A Brief History of Cider in Asturias
It is no exaggeration to say that everything in Asturias revolves around apples. As many as five hundred varieties are grown here, twenty-two of which are approved for use in traditional Asturian cider by the Regulatory Council.
How that came to be is a fascinating story. Read on for the very briefest story of apple cider in Asturias. This is a topic I could probably write a book on. Perhaps I will one day.
The apple as we know it came from the densely forested Tian Shan mountains near Almaty, Kazakhstan. The older name for this second largest city in Kazakhstan is Alma-Ata – “The Father of Apples”.
Being on the Western side of the mountains, the apples of Almaty were well positioned to join the great migration of Central Asian produce towards the Middle East and Europe.
The Silk Road carried those future cider apples to ancient Greece and Rome. As travelers on the route ate and discarded apples, the seeds grew and cross-pollinated with local crab-apple varieties. This happened across the length of the Silk Road. For more on this process see this 2019 article from the Max Planck Society. It is an excellent overview of the ancient history of the apple tree.
Rome, of Course
Once the apple arrived in ancient Greece and Rome, it was an instant hit. Apples were so popular in Greece that the stories of the origins of the Trojan War begin with an apple.
The Romans, too, quickly became obsessed with the apple. They began planting orchards and making cider as early as the first century CE. Virgil, Cato and Pliny knew dozens of varieties of apple. As the Roman legions marched, so did the apple. In this way, it spread to every corner of Europe and North Africa. Indeed the Spanish word for apple; manzana, comes from the Vulgar Latin (Iberian dialect) mattiana. That term is from the Latin malum matianum, a kind of apple, literally apples of Matius. Matius was a Roman horticulturist and author of cookbooks, and a close friend of Caesar.
As the romanization of Asturias slowly happened, apples became more widely planted. Strabo mentions it in book three of Geographica, in the first century BCE. In the thousand years following, cider replaced zythos beer as the favored drink in Asturias.
The Middle Ages
During the middle ages, farmers made cider for themselves. This imprinted the image of the pumarada surrounding the caserío indelibly on the collective mind. This is the era in which cider becomes one of, if not the, most important products in Asturias. In 781, the monastery of San Vicente (which will later give rise to the city of Oviedo) is founded. In the founding documents is a plan for the pumaradas that will surround the monastery.
Again, in 803, the Ego Fakilo (testament of Fakilo) records the orchards given to support the Cathedral of San Salvador, also in Oviedo. These mentions, and many more like them, continue throughout the whole pre-modern period, showing the economic and social importance of cider in Asturias.
Industrial Cider Revolution
The 18th century was one of rapid expansion and change across Asturias. Cider production expanded and became more industrial during this time. The Sociedad de Amigos del País de Asturias formed, and spread new harvesting and processing techniques throughout the territory.
Gone were the small farms with personal orchards. Now the pumaradas were enormous, and the small producers were rapidly expanding. Whereas local farmers had produced almost all cider previously, by the end of the 18th century, more than 100 commercial manufacturers were operating in Asturias. A staggering 64 of them were in the town of Infiesto alone. Indeed, at the end of the 18th century, there are no agricultural exports from Asturias of note except for apples and cider.
The 19th century marks another huge turning point in cider culture in Asturias. The Industrial Revolution brought intensive manufacturing to the cities of Gijón, Oviedo, Avilés, and Langreo. Like all things, this industrial might was put to work in the service of cider, and in 1843, La Industria opened in Gijón, making glass bottles and cider glasses.
This proved to be a huge turning point for cider, as it allowed the drink to move from the farm to the city. As a result, it was rapidly adopted by the growing industrial working class as the everyday drink. In 1880, Asturians produced 26 million liters of cider, according to commercial records.
Modern Cider Culture in Asturias
So now we arrive at the modern all-pervasive cider culture in Asturias. Asturians are rightfully proud of their most famous beverage. Because, at the end of the 20th century, Asturias produced 50 million liters of sidra natural. Also the number of sidrerías was higher than ever, and growing every year. Gijón hosts an enormous cider festival every year, with 30,000 liters drunk over the course of the week.
Drinking cider is now, as it has been for a long time in Asturias, a daily occurrence for many, if not most, Asturians. It has become both a commonplace, and a slightly baroque ritual. For more on navigating the actual pouring and drinking of cider in Asturias, check out The Cider House Rules.
- The Regulatory Council is the official body established to certify that a cider qualifies for the “Sidra de Asturias” Designation of Origin
- Spengler, Robert N. Fruit from the Sands: The Silk Road Origins of the Foods We Eat. pp 197. UNIV OF CALIFORNIA Press, 2020.