Postcard from Potes: A Short Trip to Northern Spain

15 June, 2015

Last week I packed my bags and set off (bleary-eyed, it was 3AM) to Potes in the Cantabria region of Northern Spain with my partners in an exciting new food project called Flavour Feed (the details of which we will be announcing soon), for a three-day working and playing session. Read on to see what we got up to!

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The Location

For most (myself included) the mention of Spain usually conjures visions of a Mediterranean seaside vignette, with buzzy tapas bars and dazzling architecture. Potes, albeit beautiful, is a completely different experience – feeling more like an Alpine town, the sea is swapped with a stunning mountain range, the Picos de Europa, that frame almost everywhere you look, and the pace is slowed right down.

Flavour Feed partner Richard Savage kindly hosted us at his family house just outside of Potes, in an exquisite centuries-old home that has been perfectly maintained but is uncompromisingly of its time. With characterful big, broad wooden beams, wonky stone floors and a wild garden, the house, like our mountainous surroundings, had a bold, unignorable presence.

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The Local Produce

A tradition in Potes since the Middle Ages, every Monday morning the vendors set up shop in the outdoor market, where you can buy some questionable fashion wares and some truly great local produce.

We reveled in the cheeses, including Queso Picon, a tangy sheep and cow’s milk blue cheese made in small batches and aged in the caves of the the Picos de Europa, plus classic Manchego sold to us by a wine-swilling vendor (he dutifully shared his stash), organic lettuce leaves for a Euro, breads, and heaps of fruit and veg: proper tomatoes, super seasonal artichokes, peas for podding, nectarines, cherries and beautiful flat white peaches.

Dried beans were also in plentiful supply as they’re used to make a local speciality called Cocido Montañés, a pork and bean stew often cooked with some added blood sausage – real rib-sticking mountain food.

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Spain is known for its efficient systems of seafood transportation, so getting fresh prawns, clams and squid was not a problem (though you can’t go wrong with some tinned Cantabrian anchovies from the Bay of Biscay, known to be the best in the world…), and the local butchers didn’t disappoint, with yellow corn-fed chicken, ribs, rabbit, chorizo and jamon.

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Eating & Drinking Out

What struck me most about our time in Potes was just how democratic the food was – much the same as in Italy and France – you don’t have to spend a lot to eat well. In fact, it’s often the most basic foods that stick with you, like the ham and cheese sandwich I bought at the airport – good quality cured ham, Manchego cheese and fresh bread – so simple and so good, it’s such a shame we can never really do the same in the UK.

Meat was in plentiful supply when we dined out – roast suckling pig and lamb, beef sliced and served with a hot plate for us to cook ourselves, milk-fed lamb and veal chops, and acorn-fed iberico ham and chorizo.

We also enjoyed a generous plate of simply served sweetbreads – crisp on the outside and soft and juicy in the middle, padron peppers, octopus and fried squid, and bread with everything.

Drinks-wise, the local red wine was very quaffable and paired well with just about everything and for really humble prices, while the G&Ts at a local taberna seemed incomparable to the stuff we get in London.

Icy cold, and served in a sizeable goblet, with a real fizz from the tonic, the winning ingredient was the juniper berries, which added fitting mountain notes of fresh pine and citrus, making the drink extraordinarily crisp and fresh – the best gin and tonic I have ever had.

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Home Cooking

As a group of food professionals enjoying a country’s produce, you can imagine what our kitchen was like – in a constant flurry of activity – from tomato salads, simply prepared, with onion and marjoram from the garden, to my super seasonal artichoke, pea, chorizo and mint salad (see a version of the recipe here: Phil’s City Kitchen: Italian Spring Recipes), and a whole host of meats cooked on the outdoor wood-fired grill that gave off the loveliest smoky aroma, like local sausages, corn-fed chicken and pork ribs.

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Whether eating in or eating out, the resounding feeling was that the local food had a sense of place and character; hearty, big and bold, like the terrain, and rooted in a rustic frugality.

Our culinary climax came when Flavour Feed partner David Swann cooked up an impressive “Mountain Paella” on the outdoor barbecue – made with shell-on prawns, squid, rabbit, chorizo, clams, peas, peppers, saffron, and served with crusty grilled bread and great wedges of lemon, to reward us after an afternoon’s hike.

So tethered to the time and place, I almost instantly recognised that eating David’s paella on our last night, with all of us nestled underneath a rain-free patch of patio, would become one of those food memories you never forget.

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