"I am a one-man revolution!" hooted José Andrés from the driver's seat, hanging up from yet another conversation on his cell phone. He had just spoken with the president of Asturias, the small region in northern Spain where Andrés was born and toward which we were now hurtling at 100 miles per hour. "He wants to meet with us," Andrés explained. All the excitement about his arrival, Andrés said, reminded him of one of his favorite films, Bienvenido, Mister Marshall. A '50s Spanish satire set during the first two decades of Franco's rule, it's a story of American politicians visiting post-World War II Spain and the sleepy village that spins out of control with preparations for their arrival.
"It is still like that in Asturias," Andrés said fondly of his birthplace, bordered by the Cantabrian Mountains to the south and an untouched rocky coastline to the north. "These small towns in Spain are so funny. The last time I was here, there were four pages in the local newspapers about my upcoming book."
Andrés may not be a big American politician, but when it comes to food, he is one of Spain's most important diplomats in the United States. Arguably Washington, D.C.'s most influential chef-restaurateur for the last decade, Andrés went to culinary school in Barcelona when he was 15 and trained under superstar chef Ferran Adrià at El Bulli in Rosas, Spain. Since taking over and revitalizing the kitchen at the Spanish restaurant Jaleo, in 1993, the 34-year-old chef has found further success with his Nuevo Latino menu at Café Atlántico and his Greek, Turkish and Middle Eastern mezes at the year-old Zaytinya. Last year, he opened the six-seat Minibar at Café Atlántico, which he calls "his baby," and where he serves a menu of 30 wildly inventive small-plate dishes like foie gras with cotton candy and avocado-tomato sorbet in a cone. This fall, he'll open Oyamel, a Mexican restaurant.
Andrés clearly finds inspiration around the world, but Asturias is home. Next year, he'll publish his first cookbook, focusing on Spanish cuisine and with some recipes inspired by Asturian specialties. The region is known for its seafood, earthy stews of beans and sausage and outstanding cheeses, especially the famous Cabrales blue. Apples star in sweet and savory dishes and in Asturias's exceptional cider. On this trip, Andrés was heading back to the region to do some reconnaissance. His friend Chris Schroeder and I came along for the ride.
As we drove north from Madrid and approached Asturias on route A6, the empty highway began to curve sharply in and out of long tunnels and through barren, rocky hills. Just before we passed a big sign that welcomed us to Asturias, the scenery appeared brighter, as if the world had just gone from black-and-white to Technicolor. We were now in an area appropriately named the Costa Verde (green coast). Spaniards say that Asturias is the only true Spain, as it is the only enclave that wasn't conquered by the Moors. A more worthy distinction, perhaps, is that Asturias hasn't yet been colonized by hotel and restaurant chains.
Our first stop was Oviedo, the capital. "We're late! The president is waiting for us!" Andrés shouted. We were hustled inside a yellow palacio and straight to the man himself. Suddenly, the conference room was bustling with photographers and TV cameras shooting the president, Vicente Alberto Álvarez Areces, shaking hands with Andrés. Moments later, the president was gone and journalists started rushing up to Andrés to get his comments about the big news: The 2004 Michelin Guide had just awarded single stars to three more Asturian restaurants, increasing the number of Michelin-starred places in the area to seven—remarkable for a region that's about the size of Connecticut. "It's a clear indication that something important is going on in Asturias," Andrés said into several microphones. But these things don't happen overnight; the awards, Andrés added, are a testament to the central role food plays in Asturian culture.
Although Andrés was happy to discuss Michelin stars, those restaurants weren't the ones he was most eager to visit. If a region has a strong culinary tradition, he believes, one can find excellent cooking even at casual places, like the ones serving the classic Asturian recipes he grew up with.
"No time to go to the rooms," Andrés announced when we arrived in our hotel lobby. "We have to eat lunch before the restaurant closes." Along the way, we still managed to stop briefly at several bars on Calle Gascona, a pedestrian street near the city's main square, Alfonso II, and its magnificent 14th-century Gothic cathedral. "You can write in your article that this street is a good place to start an eating tour," Andrés directed, always the micromanager. At a few typical Asturian sidrerías (cider houses) on Gascona, we had plates of salty, fresh whole crabs, sea snails and sea urchins. "Food of the people!" exclaimed Andrés. We washed down the tapas with glasses of hard cider, Asturias's dry and bracing alcoholic drink. Serving the cider is an art; we watched the bartenders hold the bottle with one arm above their head and pour a stream of liquid into a tilted glass held below bar level, without spilling a drop. "Drink it all at once, and then pour the last sip out into the trough under the bar," Andrés instructed.
At a stylish little wine bar called República del Vino, also on Gascona, Andrés ordered us a sampling of tapas: tortilla (an omelet) made with juicy crab, and pastry caramelos (bonbons) filled with morcilla (blood sausage). After we paid and left, the owner came running out the door, chasing after us. "José is a star!" she yelled, embracing Andrés. "He's like Mick Jagger!" She lured us back in to try the arroz con leche (rice pudding). After tasting a few addictive bites, we escaped.
At last we arrived for our lunch at Casa Fermin, an 80-year-old institution that caters mostly to businessmen. We started our meal with an order of creamy croquettes made with Cabrales. Then we sampled slices of octopus on top of crispy potato rounds and a moist fillet of hake cooked in cider sauce. But what we loved most was the fabada, the region's signature dish, a robust stew made with big, buttery Asturian fabes (fava beans)—"There is no better bean in the world," says Andrés, who uses it at Jaleo and Café Atlántico—and pieces of morcilla, bacon and chorizo.
Our destination that night was the year-old Restaurante L'Alezna, one of the new recipients of a Michelin star. We'd heard about chef Pedro Martino's knack for innovative dishes done with a light touch, and we weren't disappointed as we ate our way through his menu. Some of the standouts were a foamy soup made of cockles and served with a small ball of apple sorbet; roasted pitu de caleya (a local free-range chicken with an appealingly gamy flavor) alongside creamy, risotto-like rice and foie gras studded with minced fried potatoes; and pineapple carpaccio wrapped like a cannelloni around rich, creamy cauliflower purée and served with local wild mushrooms.
The next morning, I stumbled down to the hotel lobby at eight to meet Andrés and Schroeder. "¡Que bien vivimos!" ("This is the life!"), Andrés said and smiled his crooked smile. We sped past green hills dotted with bell-toting cows, driving by colorful casas indianas—mini palaces with turrets and glass balconies built in the past two centuries by returning Asturians who had made their fortune in Latin America—and by Cangas de Onís, a village popular with hikers, at the foothills of the spectacular Picos de Europa. On a poetic stretch of road that wound by a steep river gorge surrounded by hilltops dotted with more green meadows and a herd of sheep, Andrés pulled over abruptly and got out to breathe it all in. "I've decided I'm moving here," he announced dramatically just before hopping back in the car.
Soon, we pulled into the town of Arenas de Cabrales and made our way to the headquarters of the foundation that oversees the production of Cabrales, considered one of the world's best blue cheeses and still made by hand. We met the president of the foundation and followed him through a little museum and the cave, a worthy stop for a cheese lover, although much of the information is written only in Spanish. He explained that the high quality of Asturian cheeses comes from the region's exceptional milk—cows here are coddled and served an all-natural, hormone-free diet—and tipped us off that the best Cabrales comes from the village of Tielve.
Back in the car and driving north, we swerved up and down and around hills as we approached the coast. Andrés skidded to a halt at the side of the road: A pig butchering was about to take place across the street. Andrés introduced himself to men dressed in jumpsuits who barely glanced up as they sliced the hog's stomach open. If he hadn't been scheduled to meet his uncle and a local mayor for lunch, Andrés would have stayed to cook the pig and eat the spoils. "This is what I call a reality check," he said. "The slaughtering of a pig is an ancient ritual that still goes on today and that makes it possible for people to buy sausages in supermarkets."
Lunch was at La Huertona, a traditional restaurant with brick walls, wood beams and tile floors in the coastal town of Ribadesella, 30 miles northwest of Arenas de Cabrales. The large windows looked out over an expansive green field, a farmer tending his cows and the mouth of the Sella river emptying into the Atlantic Ocean. We were joined by Andrés's uncle, Angel "Gelín" Diaz Puerta, and the mayor, José Miranda, and we ate spoonfuls of apple and foie gras and seasonal baby eels from the Sella river on toast.The eels were exquisite, but I was stunned to learn that this local delicacy sells for $300 a pound overseas. Shipped almost exclusively to Japan, these eels are rarely available in Asturias after the first two months of the year. As we ate, Miranda bragged about the local prehistoric cave paintings and dinosaur dig sites, which tourists can visit.
That night I got to bed before 2 a.m. for the first time on the trip. After an excellent night's sleep—we were staying at the Parador Cangas de Onís, a converted medieval monastery—I woke up to Andrés's voice on the phone. "Good morning," he said cheerfully. "Time to check out the cheese market in Cangas." The market is somewhat hidden off the city's main street, and many visitors miss it. (It's located on Calle Mercado, near the intersection of Avenida de Covadonga.) Amid the cramped, dark stalls, some of the world's best artisanal cheeses—Cabrales, Beyos, Gamoneú and Afuega'l Pitu—are sold at absurdly low prices. After buying some of each, we had cider and tapas at a bar called El Molín de la Pedrera, where the owner served us delicious corn tarts filled with chorizo, and dumplings stuffed with Cabrales and almonds. He explained, to Andrés's horror, how he was trying to get rid of the time-consuming cider-pouring ritual and let patrons serve themselves from bottles instead.
We spent the rest of the day in Mieres, the mining town where Andrés was born, with his large extended family, eating countless bowls of fabada as well as a turnip stew that he had never tried before. (It just might show up on the menu at one of his D.C. restaurants soon.) Andrés showed everyone pictures of his two daughters and a video of himself cooking at Minibar.
Our final meal was an assortment of Asturian cheeses the next morning at our hotel. Our waitress, concerned for our palates, insisted on serving us red wine with the cheese. As our fellow diners looked at us in alarm—it was only 9 a.m.—Schroeder made a toast: "To Mister Marshall!" Andrés protested, laughing: "At least I stopped in every town."
Gisela Williams is a freelance writer based in Düsseldorf, Germany. She has written about food and travel for Wallpaper, Elle and Travel + Leisure.