It’s a late afternoon Saturday in September, and we’re making our way steadily through a languorous, family-style, Spanish lunch in a restaurant (parilla) I’m told is called El Roxin (though I see no sign) in the village of Mazuco, high up in the Picos de Europa, about twenty miles from the northern seacoast. We’re only two hours by car from Bilbao, but a long way culturally from the glossy sheen of the Guggenheim.
You wont find the village or restaurant in any guide to Spain. There are no foreign visitors here, except Cecilia and I. We sit around a large table in the no-nonsense dining room of an old farmhouse with good friends of Cecilia’s, Juan Jose and Maria, who are in Spain for six months, away from their temporary permanent home in Salinas, California; and Maria’s brother Juan Antonio, his wife Marta, and their four kids, who live in the nearby misnamed hamlet of Villa.
We’re in a rural part of Asturias, where cattle have right of way. Outside the restaurant, an old woman in crocs scythes the weeds in a field, while two young men guide a small herd through narrow streets that amplify the percussive clanking of cowbells. While we eat slowly, the talk turns to the politics and economics of food in the region. It’s an uphill battle against globalization – the local fishing industry is long gone, and despite the omnipresence of cows, milk too is produced elsewhere. But there’s a flourishing trade in locally produced beef, pork, cheese, and cider.
Juan Antonio and Marta moved here to be part of the slow food movement, committed to sustainable, ecological practices. They’re not purists, however. When their stove-driven pipes broke down, they put in a commercial heating system. As their kids get older, they’ve added doors for some privacy. But they try to set an example to their community of living their principles. They pasture their twenty cows all summer in communal lands in the mountains, not far from the valley where Juan Jose’s grandfather used to graze his sheep. They also make their own cheese and soon will be producing cider from eight varieties of apples. Marta, an architect, reclaims and rebuilds old farmhouses and stables. And Maria and Juan Antonio are working together on building an organization and website that will connect farmers and consumers so that food produced here is bought and eaten here, directly traded from farm to kitchen table.
“What you’re eating today mostly comes from this area,” says Juan Antonio, pointing to a nearby shed where cows and pigs are shaped into recognizable cuts. For starters, there are croquettas with ham, sliced chorizo with chimichurri sauce, two plates of cooked potatoes (one piquante, the other aioli), a green salad, and chilled white asparagus (one of only two items that come from a can). Followed by a fava bean soup with bread pudding and chunks of pork (fabada). “Just like my grandmother made,” says Marta. And I’m reminded of the slow-cooked bean dish my grandmother made, except hers was sticky-sweet with honey.
And then the main course arrives, straight from an open, wood-burning oven: huge platters of rare beef crackling with fat, and succulent, meaty ribs that need no sauce to pump up their flavors. We wash this down with a strong dry cider, poured ceremonially from above the head into low-held glasses, and for us outsiders there’s a sangria made from the same cider, slightly sweetened with fruit to cut the bitter alcohol that locals drink like beer. All of this, plus dessert and coffee, for about $20 per person, the cost of a drink and tapas in a chic bistro near the Prado in Madrid.
“You must try the cheesecake,” says Marta with a grin, as I say no to thirds of meat. “This place is famous for its cheesecake,” she urges. Bowing to cultural sensitivity and greed, I politely take a spoonful of the dessert. Of course, it’s addictive: creamy, dense, not too sweet. “Local,” I ask as I spoon up the last crumbs. “Well,” says Marta, “it has a secret ingredient. I don’t know if we can tell you.” She beckons me to follow her into the kitchen, where she introduces me to a woman preparing desserts. “Dile tu receta secreta,” she asks the cook. They both laugh and point to a table on which sits center-stage a huge tub of cream cheese that’s traveled a few thousand miles from Philly.