A culinary pilgrimage along the Way of St James
To the west is Covadonga, the deathplace of a Visigoth king named Pelagius whose forces, according to legend, once repelled a Moorish army of 40,000. The mountain cave containing his remains, perched directly above a waterfall, is still a popular pilgrimage site for Spanish Catholics. From here, a lift along dizzily winding roads takes me up, and up, to the Lagos de Covadonga, two lakes set in one of the most beautiful plains of the entire range. Thanks to the proximity of the Atlantic, the weather is less settled here than in much of mainland Spain – hence the startling greenness of the grass. On a fine day, this part of the Picos is captivatingly peaceful, a succession of vast open plains, roamed only by sheep and cabritos. The skies feel huge; for hours I don’t see a soul.
Some 20 miles north of the lakes along narrow and circuitous roads is El Molin de Mingo, said to be one of the best restaurants in Asturias. A converted mill and farmhouse in the foothills of the mountains and surrounded by thick woodland, it feels tucked away from the rest of the world. If not for the rows of expensive cars parked in the paddock next door, it would be impossible to guess that it is a restaurant.
The principles of the place are simple: produce from local organic farms, cooked according to strictly traditional recipes. Historically, the region’s food was designed to sustain the working men throughout a hard day’s toil. The modern reincarnation is a series of dense, powerful dishes – all the flavours of the Asturian countryside gathered on a plate. Molin’s speciality is arguably the finest dish in all Asturian cuisine: a monumentally fortifying bowl of beans, pork, black pudding and sausage known as fabada Asturiana.
Most of the great ‘poor’ cuisines of Europe have a dish based on this combination of ingredients – in France, the cassoulet of Carcassonne is the most famous example – but a perfectly prepared fabada outdoes them all. Slabs of slow-cooked ham, cubes of pork fat, chunks of smoky aromatic chorizo and crumbling wedges of morcilla – Spanish blood sausage – float in a rich soup of white beans flavoured with paprika and saffron. It is overwhelmingly good and quite possibly the most quintessentially macho plate of food available to mankind.
What sets fabada apart from all other bean dishes I have tried is the quality of the beans themselves. The local fabes de la granja (farm beans) are hard to grow and the best command a premium – so much so that top-quality fabes commonly cost more, pound for pound, than steak. ‘If you find them in a shop and they cost less than 12 euros a kilo, they are probably not worth having,’ Dulce advises, standing over a pan of stew in the restaurant’s kitchen.