Welcome All To The Garage Cider Parties, Yours Truly The Mining Towns Of Asturias

 

One of the garage espichas. Most people were sitting outside, while these young men caught up on local gossip and drank cider.

One of the garage espichas. Most people were sitting outside, while these young men caught up on local gossip and drank cider.

They may not be well known, but the traditional cider parties put on by private families in their homes in the mining area of Asturias are a great way to welcome a promised spring.

Written and Photographed by Tess Jewell-Larsen

In a small town in the center of the northern Spanish province Asturias, a typical country house has transformed its garage into a temporal cider bar. Three kids kick around a soccer ball on the quiet country road in front of the door of the house. It takes a little quick maneuvering and one short tap on the ball to get to the door. No one minds though, the kids are having fun and the parents are allowed some breathing (and cider drinking) time.

People lounge in plastic chairs circled around plastic tables, which are covered with cider bottles and plates of food. A makeshift wooden bar has been constructed in the back. A short menu of food items is written on a white board and plastic cases of green cider bottles line the back wall. A few people chat with the owner behind the bar—talking local gossip and economic crisis.

Welcome to a traditional Cuenca Minera Asturian Espicha.

At the end of March, right before I left for Denmark, a friend, and collegue, of mine was talking about the typical mining area (cuenca minera) espichas, or ‘cider parties’, that they have. (He is from one of the mining towns in central Asturias.) He was adamant that in order to really know the true Asturian cider culture, I must visit the traditional Cuenca espichas. So, a couple weeks into April he called me up and said the espichas had started and we were going.

When the weather starts warming up and Sister Spring slowly starts showing her face, there are several towns in the mining area that celebrate with public ‘cider parties’ based out of the bottom floor of their houses: normally the garage.

The village of Soto de Agues that startes the Ruta del Alba.

The village of Soto de Agues where the 7km Ruta del Alba begins in the foothills of the Picos de Europa.

They sell cider—often from a local ciderhouse or homemade—and traditional Asturian foods like bollos preñaos (little savory pastry balls with chorizo baked in the middle), traditional cheeses, chorizo, breaded rehydrated-cod, fried potatoes with difference sauces and the list goes on.

The idea is to go from espicha to espicha—usually changing from one nearby town to the next. Often people have their four to five favorites that they travel to, and then wherever seems to have a large gathering of people. Often the people choose destinations depending on the cider they provide, food and environment. Also, since most who go are from the area they frequently go to different cider parties put on by friends, family, etc.

With my collegue and his family we first went hiking in the foothills on a route called La Ruta del Alba to build up our appetites for the espichas. The path follows along the river Alba and starts in the town Soto del Agues. We arrived in the morning and the landscape was lightly dusted with snow, which was a beautiful contrast with a few brave trees already flowering. We hiked about 5 km (3.1 miles) of the full 7 km (4.34 miles) of the path before having to turn back because it started raining. We had a light lunch and a warm coffee at a bar in Soto de Agues before heading back towards the mining towns and their cider parties.

We wanted to arrive around 5pm hoping to catch the most people. But with the on and off rain of the day, many people decided to stay in. Many of party owners said that they were sure the economic crisis had a huge hand to play in the minimal attendance.

We went to three different espichas in three different mining towns. Even with the lack of public we were still able to drink a few culines (small “butts” of cider that are poured into glasses from a distance to break in the glass so there is more oxygen in the cider to better taste it) and eat yummy food.

Historically these small family espichas could go on for a month or two, but the food choices started getting more elaborate and the local restaurants complained. The garage espichas don’t pay the same taxes as the restaurants and no surprise the restaurants complained. Now the espichas are only open for three weekends, often starting right after Holy Week.

This is one of the three small villages in the cuenca where we stopped to enjoy the local espichas.

This is one of the three small villages in the cuenca where we stopped to enjoy the local espichas.

The cider parties aren’t just a phenomenon that happens in the Cuenca Minera, but all throughout Asturias. However, the espichas are regularly based out of ciderhouses or cider restaurants in large special rooms. They often are organized for the months of January and February—in what I assume is an attempt to cheer up the public during the long months of cold, rain and grey. You usually pay an overhead fee and then get all the cider and food you can eat. The food is laid out on long tables and depending on the cider party you can either receive cider right out of large wooden barrels or from the green cider bottles. The idea is to stand around and talk to your friends, neighbors or whoever as you drink cider and munch. This is no formal lunch or dinner.

The espichas held in the mining towns of Asturias are different in that they are put on by private families in converted rooms in their homes. This is a tradition that has held on for a long time, but is fairly unknown if you do not have connections with the people from the area. When I asked why there wasn’t much tourism to the Cuenca espichas, my collegue just laughed.

We know how to have a good time, he said, but we don’t know how to sell it to others. It’s a pitty because this is such a rich Asturian tradition.

So when next year comes around, and you happen to be in Asturias in April, make sure to look into the Cuenca Minera espichas. Bring the family, bring a ball and let the kids run around while you relax with a cider and good company.