Down on the Farm | Huerta La Vega | Gijon, Spain

I'm long overdue on this post, however the story and generosity of the family never grows old. Here's the recount of my visit to Serin, Gijon, Spain with Lauren of Roaming the World.

"Hay que asustarlas" she tells me, "You have to scare them," this apparently is the centuries-old secret of making the world's best Fabada Asturiana, a hearty white bean based stew that takes hours to prepare and includes random shots of cold water to shock the beans - creating the final texture of smooth on the inside and taut on the outside. It also strikes me as the most appropriate catchphrase for our current situation in food politics, food sovereignty and public health. As I stroll through the mushy, recently rained-on, and about to-be-rained-on-again-grass, I ponder why there are not more farms and farmers dedicated to sustainable practices. How many more incidents of salmonella in our spinach bags, unplanned horse meat in microwavable TV dinners, cases of child obesity, arsenic laced rice and chicken, or E-210 agents are we willing to withstand, before the consumer says enough is enough. Fortunately, the motto of Huerta La Vega is to kill them with kindness, not to scare us, but to offer fairly and sustainable grown and sold produce with 100% transparency. And that's exactly the hospitality and image they gave us when we were invited to their farmland in the foggy midst of green Asturian fields.

Huerta La Vega is located some 15km outside of the center of Gijon, Spain, a seaside town of roughly 250,000 residents nestled between the roaring waters of the Cantabrian Sea and Wizard of Oz emerald green hills that sharply peak at rocky formations some 2,000 meters, otherwise known as the Picos de Europa. Maria Jose, the matriarch and cofounder of the business meets us at the sleepy train station of Serin, a surprisingly rural location given its proximity to city life. Today a highway overpass braids its way through the valley, but I'm told that years ago this land was reserved for generations of farmers, people very connected to their roots in the fields; wheat, corn, potatoes, dairy cows and small gardens, the staples of the cornucopia that is Asturias. This land however is now known most profoundly thanks to the marketing of Leche Asturiana - one of Spain's most accessible milk brands - showing pastures abundant with spotted black and white cows. However prevalent that image, Asturias remains a mystery to many Spanish nationals, and although tourism is starting to pick up, the coal mines and industry that lifted immigration in the 1940s and 1950s has long deflated; many have once again moved on to larger cities (many in foreign countries), with more job prospects and higher salaries.

Maria Jose and Jose Antonio have stuck it out. They're Asturianos by birth and have no intention to leave the land left to them by their forefathers. In 1994 they began their journey towards turning their modest plot of fertile terrain into an organic wonderland. In 2002 they moved forward in the COPEA with a certificate of organic agriculture and further launched their product, the faba Asturiana (plural fabes Asturianas) onto the market. To this day they maintain sales in-house; selling to neighbors, those who pass by the farm, and their storefront property La Huerta Vega in Gijon, one of the city's first organic markets. A kilo sells for 14 euros, expensive by legume standards, but rather fair for this specialty product, and still below gourmet store prices. A real deal considering the substance that this dish can provide the body, and a humble offering when you learn that J.Antonio is the one doing all of the field work - he only requires assistance in the summer months, when WWOOFers, mostly young international volunteers, come to Asturias to learn the ways of the land.

When we visit the finca, it's a chilly February afternoon. The region has just suffered one of its worst storms in years - winds of 120km, hail and freezing rain. Because of that, there is little to see - the fabes are resting until they'll be planted in May then harvested in September - but we do get a tour of the green house where they are successfully growing lettuce, squash, cabbage, broccoli, onions, and brezas an endemic species much like kale. A quick lesson in winter produce that we should all be well-versed in.

They welcome us into the kitchen, telling us that it's customary that Asturians accept their guests not in the living or dining room, but in the kitchen. A comforting warmth envelops us that is a blend of hospitality, a simmering wood-fire stove, and hot herbal tea - no doubt cultivated sustainably. We chat about the state of organic food in Asturias, one of the underdeveloped regions of Spain, and Spain as a whole, still decades behind other Northern European countries on the subject, but a market with potential, a wealthy land rich in nutrients and potential.  The crisis of course has put a damper on progress, and as much as we'd like to avoid the subject, the reality is that the majority of Spaniards currently shop at supermarkets, not weekend farmer's markets, and that the hunt for low prices stands above quality or health. Which brings us to another important lesson - education. Huerta La Vega is constantly battling the stereotype that organic foods are expensive, elitist produce for the wealthy and snobbish. "This is something we must break" recounts Maria Jose, defending that a gargantuan head of lettuce in her store goes for 1.40 euros, provides numerous servings and lasts for well over a week. The abuelitas of Gijon, little old ladies as they are affectionately called in Spain, have caught on, and pass by her store simply to purchase this item. Others elders buy organic simply because they are seeking flavors of their past, rich and earthy subtleties of the Asturias that once was. This region was famous for its apple production, the wet and humid, cool temperatures catalyzed plentiful harvests, for consumption and cider production - a custom that lives on through this day, but now requires reinforcements from Navarra or Catalonia to keep up with industrial demand.

But some things are changing, some things are slowing down to meet the demands of other needs, not consumption as first and foremost, but as quality, attention to detail and support of local businesses as paramount.

We had the opportunity to try three fabadas during our stay in Asturias; while I can't speak to the authenticity of the farm to table plate served up by Maria Jose of La Huerta Vega alongside the wooden bench in the kitchen, I can say that our experience taught us that in the big picture there is nothing to be scared of, that transparency; knowing who planted, harvested and cooked your food is perhaps the most relevant birthright we have at our disposal, and certainly one which deserves to be shared.

organic uncooked fava beans for Asturian fababa 

You can pay a visit to Huerta La Vega's organic produce market in:
Calle Ezcurdia nº 72 (esquina con la C/ Premio Real)


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