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Cangas de Onís to Cangas de Onís: May 18, 2022 91.06 Miles Walked
And Now for Something Completely Different
We have finished the normal part of the tour that Pura Aventura has for the Picos de Europa, but not for your intrepid duo Pam and John, as we are continuing the adventure. Today we met up with Alex, our guide, so we do some hiking, but with a twist. It was time to learn some things as well.
Alex picked us up at our hotel and we did a 4.5 mile walk from the hotel. We talked along the way about our adventure so far and the life of a guide. Alex has been working for Pura Aventura for 18 years and has guided hikes and climbs all over Spain and numerous places around the world from Patagonia, to Malaysia, to Kenya. He loves living in Asturias and sharing his knowledge about the everything we were seeing. We had a blast!
Our first stop was to see Pepin, a master story teller. Alex wanted us to learn how the locals live in Asturias and you can’t get more local then Pepin. His family has lived in the tiny village of Sirviella for many generations so he’s a true local. Today Asturias, even though it is one of the most beautiful places in the world, it’s losing population at an increasing rate. Over half the population is retired and over 65. The school age population has dropped by 25% in the last ten years. It’s the curse of rural areas everywhere, but the loss of local traditions related to farming and culture that worries Pepin the most.
With tourism being the main industry across the region, Pepin has leaned into it hard and that’s why he offers these tours. He feels that if he can inspire some younger people to move here, he’s accomplished something. As we were walking around the neighborhood he started teasing one of his neighbors, a lady in her 30’s, and he said out that she is Polish, her husband is English, and they have been renting a house in the village for a couple of years. The recently bought a piece of land up the hill and are working on restoring the house and farming. As Pepin said he doesn’t care where people come from as long as they come and participate in village life. Also, as he said, it’s always good to widen the gene pool and he hopes one of his daughters marries their son. (Note that all these kids are 9 to 11!) Anyway, this idea that outsiders are super welcome all got all the gears in my head turning and I’m starting to work hard on Pam. Wish me luck!
Making a living in a tourist area, other than working in a hotel or a restaurant, means you do a little of everything. Growing up as a farm boy, Pepin already has the farming skills so has a few cows and a flock of 70 sheep. We didn’t get to see a demonstration but Pepin has won numerous sheep herding competitions in Spain with his border collies.
While Pepin has land to grow crops, but hates bending over so he concentrates on the animals. The staple crops of Asturias are potatoes, onions, corn, and beans. Because the beans need to climb and the farmers here are smart, they always plant beans and corn seeds with each other so the corn provides the stalk for the beans.
If Asturias is known for one thing in Spain, it’s sidre (cider). With most of Asturias positioned between the ocean and the Picos, which block the ocean clouds from traveling inland, the climate is somewhat similar to Asheville, NC. They rarely get below freezing and above 85, and are slightly on the rainy side. With those limitations, grapes do not do well here like they do in the rest of Spain, but apples grow perfectly. While there are a few larger orchard, most farmers have apples trees in their fields to provide shade for the animals as well as apples for sidre so it’s a double win.
Sidre is made by chopping up and pressing the apples before putting the juice in large tanks to let nature take over with the fermenting. It takes anywhere from three to five months to produce the final product. The real sidre has an alcohol content of around 4%. While a factory controlling every single variable can produce a consistent product, real sidre relishes the variables. Each years batch is different because of the mix and quality of the apples, the temperatures in the sideria, the yeasts in the air, and, finally, the alignment of the planets and the energy they bring to the Capricorn zodiac since most of the fermentation takes place at that time. (I might have made that last one up). Pepin walked us through the complete process and while I’m not an expert yet, I’m working on it.
The iconic image of sidre, is the pour. There’s no carbonation in sidre, but it’s universally agreed that bubbles change the taste for the better. To get the bubbles, you hold the bottle in one hand straight above you head and pour a stream into a glass held at your waist. You only pour two to four ounces at a time and you drink it immediately. Here’s Pepin doing a pour into my glass: (This video is supposed to be embedded but Substack kind of sucks for common tasks such as this. It’s kind of sad, really. Maybe someday they will make a real editor. Click on the link because you really need to see this!)
Yes, there is a little wastage and yes it can get messy but who cares, the sidre tastes better done this way! I really wanted to try to do a pour, but didn’t want to get covered in sidre before our hike. Alex told us the absolute best way to learn is to drink a box (9 bottles) of sidre first because after that you’ll be pouring like a native. He also said that if you are at a party and there’s a pretty girl you want to flirt with you start doing the pour and you stare at her while doing it, then give her the glass. Alex was smiling a lot when he told us this, but I could see it working. Pam said I better only stare at her when I pour.
After talking about sidre it was time to drink and eat. Chief Pepin put on his apron and got to work. We started with the famous cheese plate, where Pepin had made all the cheeses. The first was Afuega’l pitu an yellow cheese with blue parts. The star of the show was Pepin’s Cabrales. It’s a white cheese made from the milk of cows, sheep, and goats. The cheese is made, smoked for 20 days, and aged in caves for several months. It is not what most people think of as a blue cheese, because it’s not injected with started, it does develop some of the characteristics on it’s own. Each slice starts with with the smoke on the edge, moves to a creamy center, and near the point has a sharper tang of blue cheese. Pam normally doesn’t like blue cheese at all, but even she loved the Cabrales.
Pepin’s Cabrales was made in his valley home so it’s not an official De Origin version. The real Cabrales can only be made in the areas near Covadonga Lakes and must meet very strict requirements on how it is made. The family making it must reside in their traditional huts at the lakes for the summer without electricity. All of the cows, sheep, and goats must be with them and milked every day. Additionally, they have to smoke the cheese in traditional smoker buildings, aging must take place in prescribed caves, and do all the packaging onsite. Today there are only five families that make the real Cabrales and it sells for $48 for each 2.2 lb (1 kilo) block, one of the most expensive cheeses in Spain. Four of the five families doing the real Cabrales are headed by men over 65 and the other is headed by a 39 year old. Very soon, the real Cabrales is going to go extinct.
After we ate the cheeses, Pepin brought out chorizo boiled in sidre, which was outstanding. Normally Pam is not a chorizo fan but loved this. After the super fresh salad of tomatoes and lettuce with olive oil and balsamic, we dug into one of the best traditional Spanish omelets we ever had. For the last course we had a dish who’s name we can’t remember, but was made of tart made with fried corn, caramelized onions with a full blue cheese on top (except for Pams). Alex and I loved it. Finally, to top it off we had crepes where we loaded them with the incredibly thick and dark honey Pepin made. In all, we loved the visit with Pepin because we got to really learn about the old and new Asturias. I highly recommend that if you are in this area of Spain to visit Pepin so you can see for yourself the real Asturias, which you can’t get being a regular tourist.
With happy and full bellies, we hopped in the car with Alex to take a hike around the Covadonga Lakes. The lakes are two glacier created lakes that offer views to the south of the glorious Picos de Europa. I did the driving up to the lakes in 2017 and know that it’s a crazy, twisty road with giant busses heading in both ways. Fortunately, Alex was driving and being in the middle of the week the traffic wasn’t too bad. Today was a cloudy day so we didn’t get to see much of the big Mountain View’s, but the wildflowers were completely out so we don’t feel like we missed anything. Maybe the next time we are here we can see the big views that attracts everyone.
As we started the hike Alex was telling us about how many people he used to know that spent their summers up in their shepard huts without electricity. One of the first huts we saw used to belong to Rosa, who spent every summer in the mountains until she was 78. Her sons put a stop to her spending the summers up there and Alex feels like she died of a broken heart at 81. The mission of the park is to not only protect the land, but also to protect the culture so that’s why they allow families back into their traditional huts. It was obvious that some of the huts had been converted into swanky huts and those were probably owned by people who now live in Madrid but are using their family agreements to keep the old places as summer residences for vacations.
With Alex with us we got to answer two of the questions that have vexed us the entire trip. The first was, since there are no brands on the cows, sheep, and goats here, how do the shepards know which animals are there’s? Alex had us listen for a minute to the tinkling cowbells. We could here higher notes and lower notes. The trick is that each shepard has their own note and before they put those big bells on their cows, they have a metal worker ensure each bell plays their assigned note. Also, they mainly put bells on the more mature female animals because they know how to find the right grasses and water. The babies will follow their mothers so they don’t need bells. The few bulls in the herds are morons and follow the females because they are horny.
The second question was how do the shepards keep their animals from wandering off in any direction? The grasses of Asturias are nutritious but are missing some essential minerals the animals need to live; mainly salt. The shepards throw out a salt lick where they release the animals so they know where to find the missing ingredients and the shepards know they will return there. Alex mentioned that it really only takes three days to train a cow to do what you want it to do.
Alex was telling us he was surprised at how few people were at the lakes. We told him that we thought that Pura Aventura was responsible for cleaning out the people before we arrived anywhere. We laughed about this until we went down to Covadonga, which is six or seven kilometers below the lakes. Covadonga is where King Pelayo received a vision from the Virgin Mary that he was going to defeat the invading Muslims in 722 and/or where he defeated the Muslim party. Either way, it’s a major tourist attraction in Spain. We pulled up and there was literally no one there. We had the entire cave area to ourselves other than a nun reading the Bible on her smart phone. Alex began to think that maybe it was Pam and I that produced the magic of zero tourists!
You are not allowed to take photos in the cave part of Covadonga, but here is the closest place where you can. I am the only person there. The actual cave us up the steps in the foreground.
After Covadonga we headed to Cangas de Onís, the big town in the area for dinner. Of course, being Asturias, Alex picked a restaurant the specialized in sidre and tapas. We had a wonderful time eating great food and watching the waiters do their big pours. Pam captured a picture of the outside seating showing one of the waiters doing the big pour. Our table was in the foreground right.
Alex is a great guide and it really helped to get a lot of questions we had answered. It was also amazing to see that we had such power to chase the tourists away. Alex wanted to hire us for his trips in June and July, but I don’t think our tourist chasing powers will work then, considering half the world comes to Spain during that time. At least we have had so much to ourselves, which has made the trip magical.