A culinary pilgrimage along the Way of St James
The Atlantic fringe of Asturias is a world away from the mountains and pastures of the Picos. This too is a wild, demanding environment, a place where you feel instantly in touch with raw, pure nature. Here, the rhythms of life are dominated by the rhythms of the sea. The small fishing village of Cudillero is literally shaped by the power of the ocean, with its dense cluster of brightly painted fishermen’s cottages piled up on the steep horseshoe of a natural bay. Cudillero looks like an amphitheatre and has the acoustic properties of one, too. There is a narrow street at the upper end of a village called Calle del Sussurro (murmur alley); it is said that a person up here can hear everything that happens in town. ‘If a wife thinks her husband is having an affair, she can stand here and if she listens hard enough she will hear him whispering to his lover!’ laughs Maruja, a doughty octogenarian who has lived in the village all her life. ‘When I was younger, I used to carry the butane gas cylinders for our stove all the way up here from the bay: more than two hundred steps,’ remembers Maruja. ‘No wonder I feel tired now!’
Cudillero has been hit hard by reductions in European fishing quotas. The people here understand that something had to be done, but they give the impression that they are still reeling from the consequences. ‘The seas were nearly exhausted,’ says my young guide, Hugo. ‘Twenty years ago, there were 500 fishermen in work here. Now there are only 130. Once it was all trawling here, now there are no more nets. There is a premium for line-caught fish: hake, monkfish, tuna. It’s better for the sea,’ he says. ‘The future for Cudillero lies not just in fishing, but fishing and tourism. Gradually people are beginning to come. It is such a pretty place and the seafood is fantastic.’
There have been changes to the fabric of the village, as well as the villagers’ lives. A new harbour has been carved out a few hundred metres along the coast, which has made space for a host of new bars and restaurants. Cudillero still feels rough around the edges, a place caught between the regrets of the old generation and the hopes of the new. Several of its grander houses, built when a man could still harvest riches from the sea, are boarded up. But there is space for Hugo’s optimism, and the food certainly lives up to its billing. Off the main square is a little family-run restaurant, El Remo. An energetic young man, Lolo Martinez, runs the place while his brothers and sisters wait tables and his mother and father, Churre and Manolo, do the cooking. The produce might come from the sea but the approach is the same as in the Asturian mountains: fresh ingredients prepared in a no-nonsense way. I eat steamed clams on the half-shell with a lemon and chunks of perfectly succulent chargrilled baby squid. Tiny scallops, also cooked on the half-shell, are a revelation: sweet and soft, bathed in oil and garlic with flecks of parsley. It’s after midnight when the meal finishes, and Churre and Manolo join me for a coffee. Manolo, now in his 60s, used to cook and wash up for the crew on a huge Spanish trawler. ‘We would be away for ten days, sometimes two weeks, and in rough seas, the waves were as tall as mountains,’ he remembers. The restaurant is bursting at the seams and business is clearly booming, but a part of Manolo wishes he was still out at sea, cooking for the fishermen in his tiny ship’s galley. ‘When the sea is in your blood, you never forget it,’ he says softly.