Food and Culture are inseparable. In many ways, it is redundant to even say ‘food culture’, as our approach to what we make, cook, serve, and eat is determined by, and in turn determines, many other aspects of our way of life – our culture. As such, our food is much more than simply what sustains us. It expresses our class divisions, regional differences, historical developments, and sense of belonging.
This is my exploration of Asturian food culture. Seen through the lens of an immigrant chef with an obsession for food scholarship and a camera. I investigate the ground (sometimes literally) that Asturian foodways grow out of. Here I work from a definition of food culture as the Landscape, History, Ingredients, and Products that make up Asturian culinary practice as I find it now.
Think of this as Asturian Food Culture 101.
The Culinary Landscape
To talk about a food culture, you have to start with a landscape – a place. And when I say “the culinary landscape”, I mean the hard facts that, right now, define the gastronomy of a place. Both the natural and the human conditions that make up the actually existing place. I think of that culinary landscape as being made up of two interdependent pieces; the natural environment and the built environment. The natural environment is the geography, the climate, the soil, the plants and animals, both native and adapted. The built environment is the changes we as humans have made to the landscape. Our farms, fields, houses, towns, cities, and infrastructure all become part of the wider culinary landscape.
The Natural Environment
Main Article: Natural Environment
Asturias is bounded to the north by the Mar Cantábrico (Bay of Biscay) and to the south by the Cordillera Cantábrica (Cantabrian Range). From rugged coastal cliffs up to 2,600 meter (8,500 ft.) peaks, the land of Asturias is oriented towards the sea. These mountains cover 80% of Asturias.
Asturias (in my mind at least) is divided into three distinct regions, from east to west. Each of these three sub-regions has their own emphasis within a shared natural environment.
The easternmost of these is what I think of as Mountain Asturias. This area contains the most dramatic mountain landscapes in Asturias, and the highest peaks. The mountains run closest to the sea here, and everything is vertical.
The center of Asturias is dominated by the Nalón valley. This 2,600 sq km (1,000 sq mile) basin is home to the richest deposits of coal in Spain. As a result it is the most urbanized and densely populated area in Asturias. It also contains the most hiking routes, tiny villages, and traditional cattle farming areas in Asturias.
The western section of Asturias is more rolling hills and old-growth forests. Vast deciduous forests are full of oak, beech, and birch, and are populated by wolves and brown bears. Numerous coves and natural harbors make this a maritime province where fishing is primary.
Like much of northern Spain, the Köppen Climate Classification is Cfb – Temperate Oceanic. Annual precipitation is high, on par with Portland Oregon and the west coast of Ireland. As a result, it is a deep green agricultural area with extensive upland forests. Temperatures throughout the region, with the exception of the highest mountains, are mild, and vary little throughout the year. The majority of Asturias is in the USDA Plant Hardiness Zones between 8a and 10a. Heavy frost is rare in most of the region, and last frost dates in the rest of Asturias range from late January to early March in the highest mountains.
The Built Environment
Main Article: Built Environment
The traditional Asturian farmstead, the caserío, is the basis of the Asturian built environment. They are comprised of one or more farmhouses (multi-generational farmsteads are common), barns (divided into cuadras (stables) and payares (hay lofts)), and hórreos and paneras (grain and corn cribs). Surrounding these farmsteads are vegetable gardens (huertas) and orchards (huertos). Apple orchards are so common as to have a name of their own – pumaradas.
Vast pumaradas cover much of the low elevations of central and eastern Asturias, giving rise to the name the comarca de la sidra – the cider region. Within the counties of Bimenes, Cabranes, Colunga, Nava, Sariegu and Villaviciosa lie most of the cider apple production in Asturias.
The History of Asturian Food Culture
Asturias has an exceedingly long culinary history. While written records are scant until recent times, there has been a wealth of paleontological and archeological work done in Asturias which has helped to piece together the early food history of the region.
El Sidrón cave in Piloña has offered up not just thousands of neanderthal fossils, but the earliest traces of gastronomic history in Asturias. These 50,000 year old remains are remarkably well preserved. So much so that when they were discovered in 1994, the initial assumption is that they were from the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Only later were they dated to the Upper Paleolithic. To put this in perspective, this is twenty thousand years before the last massive glaciers recede from Asturias. Mushrooms, mosses, and pine nuts were notable parts of the diet of the denizens of El sidrón.  
Reliable Asturian food history begins in the Atlantic Bronze Age (~1300-700BC). This period sees a network of economic and cultural exchange develop from Scotland to Portugal. This network led to a high degree of cultural similarity between coastal communities, including those in Asturias. Roasting spits, giant cauldrons, and flesh hooks (the earliest evidence of butchery in Asturias) all date to this era. 
Around the year 1000 BCE, Celtic culture was in bloom in Asturias. Whether this grew out of earlier Hallstatt expansions or dates very close to 600 is up for debate. What we do know is that a well-developed Celtic castro (hill fort) dwelling people called the Astures were resident throughout modern Asturias, and parts of Galicia and León.
Occupants of these castros developed a food economy that remains the basis of Asturian food culture to this day. They bred cattle for meat, milk, and butter. Sheep and goats were also bred for meat and wool, and pigs were raised for meat. In-shore fishing and hunting deer and boar were widespread.
With axe, plough, sickle, and hoe, they grew wheat, millet, rye, oats, flax, and barley. Beans, peas, and cabbage were widespread, and huge amounts of chestnuts have been found in castros. That nut based gastronomy would last until corn was introduced in the Columbian exchange. Echoes of it can be found in the Amagüestu celebrations at the end of the harvest season in modern Asturias.
The Ancient Period in Asturian Gastronomy
Asturias, though the aegis of the Astures enter the historical record in the third century BCE. Serving as mercenaries in the Punic wars on the side of Carthage, they feature widely in the wars of subjugation the Romans waged throughout the northwest of Iberia. So fierce was their resistance and inhospitable their territory that though they had the emperor himself at the head of seven legions, even once they formally surrendered in 25 BCE, they were never fully conquered, and for most, their way of life changed little if at all. Indeed, Romanization was very slow, incomplete, and near impossible. A second Asturian revolt in 54 CE took fourteen years to put down.
Hispania was the rural hinterland for the Roman empire – a place to grow food for the metropolitan Rome. And Asturias was the hinterland of Hispania – a place unfit for wheat, grapes, and olive trees; the three big exports from the peninsula.
However, Rome brought to Asturias several culinary innovations that would be long-lasting. Firstly, and most importantly for the current character of Asturian food culture, they planted apple orchards in huge numbers.
In addition, Gijón became a center for production and export of both salted fish and garum. This much-loved Roman condiment is the forerunner of the modern Worchestershire Sauce. Neither fermented fish sauce nor salted fish made much of a lasting impression on Asturian cuisine, but apples certainly did!
Medieval and Visigothic Asturian Cooking and Eating
The visigothic conquerors of Iberia, particularly those who settled in Asturias and eventually became the Kings of Asturias, did not disturb (or contribute much to) the already existing food culture in Asturias. They were cattle raising people who practiced transhumance like the locals did, and they reinforced those practices. While politically, much changed in Asturias and Spain in the medieval period, very little changed in food culture.
The autarky of the family farm (caserío) became the primary goal of bread labor, and remained so in Asturias until the modern period. Tastes were very conservative, and food revolved around the trinity of bread, pork, and beans.
Early Modern Foodways in Asturias
The early modern period was one of massive upheaval in culture worldwide, and even insular Asturias was not immune to the culinary shocks brought on by the Columbian Exchange.
Try as they might, the Spanish conquistadores could not bend Mother Nature to their imperious will, and their demands that the Americas produce wheat bread and wine for their sacraments fell on the equally imperiously deaf ears of nature. Instead, they learned the ways of potato, corn, pumpkin, tomato, bean, and chile pepper. Imagine Spanish food without tomatoes and pimentón! As impossible as imagining American food without the previously unknown pig!
The potato quickly became a staple crop in Asturias, as did corn. Corn was initially so popular in northern Spain that John Locke observed in the 1670s that it was grown throughout the Mediterranean region, where it had acquired the name “Spanish Bread”. So quickly did Spain adopt corn that they invented (as they often do) a story about how it was an indigenous Spanish plant.
Beans as well were enthusiastically incorporated into Asturian foodways. Indeed the American Phaseolus vulgaris quickly supplanted almost all other beans in cultivation, not just in Asturias, but throughout Europe.
Indianos is the name given to Asturians who went to the Americas to seek their fortunes in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They are responsible, in part, for one of the biggest developments in Asturian food distribution. Namely, the mass bottling of cider for export.
Asturias gained a couple of interesting additions to its food culture from the Indianos as well. A man known as Anton de los Pontones who had been a gaucho in Argentina brought back the technique of cooking beef a la estaca, and adapted it to lamb. There is still a yearly festival de cordero estaca near where he was from.
Anton, and others like him, also gave rise to an interesting food adaptation – Asturian chimichurri. Modeled on the Argentinian/Uruguayan original, it has been adapted to local tastes, and now is wholly different, though it retains the name
Contemporary Asturian Food Culture
There is much to say about contemporary food culture in Asturias. As immigration from Latin America gains pace many of the best escanciadores in Asturias hail not from Oviedo or Grau, but from Caracas and Santo Domingo.
It feels like every holiday, celebration, and regular event on the calendar in Asturias has its own dish, if not an entire menu. Not that I am complaining mind you! I love few things more than seasonal festive foods. So being in a place that has a new one of these every other week is pretty close to heaven for me. And when there is no specific holiday to celebrate, there is always the espicha. A celebration of anything that needs celebrating, marked by eating a buffet and drinking cider straight from the giant barrel.
While much of Spain sees the chestnut roaster arrive at the beginning of Autumn, in Asturias things get turned up a notch. Amagüestu marries chestnuts to the first fruits of the cider barrel, and preserves a pre-Christian harvest celebration that immediately follows the Celtic Samaín.
Main Article: Ingredients
There are a number of touchstone ingredients in Asturian food culture. Roughly speaking, they are the crops that make an appearance on older versions of the agricultural calendar of Asturian farmers. Some newcomers are making inroads into the traditional agricultural mix in Asturias as well.
Asturias without beans is unthinkable. Asturian farmers and gardeners are (rightly) proud of their bean crops. The most loved bean in Asturias is the Faba Asturiana, which has a Indicación Geográfica Protegida. As in much of Spain, lentils are widely grown. Closely related, if not identical, to the Greasy Short Cut bean equally loved in western North Carolina where I grew up, fabes are the backbone of the famous Asturian stew Fabada. Likewise, verdinas rival French flageolets as the most delicately flavored bean in Europe. They also star in a myriad of mixed bean and seafood dishes. These type of dishes are a rarity outside the Iberian peninsula, but Asturias is awash with interesting examples, like the clam and young green bean dish Verdinas con Almejas.
Asturians eat more beef than folks in other parts of Spain. As a result of the legacy of cattle raising that began in pre-Roman times, there are quite a few more beef dishes in Asturias than elsewhere. Ternera (veal) is particularly popular, as is the dried cecina made in Asturias and neighboring León.
Pork is wildly popular, both fresh and turned into sausages and other embutidos. the Gochu Asturcelta, an indigenous breed, is seeing a resurgence of interest after almost going extinct in the 20th century.
Sheep are still raised in Asturias, and cordera (lamb) is a popular festival food. Goats are raised as well, though mostly for milk, not for meat. Chickens are raised throughout the territory, both for meat and for eggs. Especially beloved in the Pitu Pinta native breed, with their distinctive black and white feathers.
Fruits & Nuts
The Asturian apple tree is, as we have seen, the king of fruit trees, but many others are widespread. Pears, peaches, sour cherries, plums, and quince are common. Bush and vine fruits run wild. Asturias is a place where we fight against blackberries, not to grow them. Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and other vine fruits are a generous, low maintenance bounty.
Another fruit has recently become very popular with Asturian growers: kiwi. While not the first fruit one might associate with arid Spain, in Asturias it does surprisingly well, and is becoming an important crop in the region.
Asturians consume a wider variety of grains than most of Spain. In addition to the ever-present soft white wheat, there is Spelt (escanda), Rye (centeno), and corn (in both flour and meal). Indeed, cornbread and grits both feature in the Asturian diet – a fact that warms my Appalachian heart.
Seafood has long been one of the most loved parts of Asturian food culture. Likewise, it has been a primary industry in the region. From lobster to sea urchin to a dozen types of blue fish, the Cantabrian Sea provides a bewildering variety of fresh seafood.
Many coastal restaurants in Asturias have their own fishing boats, and serve only what was caught that morning. For more information, see my Insiders Guide to Seafood in Asturias.
Asturian gardens are full of Spanish staples like onions and garlic, peas and lentils. Potatoes and corn are more common here than elsewhere, as are sweet peas and collard greens (berza).
Notable Products in Asturian Food Culture
In addition to the ingredients above, Asturias is blessed with a large number of artisan food products. Small scale and farmhouse production is alive and well here, whether it be drinks like beer, cider and wine, or cheeses, sausages, and other deli meats.
Certainly the most widely known product of Asturian gastronomy is the cider. Sidra Natural is not only one of the first things I fell in love with way back when I first visited Asturias, but is an integral part of Asturian identity. It goes way beyond merely being part of the food culture. In many ways, cider is the culture of Asturias. It has a very long history in the region, and people are rightly proud of its uniqueness.
To begin with, there are unwritten rules to how one behaves when going out to drink in the cider bars. And then there are rules for how to pour cider properly. This seriousness about cider extends to the cider bars, called sidrerías, as well. There is a quality mark, the Calidad Natural, that denotes the most modern and friendly of the cider bars in the region.
It is impossible to understate the importance of cider in Asturias. It permeates every aspect of Asturian culture. Therefore, I spend a lot of time investigating this particular facet of Asturian food culture. That investigation has led me to develop a Cider Tasting Methodology, that I apply to the literally hundreds of individual ciders made in Asturias.
More recent developments in cider making in Asturias have expanded the reach of the beverage beyond it’s traditional heartland. And there is even an alcohol-free version being made by several respected llagares. As well , Ice Cider, in the style of Quebec, has also made an appearance on the local scene, and is very well-liked.
Asturias has a growing craft beer scene. While the popular view of Spain is of a wine culture, beer is actually the most popular beverage throughout Spain, by a large margin. In Asturias however, cider reigns supreme, and beer is definitely a secondary drink. That said, the craft beer scene in Asturias is booming, with more than a dozen breweries serving the population of just over a million people. From almost-macro breweries like Caleya to super-micro one-person operations like Berrea, there are plenty of local beers to explore. And fortunately, there seem to always be more popping up. It is an exciting time for beer lovers in the north of Spain!
Second only to cider in popularity outside the region, Asturian cheese is an extensive topic on its own. From the internationally known Cabrales to cult favorites like d’Urbiés, there are a shocking number of cheeses made in Asturias. From the basic classification of cheeses into seven types, we proceed to the cheese-making process. Personally, I am obsessed with the variety of cheese here. I spend a lot of time trying new cheeses and working with recipes to use the cornucopia of Asturian cheeses in fun ways. I even developed a bread specifically for eating the local cheeses with – my first original contribution to Asturian gastronomy. There are far too many individual cheeses in Asturias to cover them all here. See my Index of Asturian Cheeses for more information on this deep well of goodness.
As you would expect from a region of Spain, there are plenty of sausages and other deli meats to be had in Asturias. The smoked chorizo is the undisputed king of Asturian sausages. It shows up in a huge number of dishes in Asturias. When you combine that smoked chorizo with that Morcilla and some smoked pork shoulder, and you get compango; the essential element not only of Fabada, but of much Asturian cooking.
For more in depth information, see my Asturian Sausages – A Mostly Complete Inventory. There are simply too many interesting sausages to include them all here.
Until recently, Asturias was the only region in Spain that didn’t produce wine. That has now changed. While not nearly as popular as cider or beer, wine has become more of a thing in Asturian food culture recently. Having achieved a DOP for wine from the Cangas de Narcea region in 2018, after a long campaign (beginning in the 1990s) to keep the ancient regional wine making tradition from disappearing entirely.
The main red grapes are Albarín Negro (Alfrocheiro Preto), Carrasquín, Verdejo Negro (Trousseau) and Mencia. Young reds tend to bright and floral and sometimes spicy. Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva wines gain harmony and texture.
The principal white grape variety is Albarín Blanco (unrelated to Albariño). Second tier grapes include Albillo, Moscatel de Grano Menudo (aka Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains) and Godello. The wines tend to be fresh, floral and fruity, though Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva are also permitted.
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