Asturias is not the Spain of your imagination. Don’t expect flamenco dresses, clacking castanets and jugs of sangria in this north-west province. Instead of tiny tapas bars, there are raucous cider houses. Instead of vineyards and sunbaked hills, there are apple orchards and a thousand shades of green.
This was a lesson I first learned from the chef and humanitarian José Andrés, born and raised in the Asturian mining town of Mieres. We travelled together on a surf-and-turf bender in his home region in 2010, soaking ourselves in Asturias cider, inventing meals to fill the interminable space between lunch and dinner.
There wasn’t a bad bite to be had anywhere, but it was our marathon meal at the 138-year-old Casa Gerardo restaurant on a quiet country road that changed everything for me. On the drive to lunch, José spoke in poetic detail about the ancient history, the blend of contemporary and classic cuisine, and Pedro and Marcos Morán, the father-and-son team behind it all. “This is one of the most special places in Spain.”
We sat down to a five-hour feast that began with tiny, pristine, hyper-technical snacks and ended with gin and tonics the size of fish bowls. In between were 15 courses that showcased the best of Spanish modernist cooking – the mind-bending textures, the outrageous concentrations of flavour, the wit and whimsy that elevates dining into something more than eating.
But it wasn’t until the final savoury course that my lust for Asturias turned into true love. Fabada is the region’s signature dish, a stew of fat white beans called fabes simmered into glorious submission with a battery of types of cured pork: chorizo, morcilla and smoked ham. I’d had fabada before, but never like the Moran family makes it: with fresh (rather than dried) beans, unbroken and unblemished and impossibly complex and savoury.
Up until that moment, my understanding of Spanish cuisine was heavily tilted towards the high-end molecular gastronomy that turned the north of the country into a centre of fine dining in the 2000s. But in the years to follow, I learned that the best of regional Spanish cooking takes an almost Japanese approach to purity and respect for ingredients. It’s a country where boiling a gooseneck barnacle, grilling a red shrimp or griddling white asparagus is a spiritual experience.
After the first round of fabada, father and son came around with a white chafing dish, ladling out more of those glorious beans.
A few days later, I returned to my apartment in New York still reeking of rendered pork fat and fermented apples. Seven months later, I bought a one-way ticket back to Spain, where I still live today.
Fabada de Prendes – the Casa Gerardo recipe
Serves 10 (can be reduced proportionally for smaller numbers)
1.5kg dry faba beans*
200g olive oil
100g piece cured pork belly
4 Asturian chorizo
4 Asturian morcillas (blood sausage)
5g sweet paprika (from Murcia) not smoked
1 large onion, minced
1 packet of saffron
Half litre of chicken stock
* If you can’t find faba beans,try other white beans – cannellini, haricot, Greek gigantes – but be aware that the cooking times will vary
Cover the dried beans in plenty of water and soak overnight.
Combine the beans, cured pork belly, butter and 100g of the olive oil in a large pot and cover with a generous amount of water. Bring to a boil, skimming off any impurities as they float to the surface. Lower the temperature to maintain a gentle, consistent boil. In a separate pot of boiling water, cook the chorizos and the morcillas for five minutes, until they release their fat. Remove and reserve.
While the beans and pork cook, gently fry the chopped onion with the sweet paprika in a pan with the remaining oil. Add the cooked chorizos and morcilla to the beans, along with the fried onions and the saffron. Season with salt. Continue to cook for up to 90 minutes, making sure the beans are always covered with liquid (use the chicken stock to top off if necessary). Be careful not to stir the beans– you want each bean to remain fully intact and stirring with a spoon can break them apart. The fabada is ready when the texture of the fabes are pleasant in the mouth – creamy and delicate.
Serve the beans in wide, shallow bowls with slices of the chorizo, morcilla, and pancetta on top. At Casa Gerardo, they cook up extra chorizo and morcilla, along with chunks of smoked ham, to serve with the fabada. Feel free to follow suit.