When I learned that I would have an opportunity to teach alongside Eleanor Leger of Eden Ice Cider Company, combining hard ciders and artisanal cheese, it immediately brought to mind my first taste of this elixir while traveling in the mountains of northern Spain.
Hard cider and cheese make a naturally great pairing. When combined, they form a panoply of complex earthy aromas and flavors. Regions of the world known for hard cider production include the Normandy region of France, the West Country of England (the UK has the highest per capita consumption) and the Northeastern United States. In Spain, the production of natural “hard” ciders takes place mostly in the north: Asturias, Galicia and Basque country. The climate here is ideal for apple growing; mild, wet summers and mild winters.
It was in this very locale that I experienced the wonder that visiting a new land, a new culture and new culinary encounter can bring. The location was Asturias, part of the gorgeous, green and rugged terrain of the Picos de Europa mountain range in northern Spain.
Our family had embarked on a Cabrales cheese making tour in a little town called Asiegu, about 20 miles from our Parador in Ovieda. We set out early in the morning, our car ambling slowly up the high mountain pass with our tour guide and translator, Juan. A single-lane dirt road, dotted with a mule cart or two on the way up the steep, winding mountain road seemed to head straight up into the clouds.
At the top of the mountain was a tiny village replete with breath-taking vistas from every angle. We spent the whole day learning about the village culture and their way of life. We also learned about one of their other great native treats—hard apple cider. Plentiful apple, chestnut and sycamore trees populate the valleys all around. These apples make for some good drinking…if you know what I mean. The chestnut makes for great honey and the sycamore leaves are used in the creation of another famous blue cheese, Valdeón.
At day’s end we sat down to an enormous, lengthy and traditional Spanish lunch, complete with local cheeses, fabada, salmon with cider Asturian style, sopapillas, honey, blood sausage, apple tarts and fizzy, dry apple cider.
The cider was the theatrical star of the feast. But the cider isn’t simply poured into your glass. Here, it shoots out of the ceiling from a maze of specially designed tubes that lead from their stainless steel cider storage tanks. On the way through the tubes, the cider is activated with carbonation. The cider bursts into your tiny glass with the guidance of the pourer who seems to be very nonchalant about making sure that the cider actually fills your glass, not your lap. It can also be poured, with great finesse, from a bottle, or spewed from a giant chestnut barrel. The act of serving or pouring the cider is called “throwing”.
Cider is produced in all the principality of Asturias from several varieties of acid, sweet and bitter apples harvested in September and solely used for this purpose. After six months’ fermentation in chestnut vats, the apple juice with a low-alcohol content and possessing its own carbonic gas is bottled and sold: “new cider” is therefore delivered in spring. The inhabitants of Asturias not only claim the historic invention of cider (which nevertheless already existed among the Hebrews, Persians and Arabs who called it sicera ?”the beverage that intoxicates”) but also consider their cider to be the “world’s best.”
When paired with the cheese, especially the Cabrales, we were awestruck. Terroir never tasted so good. The sharp, salty, yet creamy curds were tempered by the earthy flavor and effervescent bubbles in the cider – both contrasting and complementing the flavors inherent in the cheese and the apple cider alike.
I can’t wait to hear Eleanor Ledger educate the class on the art of cider making while we taste some great matches with several artisan cheeses. Hope you’ll join us on October 15th at Artisanal.
Erin HedleyPosted by Artisanal Cheese