Under Franco, sidrerías were shut down. Though they reopened in 1975, it was hard to get the younger generation excited. Thirtysomething Celestino Cortina (above left) is co-owner of the eponymous cidermaker. To appeal to the youth market, Cortina says, they had to soften the flavors and make the cider less acidic.
The fresh-faced crowds on Calle Gascona show it worked. Cidermakers have branched out to liqueurs, organic versions (ecológica), and “new-expression” versions (de nueva expresión), better for export because they’re clearer, more elegantly bottled, and don’t need the high pour. In 2002, a “Sidra de Asturias” D.O.C. was established; these ciders must be made from 22 apple varieties out of the thousands that grow locally.
Touring the Cider Houses, and More
But the unattuned palate (including mine) can’t tell much variation between sidras, so to appreciate its roots and lore you need to get out to the lush countryside and some of its 110 llagares (cider houses). East of Oviedo, picturesque hamlet Tiñana boasts five llagares, of which small, 87-year-old Sidra Fanjul is the most prominent; the half-hour free tour includes a display of antique artifacts. Around the corner, cop a peek at the stone farmhouses of 106-year-old Llagar Juanín; on spring and summer Thursdays and Fridays there’s a traditional espicha, a spread of local delicacies and house sidra.
Up in an adorable little village south of the seaport of Gijón, Sidra Trabanco (above right) is a larger, prestigious, still family-run producer (est. 1925) where after seeing the production lines, you quaff in a cavernous tasting room with rows of mammoth oak aging barrels, huge wrought-iron chandeliers, and antique equipment.
Villaviciosa’s sidra ground zero, but north of town is a moving bit of living history. Aurelio José Fernández Blanco’s farm in Oles has a dimly lit, stone-walled llagar on a rocky outcropping – barely bigger than a typical bedroom, and practically unchanged in all its 200 or so years – where they turn out 1,000 or so bottles a year for themselves and friends. The apple press (left) is an ancient wooden affair of hulking beams and platforms, with a huge screw turned by a big wooden lever. It’s best accessible via a tour arranged through the local marketing organization Comarca de la Sidra.
Finally, don’t miss the Cider Museum in Nava, 19 miles east of Oviedo (top). Slick, interactive, and multimedia, it offers a great overview of apples, sidra and their cultural roles – not all labeled in English, but well designed enough to catch the gist. Highlights: a platform that lets you try your hand at the famous sidra pour with water (I’m told a couple days’ practice in the shower does the trick), and a bar stocking various sidras, liqueurs, and other apple-ish tipples.
Sidrerías are open year round, but this is considered a warm-weather drink, so aim for spring through fall; bottling begins in March and April, apple harvesting and pressing in October and November.
There are also festivals like Calle Gascona’s Preba (season’s first tasting) and a food fair in late April; a Festival de la Sidra in Nava the first week in July and one in Avilés in late July; Gijón’s Festival de la Sidra Natural in mid-August; September’s Folixa de la Sidra in the port of Ribadesella; and October’s Festival de la Manzana in Villaviciosa.
Whenever you come, there’s always plenty of good stuff to soak up – because like Champagne, Chianti, and Napa, Asturias is one of those special places where it’s all about the drinking.