Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The Food We Serve

Our home grown vegetables
Five years ago we conducted a study on the food that we serve in the hotel. We wanted to know how much of the food was produced by ourselves, and where the rest of it came from.

The vegetable garden in winter
We were pleased to find that about 30% of the food was produced on the hotel farm. Since then we have tried to increase this amount though it is actually been quite difficult. The percentage we produce our selves has gone up slightly but unless we start to grow wheat or keep cows and pigs we won’t be able to make significant increases.

Home baked breads
Of the food we don’t produce ourselves over 15% is bought directly from certified-organic local small producers. We still bake all our own bread, cakes and desserts from basic ingredients, representing another 20% of the food consumed. The amount we buy from specialist organic distributors is about 30%. It’s also worth mentioning that over 98% of all the products used in the hotel restaurant are certified organic.

Local producers in the market at Cangas de Onis

But what does this mean?
When 30% of the food we use is produced by ourselves, that means a lot of fresh food, so a lot of preparation time in the kitchen – scrubbing, peeling and cutting vegetables and fruit – no ready-prepared packs just waiting to be opened and cooked. It also means the cooking has to be adjusted to what is available and in season. Growing and farming are weather dependent, and however hard we try on the farm, we don’t always get a continual supply of the same food all through the period when the hotel is open. Most of the food is seasonal, and this means that the kitchen has to adapt to what is available from the farm at any particular time of year.

Stringing the onion harvest for storage

Our team of cooks

Raspberries galore

For example, in April there are normally lots of mangetoute peas, then broad-beans in May, an abundance of raspberries and strawberries in June, plenty of beetroots in July, courgettes from July to September, peppers in August, and so it goes on. And it’s not only the vegetables that are seasonal: the chickens lay lots of eggs as the day-length starts increasing in March and April; our lambs are at their best by July, having fattened up on the spring pastures; and then there is the apple harvest in October. True food is seasonal.

Our Xalda lambs in early spring
Imaginitive cuisine.
When I asked Joe what she thought was the most characteristic thing about the hotel cuisine, she said it is cooking with what is available. This means making the best use of what we have in the vegetable garden at that moment (or what is available from other small producers, or the market, or wherever), and using imagination in the way the food is prepared.
Imaginative and tasty cooking

Roulades are an excellent example of adapting the dish to what’s available. Roulades can be based on so many different ingredients – such as leaf-beet, leeks, or carrots for savoury roulades – or on soft-fruits for dessert roulades, such as raspberries or strawberries. And when you get a glut of beetroot, for example, it can be roasted with cheese as a vegetable to accompany the main course, or used to make soup, or served in a salad with an orange mayonnaise, or served marinated in honey – and of course in a roulade. It’s all about imagination and creativity, and Joe certainly has those when it comes to food.

Onion and apple delights
The result is a tasty, varied and healthy cuisine, using lots of fresh produce. It’s often only a couple of hours from the time the food is picked to the time it’s served on your plate.

Different lettuce varieties in the vegetable garden
Local products and varieties.
Is the food we serve typically Spanish? Probably not. But because of our belief in using local varieties and races, the food we serve is based on a lot of genuine Asturian products. We often grow local varieties, and even produce the seeds of some of them so as to help maintain those varieties, as is the case with our onions, dried beans, and maize. Our apples are all Asturian cider-apple varieties. Our lamb is the indigenous Asturian race the “xalda”, now recognized by the slow food movement. Our beef comes from another indigenous breed, the “casin”, or Asturian mountain cow, which we buy direct from a young organic farmer called Angel Merino. Angel grazes his cattle on the Sueve Mountain range just 5 kms from the hotel. We buy a whole cow, which gets sent to the slaughter-house, and then we go to the cutting-house to supervise how it is cut for us and to help pack it. We then have a whole cow, with lots of different cuts of meat, and imagination is needed again to think of ways to prepare the different cuts. Maybe we will serve fillets with a mild “Cabrales” sauce (Cabrales is a local blue cheese), or a stew with peppers and tomatoes, or maybe we will make sausages and serve them with caramelized onions (onions from the vegetable garden of course, and from a variety which was saved in the village for 40 years and we now maintain the seed stock.)

Local organic Casin beef with Cabrales cheese sauce
One thing is sure – a lot of work, time and effort are put into sourcing, growing, preparing, and cooking the food that we serve in the hotel restaurant. However, to serve food which not only tastes good and is healthy, but embraces our beliefs, respects the environment, and supports local communities, is a reward in itself for us, and hopefully for our guests too.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Winter Vegetables

The vegetable garden basking in the winter sun
We got back from our holidays last week and the first job on the farm was tidying up the vegetable garden after 5 weeks of neglect. With the help of some good weather and a few days work it’s now looking more or less like it should do. So here are a few photos taken this afternoon showing what we’ve got growing at the moment:

Italian peppers
Amazingly we still have lots of  peppers to pick! In fact we have got so many peppers that we have been making lots of chutneys and relish to use them before the bad weather comes and spoils them.

Blocky "Californian" peppers

More normal winter vegetables for this time of year are members of the Brassica family like cabbages, swede, turnips and brocculi. We have different Brassica planted; some for us to eat over the winter and some hopefully will be ready when our first guests arrive next April.

Savoy cabbage for spring harvest

Early purple sprouting just ready for picking

Late purple sprouting which should be ready for picking in March and April

We have lots of swedes. Some are for us to eat over the winter, some will be for guests in early spring and if we have too many the sheep love them!

These are the last of our oriental vegetables which are also members of the Brassica family. They grow fast and can be used either in salads or in stir frys.
We also grow endive or escarola for salads over the winter; they are hardier than lettuce and this variety "escarola rubia" tastes really good!

A lovely bed of leeks heavily mulched with horse manure and ready for us to enjoy over the winter months

and for our guests our onion seed bed. These plants will be planted out in March and the dried onions should be harvested June July time.

Broad bean plants which we should start harvesting from for Easter

In the greenhouse we are still picking plenty of tomatoes

and last but not  least oats, not for eating but for a cover crop; we sow them rather than having bare soil over the winter. They will help to help keep the soil in exellent conditions ready for the next crops to be planted here in the spring.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

A new circular walk from the Hotel

The Sueve mountain range where the new circular walk goes
Asturias is a paradise for walkers but unfortunately many of the walks are not well waymaked and information in English is often very limited. So about ten years ago we started putting together a collection of self guided walking notes to help our guests enjoy the many fabulous walks Asturias has to offer. In the beginning we offered maps and notes for only 10 walks but over the years we have selected and incorporated new routes and now have 42 self guided walks for our guests to choose from.

Views of snow capped mountains from the Sueve Mountains in the the spring
One of our most popular local walks is along the Coastal Mountains of the Sueve where guests take a short taxi ride to the Mirador del Fito and then walk back along paths and tracks to the hotel. Up untill now when guests have wanted to do this as a circular walk they have had to start the walk by going for six kms along a minor road up to the Mirador del Fito. It’s a very minor road for most of the way with practically no traffic but it’s still a road.
View of the mountain behind the hotel
So last year when I discovered a new footpath between two local villages; Cofiño and Arriondas I knew this was the missing link for a new circular walk from the hotel along the Sueve Mountains but avoiding the 6 kms along the minor road. I wrote the self guided notes at the beginning of this season and now various guests have tested out the new notes and I am pleased to say none got lost!

Walking along by the stream near Bodes

Open farmland along the walk

The walk goes along a variety of different paths and tracks; following streams, passing through open farmland, along the Sueve Mountains and then finally skirts around the Peña Forcada and back to the hotel. However this circular walk involves a 600m accumulative ascent and in one small section attention needs to be taken with navigation, also in another part the path is quite rocky so this walk may not be for everybody.

Track coming back to the hotel

Stunning views from the Sueve mountains

For those who do attempt the walk the scenery is varied and many of the views are simply stunning and then for those walkers with plenty of energy there is the possibility of including the ascent to the Summit El Pico Pienzo, but that makes it a total of 1200m ascent!

Early morning views on the new circular walk.
 More information on the walk can be found on the link to our walking blog below:
Circular walk from Hotel Posada del Valle Collia to the Pico Pienzu
Happy walking!

Monday, 23 September 2013

Farming settlements in the Picos de Europa

The majada or mountain pasture of Vega Ceñal in the Western Massif of the Picos de Europa
Much of the scenery, tracks and pathways within the Picos de Europa are due to the pastoral livelihoods of the local people - a way of life that still exists but is in decline. 

A farmer moves his cows from a lower valley settlement to the high mountain pasture near the majada de Juentes
Typically farming in the Picos de Europa involved  the local people moving their cattle, sheep, goats and horses from their low-altitude winter quarters in the valleys, to the mid-altitude pastures ("invernales"), then to the high mountain pastures ("majadas"), a practice which may have begun during Neolithic times, and can involve up to 1000m of altitude gain. 

Cows grazing in the high pastures way above the Lakes of Covadonga

Many people never left the majadas from spring through to winter, remaining high in the mountains with their animals for 6 or 7 months of the year, living in clusters of small stone huts. However today very few farmers spend the summer months in the mountain settlements, most just visit their animals a couple of times each week.

The stunning setting of the abadoned high pastures of the Beyugal where farners would have lived for up to six months of the year
A stone pig stye in the pastures of Mohandi

The evocative settlement of El Hascal about to be engulfed in mist
Many such evocative settlements dot the area, testament to a hard life, and some are still used, but most are falling into disrepair. It is the western massif of the Picos de Europa where there are most of these settlements and coming across them can be a highlight to a walk in the area.

Farmers hut near Vega Ario on one of the classic walks in the Westen Massif of the Picos de Europa

Goats in Los Bobias
It was in these majadas that the region's renowned cheeses came into being - Cabrales from the area around Sotres and Bulnes, Gamoneu from the northern slopes of the Western Massif, and Picón from Tresviso in the Eastern Massif, to name just three.

Traditional Gamoneu cheese making in the high mountains pasture of Vega Maor

Goats being milked for cheese in the early morning sun. Los Bobias

A difficult pass; Paso El Picayo originally used by farmers now used by brave walkers.
Networks of well-built routes join the majadas to the invernales, villages and homesteads, across cols and ridges and "sedus" (difficult passes), often achieving traverses which appear to be unlikely, verging on the impossible. It is feats such as these that remind us how wise and in tune with the nature of the mountains people have been, and can be. These routes and settlements, built with local natural materials and human hands, give a feeling of awe.

A farmers stone hut in El Hascal

Sheep grazing above Los Bobias

The people of the Picos de Europa co-evolved with the landscape during millennia, grazing their livestock, cutting wood for building and burning, coppicing chestnuts and hazels, harnessing the power of water to grind their grain, and leaving their mark on the landscape in many ways, as it left its mark on them. It is this symbiosis of people and landscape that lends the area its inspirational quality.

Man co-evolving with the landscape Vega La Piedra


Hotel Posada del Valle is a small hotel in Asturias Northern Spain surrounded by its own organic farm and where we are passionate about organic farming, food, and sustainable livelihoods. In this Blog those of us who live and work at Hotel Posada del Valle open a door to share with all of you who are interested in what we are doing.