Cocina de Leña

From Eating Asturias, the Encyclopedia of Asturian Gastronomy
Asturian wood cook stove

One of the more interesting things about home cooking in Asturias is the prevalence of the coal and wood stove. And not as antiques or curiosities like the ubiquitous Singer sewing machine is in the States. No, these stoves see regular use, both as cooking implements and as whole-house heaters.

Indeed, across much of Asturias, waking up to the smell of wood and coal smoke is a sure sign that the temperature dropped last night. The delivery of sacks of coal or stove wood are just as common as deliveries of bottled gas.

Hergom is the by far the most popular brand. That is, judging by what I have seen in four years of inspecting kitchens in homes across Asturias. And while many houses already have such a stove, there is enough of a market for new ones that the foundry continues to manufacture them now. Sure, only two of their current models are rated for coal burning. But there are still almost three dozen options to choose from for a wood stove.

Surprisingly, Hergom was only founded in 1960. Meaning that by most standards, the stoves I see in houses here are new. These are not antiques – relics of “back in grandma’s day”. These are consciously chosen “daily driver” cook tops and ovens, designed for current needs and desires.

If you live in the United States and are interested in wood stoves, you might know the brand Hearthstone. That is Hergom under another name.

Why The Wood Stove is King in Asturias

A wood stove in a typical Asturian kitchen
A wood stove in a typical Asturian kitchen

In the States cooking on a wood stove is a very niche activity. It is mostly confined to “back to the land” and “off grid prepper” types there. Whereas in Asturias it is a normal part of daily life for close to a third of the population. The reasons for this are simple to see once you live here for a while.

First, electricity is wildly expensive compared to the United States. Moving to Spain from North Carolina was a real shock. Electricity prices went from 11 cents per kWh to over 30 cents per kWh! Indeed, Spanish electricity prices are among the highest in Europe, and thus in the world. This explains why electric stoves and ovens are not as common here as in the US.

Municipal natural gas is also more expensive in Spain than in the US. Indeed, it is more than twice as costly. It is also not as widely available. Both of these facts are because of a simple fact. The United States is totally energy independent. That is, it generates at least 100% of the energy it consumes. Spain, on the other hand produces only about 30% of the energy it consumes. Availability, and pricing, of electricity and gas in Spain are largely dependent on foreign suppliers.

King Coal

Secondly, Asturias is coal country. Or at least it was until 2018. Consumption of coal in Spain has dropped by more than 80% since that year. 2018 is the year that the last coal mine in Spain was closed. This process of decarbonization then switched to closing coal-fired power plants. This is a huge shock to the system in Asturias. Coal mining in Asturias has been the largest industry, by far, since the end of the eighteenth century. Indeed, daily life in much of Asturias revolved around coal for more than 200 years.[1] A standard part of a coal miners pay in Asturias was, right up until the end of the coal industry, free coal for home use. Hence the proliferation of policombustible stoves throughout Asturias. Why would anyone use the expensive electricity or the less convenient bottled gas when coal was going to be provided for free?[2]

As coal has waned in importance in Asturias, the coal-fired cook stove has slowly transitioned to being wood-fired. But the problems of electricity and natural gas remain, and so the stove continues to be front and center in the daily lives of many Asturians.[3]

Honestly, I personally hope that it continues. I much prefer cooking over wood, and I am very happy to be in a place where that is a normal thing..

  1. Adaro Ruiz, Luis. Datos y documentos para una historia minera e industrial de Asturias. Suministros Adaro, 1981.
  2. Ojeda, Germán. Asturias en la industrialización española, 1833-1907. Siglo Veintiuno, 1985.
  3. Ojeda, Germán. Asturias en la industrialización española, 1833-1907. Siglo Veintiuno, 1985.