The cheese-makers of Cabrales have no need to waste their time with bricks or planks: the moist caves that pit the hillsides of Asturias in north-west Spain are perfect stores for their ivory-white roundels, threaded with smoke-grey mould. The pungent aroma is a delight to their intended audience and a horror to everyone else, but despite counting myself among the latter I am glad I made the hour’s walk down one rough-hewn hillside and up another to visit their whiffy lair.
I cannot love cheese – Parmesan aside, I can’t stand the stuff. I don’t know why people think that this is incompatible with an insatiable thirst for red wine, as turophiles of taste inform me that red wine is far from the best combination for the mouldy milk they find so inexplicably attractive. Asturian cider and Cabrales, on the other hand, are a fine combination, or so I hear: I was only intrepid enough to look, not to nibble.
I was, however, more than happy to sip, although that is not as easy as you might think. Dry, cloudy and still, sidra is the drink of the Celts. This wet and hilly region has never been friendly to grapes, which may help explain why the Romans, nominally in charge from 25BC, conquered it so unenthusiastically.
Just as the glacier-green water that slices through the mountains froths over rocks, the fermented apple juice is aerated to a fizz by pouring it from a height into a large glass that is nonetheless not large enough to prevent spillage. There is something heartening about this extravagant performance. Perhaps it’s the sociability; surely even the most pretentious Spaniard does not pour his cider this way alone at home. The glass is meant to be shared, with a tiny pour followed by a supposedly cleansing swill, before it goes to the next drinker and the process starts again.
Oxygen is enticed into a drink that, like its makers, would be decidedly dull without it, and this deliberate limiting of overflowing possibilities – notable also in the restriction of types of apples permitted for use in the cider – feels like a celebration of plenty.
It is a celebration of another kind of plenty, too: time. Cider is fermented apple juice but making it well is not a swift process and serving it one pour at a time, with everyone waiting for the glass to pass to them, is about as slow a method of inebriation as you can find. The Cabrales, too, take several months to mature and nobody who has to hike an hour down and up a hillside and then back again, carrying a stack of two-kilo cheeses in at least one direction, is likely to have the temperament of a front-runner in the rat race.
This drink and this food suit each other in ways that have nothing to do with flavour. The Celts, warlike denizens of some remarkably rainy nations, may have felt no guilt about spending time off indoors, enjoying a drop and shooting the breeze, but these are benefits that the English seem to have mislaid. As pub culture withers, we drink copiously, quickly and without matching our beverage with much in the way of stomach lining. Yet sidra has multiple culinary possibilities aside from stinky local cheese: spicy chorizo and freshly grilled fish complement its dry, herbaceous tang.
It is often hard to get hold of this odd, delicious drink in the UK but now the excellent Ibérica restaurant chain has followed the guidance of its Asturian (and Michelin-starred) executive chef, Nacho Manzano, and started to import a selection, including the delicious Emilio Martínez. The fanciful presentation method and minimalist servings are unlikely to sit well with the nation that invented the pint glass, but perhaps we can channel our common Celtic heritage and acquire, along with their favourite beverage, the Asturians’ more civilised habits of cider consumption.
Next week: John Burnside on nature