“Reach out your arms, as far apart as possible – one high, one low – then just bend your wrist, but do not look!”, instructed the waitress. “Oh, and beginners like you must stand over the barrel,” she added. I followed her advice exactly but still ended up with a soggy shirt-front and damp shoes, wasting half a bottle.
Even though the cider was cheap, learning to pour it like a local wouldn’t be and accepting I could be thirsty for a long while before I acquired the knack, I invited my hostess to demonstrate proper form. Sure enough, her aim was perfect and my glass was soon two inches deep without the loss of a drop. “Now, drink it! Fast!” she cajoled. “Before it goes flat!”
I hadn’t counted on necking shots of cider at lunchtime, and wondered if I was playing the straight guy in a game of haze the foreigner, but as foamy, appley goodness cascaded down my gullet it started to make sense. Then, after taking my order for broiled razor clams and hake in cider, the waitress turned on her heel for the kitchen, leaving my glass empty. Now eager to drink some more, but reluctant to soak myself further, I reached for the bottle. “No lo mueva!” warned a finger-wagging old guy to my left. “She will pour for you when she returns. And, you should leave a drop in the bottom of the glass. It’s good luck.”
Thanking him for his advice, I sat back and looked around the white-washed room from my seat against the wall. Cut-off barrels half-filled with sawdust littered the blue-tiled floor between tables, along with the usual jumble of crumpled napkins, discarded toothpicks and cigarette ends. Through the open window, small gaily-painted fishing boats bobbed up and down, and their creak and bump as they nagged at their moorings offered a pleasant counterpoint to the hoarse cries of seabirds.
Luarca, on the Asturian coast of northern Spain is still a working port and, the tasca where I sat, the place to enjoy the morning’s catch. From the ruddy faces surrounding me, it was entirely possible that my hake had been landed earlier in the day by a fellow diner. The globe is so well traveled these days that it’s virtually impossible to find anywhere you’re the only foreigner, but in this place, during the off-season, I had managed it. In fact, I was the only guest at the only open hotel in town. An anomaly I was quick to appreciate, because it allowed me to slip into the natural rhythms of local life and prompted me to assume the most humble status, that of being nobody at all. Sure, it removed me from many things, but there’s an advantage to that when all you want to absorb is atmosphere – the feeling that five hundred years could pass in this place and the faces wouldn’t change. What Cees Nooteboom described as “the feeling that everything except time has stopped.“
My razor clams arrived, redolent of garlic and spicy with piperade, followed by tender hake with softened apples, their acidity perfectly balancing the sweetness of the reduced cider sauce. A side of fried potatoes appeared as another two inches of cider found its way neatly into my glass. Lazily enjoying it, happy and relaxed, I barely noticed when it was all gone and the waitress returned. “Postre?” she asked. “Hay queso de cabrales, flan, y frutas frescas, o si usted prefiere, un poco de cada uno.” I opted greedily for the latter, along with a nip of orujo, she returned quickly with a little of each – blue cheese, stick to your teeth caramel pudding, and a pear. “Ningunas manzanas?” I smiled. “Haven’t you had enough apples yet?” she joked back.
Chicken in cider is not necessarily a traditional Asturian preparation, though it might as well be, so while this dish is modeled on the hake in cider I had that day, it is cooked for much longer. Asturian cider is produced from small, tart crabapple type fruit that are no good for eating, the juice of which is fermented for up to six months in oak barrels. It typically registers only 5% alcohol, compared to the seven or eight degrees common in French and English ciders and is rarely carbonated, hence the habit of pouring from a great height to aerate, followed by swift consumption before the froth disappears. Spanish ciders can be found in the US, but domestic varieties like Woodchuck are perfectly acceptable for cooking with. The chanterelles were added to balance out the sweetness of the sauce with an earthy, autumnal boskiness and some slices of eating apple dropped in with five minutes to go offered some crunch and acid to what is a very satisfying dish.
- 1 large chicken cut into primary piece (legs, breasts, etc.)
- 2x12oz (2x355ml) bottles hard cider
- 1 large yellow onion, diced
- 6oz/2 handfuls chanterelle mushrooms
- 4-6 cloves garlic, smashed, skins removed.
- 1 medium eating apple, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch chunks
- salt, black pepper and flour
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- chopped parsley (optional)
- Heat oil to medium-high in large dutch oven, season chicken with salt and pepper, and dust with flour.
- Brown chicken pieces until well browned on all sides.
- Remove to a plate, add onions and garlic, and saute for 6-8 minutes until translucent.
- Return chicken to pot, add mushrooms and pour in cider.
- Bring to a boil and simmer for 1 hour covered, before removing lid, and simmering uncovered for another 1/2 hour.
- Braising liquid should be reduced by more than half at this point, add raw apples and cook for another 5 minutes. Taste and correct seasoning.
- Sprinkle with parsley and serve with fried potatoes and plenty of crusty bread to mop up the juices.