Sometimes, for all the gastronomic brilliance apparent in the world’s best restaurants, The Gannet leaves the table feeling that such places have more affinity with each other than with the land on which they stand. Menus are written in a gastronomic Esperanto of foams, gels and spumas, often at the expense of what the French call terroir.
Casa Marcial, the fiefdom of chef Nacho Manzano, is different. Perched in the unspoilt landscape of Asturias, halfway along the Atlantic coastline of northern Spain, where roosters strut through orchards, brown dairy cows lumber lazily along twisting lanes, their bells clanking, and the Picos de Europa mountains form a stunning backdrop, this lovely little restaurant’s charm and sense of place belie its two Michelin stars.
Manzano, also executive chef of Ibérica, the admirable group of Spanish restaurants that kicks off celebrations of 10 years in the UK this month, does not need a chemistry set to cook lunch. He was born to cook at Casa Marcial, his parents’ old farmhouse – the dining room is in what used to be a bedroom – and his instincts are those of a musician, coaxing profound harmonies from his native ingredients.
Among those are apples, and hence cider, the nectar that runs through Asturians’ veins: I had a terrific lunch the day before at a sidrería called Casa Trabanco, an hour’s drive west, where the cloudy cider flows like water, washing down salt-cod tortillas, smoky local chorizo, bowls of spicy tripe and vast, pink-cooked hunks of local beef.
At Casa Marcial, my preprandial glass of cider had been made and bottled like champagne: delicious, especially with a meaty little clam bathed in garlic cream and a fabulously fresh oyster with citrus caramel. Then, an extraordinarily molten ham croqueta, and a crisp, cockscomb-shaped sandwich of toasted corn biscuit filled with a pâté made from the livers of free-range village hens: technique, flavour and playfulness in abundance.
It was elver season: Manzano paired them with slithery slivers of mushroom and doused them in a shimmering broth, an egg yolk adding a silky richness. The hen reappeared with saffron-tinged rice, cooked with rich stock and fat from the hen: its flesh was meaty and succulent. Perhaps Manzano’s most celebrated dish, it is also on the menu at Ibérica, and I strongly recommend it.
A bijou bowl of fabada Asturiana followed: chunks of pork, black pudding and chorizo partner creamy fava beans in a clear, rich, rosy broth. Lunch ended with an audacious celery pannacotta drenched in green apple water, served with a glass of intensely sweet but refreshingly acidic sidra de hielo: ice cider. After a dozen courses of Manzano’s stellar cuisine, a lingering flavour of apples seemed entirely appropriate.