Archive for Asturias

Cider in Spain



What traditional Spanish beverage needs a good eye and steady hands to be at its best? What traditional Spanish beverage is almost a sign of identity for its region? And what traditional beverage has a long list of health benefits?

The answer to all three questions is: sidra: hard apple cider, popular in many European countries and to some extent on the other side of the Atlantic. Here in Spain it takes on a personality all its own, with legends and lore galore.

Spain’s cider-land is mostly along the north coast: Basque region, Cantabria and especially Asturias, where about 80% of Spain’s cider is produced – and drunk, with about 90% consumed right in the region. For that reason we’ll talk about Asturias in this article – though by all means you should try sidra when traveling in other cider regions.

So what is sidra like? It’s a lightly alcoholic beverage made of fermented apple juice – in Spain usually 4º – 6º (like a hearty beer); alcohol content is sometimes higher in other countries, where the espumoso (bubbly) cider is more frequent than the natural that is so popular in northern Spain.

Cider apples are usually not table apples – they’re a little smaller and juicier. The Regulation Council for Asturian Cider accepts 22 varieties of local apples, rated as tart, sweet, bitter or mixed.

Like wine, cider makers use different mixtures of apples to get the final product they want. That’s quite an art: like grapes, apples are different every year, with varying sugar content depending on the weather, so finding the right mixture of still unfermented juices is a delicate process.

Depending on the manufacturing process and apples used, sidra can be very pale yellow to dark gold in color, and clear or slightly cloudy. Some ciders are bubbly and some are not – see the end to learn about different kinds of cider.

201612ciderpressMaking sidra natural The process is simple – many tiny cider houses and even country families and make their own for family and friends: see photo of Guillermo showing the traditional crushing – he’s made his own and explained the process, which is not very different for the industrial process.

Apples are harvested between September and late November, depending on the year’s weather and the variety of apples. Apple trees yield differently alternating years, with the even-numbered years a smaller harvest and the odd-numbered years cosechonas (big harvests), when the much larger harvest can last until early December.

First the apples are washed, then crushed to pulp separately by apple variety. The next step is pressing – the apple pulp is layered in a press that works with weight or a screw system and pressed several times to get all the juice. What comes out is apple juice, ready for the fermentation process (the almost dry apple pulp is often fed to livestock).

The juice is placed in stainless steel or chestnut wood vats to ferment for three to five months – shorter aging for a sweeter cider or longer for tarter cider, always varying with the kind of apple used. Cool weather is good for fermenting, so the temperature is controlled carefully during this time. After fermentation comes bottling in the traditional green bottles, taking care to not stir up the cider too much.

At bottling time, traditional llagares (cider houses) often still have a cask-tapping party called espicha for the holes in the cask. The espicha had – and still may have – the practical purpose of finishing off the unbottled cider in a cask or as a taste-test before buying a whole cask, but more than anything it’s a big party, with cider is drawn directly from the cask into pitchers or e traditional big glasses. Long ago, revellers would pay a flat fee into the cider house to drink all they could – and would pay again when returning after a potty break.

Sidra is as Spanish as vino  (wine) – and maybe more so in the north. So be sure to try it during your time in Spain – preferably up north, or at least in a Madrid cider bar.

Basic kinds of Asturian cider

Sidra natural is the traditional, most popular kind of cider, rather tart, even somewhat bitter if not poured correctly. Variations on this kind of cider: Natural ecológica, made with apples from orchards with ecological certification; Natural de manzana seleccionada, made with specific varieties of apples that have undergone an even more rigourous selection process.

El escanciado (pouring): Sidra natural should be poured from a bottle held arm’s height above the head into a big glass held at a slant at thigh level. That aerates the natural cider, making it a little sweeter and raising some bubbles – and that’s when true cider buffs can evaluate the cider for color and aroma. The sidra should be poured in a thin stream directly in front of the body, just hit the edge of the glass – and just enough for a few swallows as the bubbles soon disappear. After drinking, the last swig is poured on the floor to rinse the edge of the communal glass.

That’s the technique – but good escanciado is more than just technique. Style and ritual matter: a good pourer is admired for the ability to pour without looking and without splashing too much on the floor. The way the bottle and glass are held, even the flourish used to present the glass to the drinker, all are important parts of the escanciado ritual. The communal glass itself is part of the cider lore: sharing a glass puts everyone on the same level and last – but not least – lore says that pouring the last bit onto the floor thanks the earth for the cider, returning to the earth a bit of what the earth has given.

Obviously, drinking sidra natural the traditional way is a messy business. Inevitably some splashes during the escanciado, and pouring that last bit on the floor – well, cider bars always have sticky floors. Some cider bars now use the traditional glass and mechanical pourers, less fun but less messy, and smaller bars may use a plastic spout that does an ok job even with a regular glass, though without the charm of the traditional escanciado.

Sidra espumosa is a less-messy kind of cider. Like sidra natural, it’s made from fermented apple juice – then undergoes an additional process to create natural bubbles. This cider should not be confused with sidra achampañada, usually made with apple juice concentrate and added gas – the label should tell you what kind is in the bottle. Both kinds are bubbly, and often drunk at Christmas as a “poor man’s champagne” – but don’t wait for Christmas to share a bottle with friends – the bubbly goes really well with cheesy popcorn and a good movie.

Sidra natural nueva expressión A new product – it’s like sidra natural, but needs no special pouring. The manufacturing is slightly different, including a filtering and stabilization process. Supposedly this cider is fairly dry, with a hint of natural bubbles. It’s marketed as a lighter wine or “restaurant cider”. Hard to find in Madrid.

Coming in the future: ice cider (already made in Canada), brut cider (like cava), light cider, good quality cider vinegar and a lot more!

Cider trivia
– Apple varieties in Asturias: 2500 DIFFERENT kinds of apples!
– Cider manufacturered in 2015: more than 2.8 million liters (almost a million liters more than previous high-yield year 2013)
– Apples to cider, yield: it takes a little more than a kilo of apples to make a liter of cider
– Measurements big glass for sidra natural : 12 cms high, 9 cms wide at the mouth and 7 cms wide at the base (about 5 X 3.5 X 3 inches).



Ribadesella seaside promenade from Virgen del Guia chapel


Ribadesella lies on Spain’s green northern coast in the region of Asturias, about 70 kilometers / 44 miles east of Gijón. As the name tells us, it’s on the bank of the Sella river; actually, it’s on both banks, connected by a long bridge over the Sella estuary. A quick look at a good map shows us that the coastal plain is quite narrow and backed by mountains, first a lower coastal range then the majestic Picos de Europa. That location makes Ribadesella a great destination for exploring eastern Asturias, both the coastal plain and part of the mountains, with many options for cultural and active travel.

Flashes of history: Local cave Tito Bustillo shows population from prehistoric times, though the first written record of the town is from the Greek historian Strabo in the first century BC and the official town charter is thirteenth century under King Alfonso X. In the seventeenth century there was a project to make Ribadesella the main port in Asturias by connecting the town to inland Castilla region, but in the end that honor went to Gijón (main pass into Asturias is Pajares, accessing Oviedo then Gijón). In the early nineteenth century this strategic town was occupied by Napoleon’s troops during the Peninsular wars. Early in the twentieth century the town was a favorite summer residence, as shown by the mansions remaining along the beach; King Alfonso XIII visited here though usually stayed at Santander to the east. At the beginning of the Civil War (1936) Republic forces held the town to try to stop Franco’s army westward march after taking Bilbao and Santander; in their retreat west the Republic soldiers blew up the bridge to slow Franco’s forces.

Originally the economy was based on timber coming down the Sella river, shipyards, maritime trade, fishing and whaling. Nowadays it’s mostly tourism with some farming, livestock (cows for cheese!) and a bit of fishing.

What to see, in town:
Long, lovely beach on west side of the Sella river. Architecture promenade with mansions from the early 20th century along the beach, explanations of the most notable buildings (two now hotels, one the youth hostel).

Tito Bustillo cave with cave paintings, one of several prehistoric caves along this coast (Altamira to the east is the most famous). The cave is very interesting, though English speaking guides not always available and cave closed November – March as well as part of the week rest of the year to preserve the paintings. If visiting the cave is too problematic, the attached visitors’ center is excellent (information English as well as Spanish), so good that doing both is worthwhile for people who like history. More info at their website

Virgen del Guia chapel, on the bluff on the east side of estuary where it meets the sea, visible from most of the town. This chapel was founded in the sixteenth century at a strategic place for controlling the entrance to the estuary and port; the cannons were thrown into the sea by the French in their retreat, returned to their original site in 1999. It’s a bit of a climb to reach the chapel, but the views of town and to the east are very good. The easiest way up: from the east end of the seaside promenade, just under the chapel, where a marked path zigzags up the bluff. Way down: once up there it’s easy to see other alternatives for walking back down.

International Sella descent, from Arriondas to Ribadesella, a big yearly event in early August. With professional kayakers and canoers at the front, inner tubes and other recreational floats at the back, it’s a big party as well as an elite sports event. Spectators can take the narrow gauge train that runs on the riverside spur only for race day.  More info

La Cuevona cave, not exactly in town but so close it is included here. This huge cave is a little south of Ribadesella, on the west side of the Sella river. It’s so big that it was refuge for eight villages during the Civil War (1936-39). The paved road through the cave is the only access to town Cuevas del Mar.

Sella estuary looking inland

Sella estuary looking inland

What to see, nearby:

Asturias Jurassic Museum has lots of information the dinosaurs that roamed this area. Where: a little west near Colunga, website More dinos: Many beaches along this coast have dinosaur tracks. Cute towns: Llanes to the east, Lastres and Tazones to the west. Many good beaches between Unquera in the east and Gijon in the west. Oviedo (Asturias capital city) to the west has several outstanding pre-Romanesque churches; other similar churches are nearby.

Active travel, walking: Ribadesella is on the northern Road of St. James. Since that route is linear, take bus or train one way and walk the other. Strong walkers could take the Road west to Vega beach (near Berbes) and return to town along headlands through village of Leces. There are several circular walks from town, though not all well marked. More info on those routes on the town website and at the tourism office.

Active travel, other: Several local travel companies can organize kayaking on the Sella river, usually the descent from Arriondas with option to shorten partway through (most of the year that’s an easy paddle even for beginners). Some of those travel companies can also help with routes in the Picos de Europa, most notably the classic Cares gorge, a spectacular linear route where organized drop-off and pickup makes this day hike much easier to manage. Bike rental and even surfing classes also available locally; golf course a little west in Berbes.

Gastronomy: Lots of restaurants with good seafood, too many to mention here. Many are along the seaside promenade (especially east side of the Sella), and with that variety you can pick and choose – they tend to be a little less expensive farther out. If you’re in town fall to spring, try the fabada bean stew: with sausage and other yummy things this is a hearty meal not usually available in the summer, and not recommended for dinner. Asturias region has a huge variety of cheese, from sinus-clearingly strong Cabrales (blue-ish) to very mild and gooey or crumbly, with everything in between. Drink of choice in Asturias region: hard cider, somewhat of an acquired taste though the obligatory pour from arm’s height into a big glass is fun to see and almost a ritual in the region. Chocolate shop with a big variety of things made of, well, chocolate. Just looking in the window is a treat, fun place to get gifts. Ok, maybe it’s Ghirardelli, but part of the fun is finding a place like this in a seaside town in Spain.

Nuts and bolts for Ribadesella:

More information: For pre-trip planning, town website Part (not all) of the site is in English. In town: tourism office near east end of the big bridge. Good map for entire region of Asturias: Michelin Zoom España number 142.

How to get there, public transportation: Ribadesella has frequent buses west to Oviedo and Gijon, and some buses east to Santander. More info (English) on Alsa website The narrow-gauge coastal train between Santander and Oviedo is somewhat less convenient due to schedules and station location, but the train route is prettier than the highway and the train is more fun (especially with kids). More information on FEVE section of Renfe website: