NAVA, SPAIN — When the waiter hands you a glass of cider, you’re supposed to drink up immediately.
“You cannot wait,” says Laura Iglesias, explaining the rituals of cider drinking in Asturias, the mountainous region in northwest Spain. “If you wait, the foam disappears and when it disappears we say the cider dies.”
Dead cider, of course, is to be avoided. You’re expected to down your serving, typically about a quarter of a glass, in one slow, continuous gulp. This can be surprisingly difficult for outsiders, although locals seem to manage it with ease.
Cider — not wine or beer — is the traditional alcoholic beverage in Asturias, which produces 40 million litres of the fermented juice annually, about 80 per cent of Spain’s total production.
To the uninitiated, the drink comes with a set of odd customs and a sour taste that can take some getting used to.
At the cider museum in the village of Nava, Iglesias guides visitors through displays of 200-year-old apple presses, wooden mallets for crushing the fruit and machines for inserting corks into bottles. She says it takes a kilogram of apples to produce one 700-millilitre bottle of cider, which should be moderately chilled to between 12 and 14 degrees before serving.
Besides the full-bore acidic assault on the taste buds, the most striking thing about Asturian cider is the theatrical manner of pouring it, known as escanciar.
Above: Cider makers take their craft seriously in Spain and servers are trained to pour it properly.
The waiter hoists a bottle high over his head and then slowly turns his wrist, sending a thin stream cascading down, down, way down, past his face to a glass waiting to receive the golden nectar at just the right angle in his other hand, which is positioned well below his waist. The most skilled pourers look straight ahead, not needing to see if they’ve hit the target.
A tourist is apt to be transfixed by this spectacle, while Asturians generally pay it no mind whatsoever, having seen it a million times before.
The first time I encountered it I was dining alfresco in an old cobbled square in the city of Oviedo after flying into Asturias Airport. The waiter had his back to me and it appeared as if he was about to pour cider on top of his head. Why would he want to do that, I wondered.
Iglesias says the cider must strike the side of the glass with force, producing foam that is full of flavour. Pouring it as you would any other drink “is considered a sin, as if you are wasting it.”
Visitors can try this trick at the museum — with bottles of water. Getting anywhere near the glass of cider is a major achievement.
In cider bars, or sidrerias, scattered throughout Asturias, you can pair cider with tapas and regional specialties like fabada, a hearty bean stew. In Oviedo, Calle Gascona — known as Cider Boulevard — buzzes with crowds roaming from one sidreria to another.
A bottle costs 2.5 to 3 euros — roughly $4 Cdn — and the alcohol content is comparable to beer, about 5 or 6 per cent.
Just outside Nava, organic cider maker Luis Vigon at Orizon — one of some 90 Asturian cider mills — shows off his temperature-controlled fermenting rooms filled with enormous wooden barrels, some with a capacity of 12,000 litres, and even larger steel tanks.
He turns a spigot on one barrel, sending cider arcing two metres into a glass, which he hands me to taste. Sour, I conclude.
“It’s not ready yet,” is his more discriminating assessment.
Above: The harbours in the Asturias region are dotted with lots of colourful small boats.
A different batch is ready for bottling. The aroma from a sample is “fruity, fresh, clean,” says his father, Jose Luis Vigon, turning the glass to examine the bubbles and clarity.
The elder Vigon, who combines cider making with his profession as a family doctor, says it’s essential to ensure the quality of the fruit.
“A bunch of bad apples can contaminate the whole thing,” he says. “You have to know the growers personally.”
From the interior of Asturias, laced with verdant valleys amid the Picos de Europa mountain range, the road winds down to the Bay of Biscay where the coast is dotted with fishing villages and superb sandy beaches.
A seafront avenue in the town of Ribadesella is lined with sidrerias serving lobster, crabs, scallops and other fresh-from-the-ocean shellfish, along with smoked sardines and fried cod.
“You need to be relaxed, with a steady hand,” says Carlos Barredo, 54, a waiter at El Campanu, revealing his secret for cider pouring, which he’s been doing since he was 14.
The place is packed at dinner time, with people jostling at the bar and occupying tables under an awning out front directly across from the harbour where red and blue fishing boats are tied up.
A metal trough on the floor is where you toss the dregs from your glass, another cider ritual.
Eladio Rocas, who has a home in Ribadesella and another one in Oviedo, dumps a bit of cider into the trough. He says he likes the stuff but is unable to correctly get it from bottle to glass.
“I don’t drink it at home because I don’t know how to pour it,” he says
A waiter reaches across the bar to hand him another expertly poured glass. How does Rocas, 64, describe the contents?
“The flavour is midway between sweet and acidic and it tastes fresh and bubbly.”
JUST THE FACTS
• Getting there: Iberia flies to Asturias Airport from Madrid. You can also get there with Vueling from Barcelona.
• Festival: In Nava, an annual cider fest in July features exhibitions and a pouring competition.
• Cider mills: Many producers welcome visitors for informal tours and tastings.
• Hiking: The mountains of Asturias are popular hiking destinations. Prime sites include Picos de Europa National Park and Somiedo Nature Park. Details at https://www.turismoasturias.es/en/naturaleza