I’m not a heat person. Don’t get me wrong – I like when the weather is warm enough that we can start spending time outdoors. But the oppressive summer heat that we can experience in Philadelphia is too much for me – unless I have access to a water source for some relief (cough, the ocean, cough).
In late June, I was fortunate enough to fly into Madrid during the European heat-wave. Translation = 105 degrees in landlocked Madrid, Spain. The phrase “I’m melting” doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Fortunately, I only had to last 24 hours in the excessive heat before traveling 5 hours north to Oviedo, Spain. Oviedo sits in the Asturias region in northern Spain, surrounded by mountain ranges and the coastline. The climate is rather temperate – highs of mid-70s to lows in the 40s. My kind of weather. And it is the home of chef José Andrés (which I had no clue about until I arrived there. In 2018, Andrés took Anthony Bourdain to the region to film Parts Unknown season 12 – if you haven’t seen it, I’d highly recommend watching it for a quick giggle at Andrés fitting into a wetsuit).
The region of Asturias was drastically different than the metropolitan hub of Madrid. In Madrid, I knew I was in Spain due to the architecture, the language, and the flow of people and the food. In Asturias, I was reminded of the countryside of Ireland – its rocky mountains, green landscape, and deep blue ocean waters. Asturias shares a lot of Celtic similarities with Ireland, making me feel right at home. In comparison with Madrid, the people in Asturias also had an overwhelming sense of pride in their heritage, having been the only bastion in the Spanish kingdom that defeated the Moors back in the 8th century.
You can tell from the landscape that the region of Asturias is physically active – you’re climbing hills as you maneuver within the city of Oviedo, you’re hiking to the hilltops to overlook the various parts of the Asturias region, or your diving into the frigid waters of the Bay of Biscay. And so the food needs to be hearty and healthy to sustain that lifestyle.
I don’t know when I was first introduced to seafood. My parents definition of seafood was frozen fishsticks, flounder, and occasionally a frozen crabcake. Luckily for me, someone eventually offered me shrimp. Growing up, we would occasionally eat at a seafood restaurant known as Ruhling’s Seafood in northeast Philadelphia. Every time we went, I remember ordering a shrimp cocktail. It was so special that it became a request of mine for every birthday – the menu had to have shrimp cocktail.
Later on, I would graduate to cracking crabs for crab meat, eating mussels and claims, trying various white fish and calamari. Every year, I say that I want to incorporate more seafood into my overall diet because I enjoy it so much. And I fail short – every year. In Asturias and Oviedo, it would have been difficult to fail.
Asturians incorporate seafood into almost ever meal. I was in my glory. For someone who has very little experience cooking foods they particularly enjoy, I make an effort to choose seafood when I eat out (assuming it’s an option). From a dish of scallops, to squid with potatoes and paprika, to a spider crab cake (which was nothing like our own), to prawns and mussels and sardines – you name it, we had it. It didn’t matter to me if I had ever had it before (like sardines) – I wanted to know how to eat it (it was quite evident I hadn’t eaten sardines before – if you have, you know that the fish can come out like in a cartoon after a cat eats it – with all the bones in tact. Mine – not so much) And while each dish appeared simplistic, the seafood shined due to the minimalistic ingredients used in its preparation. The grilled char on the squid, combined with the olive oil and paprika, melted in your mouth. And the garlic and herb mixture on top of the scallops enhanced the butteryness of the scallop itself (if that’s even possible).
To say the food was fresh is an understatement. It was usually brought in from the sea that day. A visit to the Mercado el Fontan and you can easily find the freshest catch of the day to make for supper.
While wandering the market and tasting the various preparations, I could only think of how fortunate we were in Philadelphia to sit so closely to a shore line. I also realized that I could never live in the middle of the U.S. because I want to have access to the freshness of the ingredients and proximity from which they come.
In the Parts Unknown episode, José Andrés states “It is worth it to go to the end of the world for the right food.”
After visiting Oviedo and Asturias, I couldn’t agree more.