“ Country: Spain / World Region: Europe / Address: Antigua Fábrica del Aguila Negra, Colloto, Oviedo, Spain „
The receptionist at our hotel recommended the Tierra Astur to us so strongly that we almost didn't go there. "I don't get a commission," he hastened to add, instantly making us wonder why he felt it necessary to deny such an idea, which we hadn't voiced; "it's just the best place for real Asturian food. But be there early, before nine-thirty, or you won't get in."
Well, my wife and I decided, since this place is located at the heart of the eating-out district of downtown Oviedo and we'll be nearby sight-seeing in any case, let's at least give it the once-over. This we did, and concluded that it looked big and busy, but potentially quite fun. Still, we took a walk around the vicinity to see if we could spot anywhere more appealing, which we could not, before opting to go with the flow and follow the receptionist's advice. The time by then was just after nine - indeed early for dinner by Spanish standards if not by ours - and we secured one of the last available tables. It was a Monday night too, which you'd hardly expect to be among the busiest.
The restaurant , or as it prefers to call itself, Sidreria - cider house - turned out to be arranged in two distinct parts. The main, much larger part is a cavernous room without windows. To enter it you have to go past, almost through, an associated shop selling Asturian specialities (I nearly wrote 'delicacies', but Asturian food isn't delicate - full of flavour yes, but in no way delicate). Once inside, you see a long bar stretching right across the far wall, beyond a wide central floor-space densely crammed with tables, simple wooden tables with simple wooden chairs, functional rather than plushy. Although it is at ground level, the impression is of a cellar, an impression heightened by the dark, wood-clad walls, the heat and the hubbub of chatter, laughter and cutlery on plates, amplified in the confined space. Atmospheric though this main area is, we were rather glad that our table was in the newer extension that rises in steps up the side of the steep street, enclosed but with wide open windows that give one the feeling, if one is fortunate enough to be seated beside them, of being almost outside in the fresh air.
Although the restaurant was packed, service was brisk. Our table, bare when we were seated, was quickly covered in a Tierra Astur-logoed paper 'tablecloth', place-settings and an enormous hunk of bread for each of us. Crusty on the outside, chewy on the inside, just as bread should be. Since I am a firm believer in the principle that restaurants should give hungry diners something to nibble the moment they sit down, this made a good impression, especially as tasty olive oil with which to lubricate the bread was in place on the table. We were also handed a voluminous menu in two languages. No, neither of them was English. One, predictably enough, was Spanish; the other, clearly a very similar language though not one we recognised, turned out to be Asturianu, or Bable as it is popularly known, the dialect of the Asturias. We would probably have guessed this in any case, but didn't need to, since it was explained to us by a helpful fellow-diner from a nearby table, who turned out to be a fellow-guest at our hotel, in the lobby of which we had exchanged 'buenas tardes' with him earlier. He spoke good English and was kind enough to explain something of local eating customs and the nature of the dishes available, which was more than helpful and lucky for us, since the menu was far from self-explanatory and the waiter naturally spoke no English. Naturally? Well, how many waiters in, for example, Northumberland or South Wales would you expect to speak Spanish?
These two examples are not exactly chosen at random. Asturias shares several characteristics with them: a distinct regional identity, an economic reliance on declining heavy industries such as steel, ship-building and coal mining; and some beautiful countryside. Also a tradition of left-leaning politics. The region, especially its capital Oviedo, was the scene of ferocious fighting in the Spanish Civil War, when the local populace was staunchly Republican whilst army units based in the area supported Franco's Fascist insurgency. That conflict was, of course, a lifetime ago, but it is still relevant since resentment of Franco's subsequent rule fostered Asturian separatism. Few Asturians, unlike some of their Basque counterparts, would actually want to break away from Spain, but there is an enduring pride in Asturias' individual culture and character. If you wanted to be really historical, you could trace it all the way back to 722 AD, when an Asturian army defeated the Moors at the battle of Covadonga, thus ensuring that their north-western enclave was the only part of the Iberian peninsula never to come under Moorish occupation. In either case, it is a deeply-ingrained character that Tierra Astur is dedicated to representing in its ambience and cuisine.
Asturian cuisine is robust - a rugged country demands a rugged diet. Along the coast there is a natural reliance on seafood, but in the hilly, sometimes mountainous interior, where both cattle and sheep are grazed, the emphasis is much more on meats and cheeses. Embutíos (roughly, charcuterie: sausages, hams and similar preserved meats) are often incorporated in stews, notably in Fabada Asturiana, a casserole based on beans. Another characteristic dish is Carne Gobernada, beef slow-baked in white wine and onions. Potes - thick, vegetable-intensive soups - also feature prominently.
This meaty emphasis was reflected in the set Ménu Asturiano on offer at the Tierra Astur. For just under 20Euro you could have: a mixed platter of Embutíos to start, then Pote Asturianu, then Carne Gobernada, then Frixuelos (filled pancakes), with cider, wine or beer to wash it all down plus coffee and Asturian liqueur to round off afterwards. An alternative set menu at a similar price featured cheese, Fabada, roast beef, and Arroz con Lleche (a kind of rice pudding), drinks again included. Either option doubtless represents excellent value for money, but it all sounded too fat-intensive for our aging palates, especially as the portions we saw being delivered to other tables looked decidedly hefty. We considered having some soup as a starter; again, though, the deep bowls of stew-like potes looked too heavy to serve as mere appetisers. Then we noticed a nearby diner starting his meal with a tasty-looking chunk of cheese. I'm particularly partial to cheese, and on an impulse persuaded my wife to share with me the selection of local cheeses listed in the menu as a starter, with a side salad as light relief in case it proved a trifle ponderous, leaving a decision on main course until later.
To drink, we opted for the house red wine - Asturian, of course - which, I regret to say, was probably not the best choice. The almost automatic local choice would, of course, have been cider. Nearly everyone else was drinking it. I'd tried Asturian cider elsewhere and found it tolerable enough, but my wife didn't like it at all. It is acidic and decidedly flat as it emerges from the barrel or bottle; to provoke some aeration the traditional practice is pour it from as great a height as possible. The waiters circulate among the tables, raising each cider bottle at arm's length above their heads before letting the liquid stream down to splash into a glass held in the other hand at thigh level. Only an inch or two is poured at a time into the half-litre beakers - so that the cider can be gulped down while it is still frothing from the fall - and the waiters are very skilled, though some spillage inevitably ends up on the floor. Apart from this spillage, incidentally, the Tierra Astur is pretty clean for such a busy place, loos included.
The most practised waiters seem to make a point of looking neither at bottle nor glass while they pour, but staring sternly straight ahead, and the whole performance adds interest for tourists such as us, though more seasoned diners took it in their stride and barely glanced up as their glasses were re-charged. Cider apart, the Asturians produce some excellent white wines, but the reds are on the light and sharp side. Perhaps mistakenly, we ordered red since it seemed a more natural accompaniment to our cheese starter and to the meat we fully expected to have to follow. We had seen some sizzling steak dishes on their way to other tables and at this point in the meal were feeling pretty ravenous.
The cheese arrived, on a wooden board, sizeable slabs of six different varieties, each thoughtfully cut in half for ease of sharing, plus another slab of dulce de membrillo, the delicious quince jelly which Spaniards of all regions customarily eat with cheese. The selection was well-balanced: two types of contrasting hard cheese, the one more sharply-flavoured than the other; two soft cheeses, one a relatively bland Beyos, the other a spicy Afuega'L Pitu, in its more piquant Roxu ('red' - actually a creamy orange-pink) variant; and two blues, one of them the famous Cabrales, made from a mixture of goat's, sheep's and cow's milks and matured for many months in limestone caves, a bit like Roquefort. This was my first experience both of Afuega'L Pitu, which I found a little too pungent even for my taste, and of Cabrales, which seemed surprising mild by comparison, dry and crumbly for a blue cheese, though still full of flavour. The side salad - lettuce, tomatoes, onions and olives - was also of healthy proportions.
By the time we'd munched our way through the spread of cheeses, the plates we saw being delivered elsewhere in the restaurant, heaped high with roast meats and vegetables, sausages, and stews, had begun to look a lot less irresistible. All the evidence suggested that even if we ordered just one portion to share it would still turn out to be so enormous that we would not do it justice. So we decided to content ourselves with moving straight to dessert, ordering the Frixuelos de Manzana, just one portion between us initially to be on the safe side, and this proved to be ample since we each ended up with a bulging roll of pancake stuffed with baked apple, and lubricated with whipped cream.
A starter, a salad and a pudding between us and we were full. I'd thought I had a hearty appetite, but here the portions were just too daunting, albeit the quality was as tasty and appetising as could be wished. Being predominantly bread and cheese, one might regard our meal as a kind of Ploughman's Lunch, in which case it was the best Ploughman's Lunch I've ever eaten. My wife drank a herbal tea while I finished up the wine and asked for the bill, which came to 40Euro including tip. The service was prompt and efficient enough, though I would hesitate to call it friendly. We could, of course, each have had one of the set menus for much the same price and received a lot more food for our money, but I fear we would have wasted much of it, so I don't regret our following the course we did. Perhaps a single set menu shared between two would have been the best option, but we didn't think of that until too late.
Having just had a quick cross-check with Spanish opinion sites, I find that Dooyoo España and Ciao España have 26 reviews of Tierra Astur between them, significantly more than for any other eatery in the city. The place is clearly something of an institution in Oviedo, and very possibly in Asturias generally. Apart from the main restaurant at which we ate, there are two other branches, one in Colloto, a town on the outskirts of Oviedo, and one in the port city of Gijon. If I correctly interpreted a notice in the restaurant, a free shuttle bus is available for customers between the Colloto and Oviedo establishments. This would confirm my impression that Tierra Astur is a popular local place for a celebration, not necessarily a celebration so special as to demand a fancy formal party, but one suited to an informal, self-indulgent outing of, say, groups of workmates or friends. Most of the other diners there seemed to be Spanish, though whether Asturian or not I couldn't say. I would recommend Tierra Astur as a lively, interesting and value-for-money experience, essentially authentic too. Arguably, it is a bit touristy, but not all that touristy. Oviedo, after all, isn't that much of a tourist destination, although it does have some sights worth seeing if you can find your way to them through Europe's most unfathomable one-way system and almost total lack of street signage. Maybe that's why they need the bus.
© Also published with photos under the name torr on Ciao UK, 2011
A single glance at the landscape was sufficient to show me how ..The Tierra Astur restaurant in Oviedo is the showpiece for a group that exists to promote Asturian regional produce and specialities