7 reasons to visit the Picos de Europa: #6. Cheese from caves, cider from the heavens
This article forms one of a seven-part series showcasing how we could share Spain's Picos de Europa with you and your walking boots. You can find an overview of all seven reasons here. Enjoy reading and if it inspires you to come and see it all for yourself, you'll find links to some trip ideas and a direct line to a team of people who'd love to help you plan a visit to somewhere so close to our hearts.
#6. Cheese from caves, cider from the heavens
You might not know this, but Spain does cheese better than anywhere else. There is an unofficial number of 150 varieties of cheese in Spain, of which 42 are from Asturias. So it’s quite possible that, more specifically, Asturias does cheese better than anywhere else.
If you were paying attention in reason one, you’ll know that cheese is not only a key element of the Picos gastronomy, but that its production has helped shape the landscape of the national park as we know it. As beautiful as these mountains are for us visitors, it’s not the easiest place to scratch out a living. The vertical hills are one obvious factor, the lack of good soil less obvious. So for thousands of years, producing cheese was really your only choice, until us tourists caught wind of the beauty that lay within.
Cheeses at the weekly market in Potes
Cheesemaking dates back at least 5,000 years in the Picos. It’s a little-changed culture based on a semi-nomadic life that follows the seasonal growth of the grass up and down the mountain. In our 21st century world, ambling up and down steep hills with flocks of sheep and goat is both less fashionable and less economically rewarding than the trappings of modern life and the allure of the city. But you can still stumble across some of the last generations of families still doing things the old fashioned way.
Whether you’re here to hike, explore by car or share some downtime with the family, you’re ideally placed, and in the right company, to visit the maturation caves high in the hills above small villages, meet the cheesemakers, and of course taste their wares.
Sunlight entering the cheese curing caves of the Picos
Most prized of all the cheeses is Gamoneu - a slightly blue, nutty cheese made with the mix of milks from the cows, sheep and goats that roam in the summer pastures. The cheese is smoked in the huts before being put to mature in the natural caves of the Picos for at least two months before it can be enjoyed. It's a slow labour of love, and these days there are only five families still producing it in the mountains. Just five. We’d love to introduce you to Covadonga, one of those still toiling away in the art of cheesemaking.
As well as garnishing our plates with Spain’s best cheese, Asturias also fills our glasses with what may, or may not be, the country’s best cider, depending on whether you’re canvassing the opinion of an Asturian or a Basque native.
Asturian cider and Gamoneu cheese is a winning combination
There might not be a better way to finish off a day in the hills than by visiting a traditional cider barn to learn how they make it and, crucially, how they pour it. Dinner here is all part of an espicha; the party of eating and drinking which accompanies the opening of cider barrels every spring.
In all but the steadiest hands, the pouring seems to us to be a spectacular way of spilling cider all over the place as you struggle to aim the liquid into your glass, held at waist height in one hand, whilst the other tilts the bottle from as high up as your arm can reach and lets it flow. Rather than (or perhaps as well as) making you look ridiculous, the idea is to splash the liquid around, in the glass not on the floor, as much as possible to oxygenate it and release the flavour and aromas.
Either way, best practice at home with water, as the locals say.