Where to stay
Castilla Termal Balneario de Solares
Nestled amid ancient parkland close to Cabárceno National Park, this elegant building was home to the first natural thermal station in the region in the early 20th century. Today, its top-notch spa uses thermal waters that flow from the Fuencaliente spring, while rooms are classic and crisp. Doubles from £69. Avenida Calvo Sotelo 13, Solares, 00 34 942 521 313, castillatermal.com
Eurostars Hotel Real
This Santander stalwart’s location is hard to beat. The Daz-white hilltop palace was built to host King Alfonso XIII’s entourage in the early 1900s. Old-world sophistication meets belle epoque glamour – think antique furniture, sumptuous furnishings and chandeliers aplenty. Set in pretty gardens with views over the Bay of Santander. Doubles from £77. Paseo Perez Galdos 28, Santander, 08435 080 328, eurostarshotels.co.uk
Hotel Casona Malvasía
A beautiful wood-framed manor house, named for the grape variety most common in the hotel’s vineyard. A delightful base from which to explore the mountain culture of the Liébana region on the edge of the Picos de Europa, Cantabria’s richest source of indigenous food and drink. Doubles from £76. Barrio Cabariezo, Cabezón de Liébana, 00 34 942 735 148, hotelcasonamalvasia.com
Hotel Palacio de Soñanes
A magnificent 18th-century baroque palace with 30 guestrooms, swimming pool, high-quality restaurant, pretty gardens and library, in a beautiful valley setting ideal for visiting the Valles Pasiegos. Doubles from £105. Barrio Quintanal 1, Villacarriedo, 00 34 942 590 600, abbapalaciodesonaneshotel.com
Parador de Limpias
Set in impressive mature gardens, a sternly luxurious early-20th-century main building with a massive oak staircase, stained-glass window and spacious hall, augmented by a modern wing of attractive and elegantly furnished bedrooms. Doubles from £70. Calle Fuente del Amor, Limpias, 00 34 942 628 900, keytel.co.uk
Parador de Santillana Gil Blas
One of Spain’s original paradores. Occupying an 18th-century stone palace on one the central squares of this perfectly preserved museum town, with a lovely walled garden, this is a choice billet for visitors to Santillana. Handily poised at the gateway to the Altamira cave. Doubles from £96. Plaza Ramón Pelayo 11, Santillana del Mar, 00 34 942 818 000, keytel.co.uk
Cantabria is the smallest of four regions on the northern Atlantic coast that comprise Green Spain. Currency is the euro. Time is one hour ahead of GMT. Flight time from London to the capital, Santander, is around 2 hours. In June, the average high temperature is 21C and the average low temperature is 13C.
Brittany Ferries sail from Plymouth and Portsmouth to Santander, from £120 return on foot; £364 per car. brittanyferries.com
Ryanair offers regular flights to Santander from Edinburgh and London Stansted airports, from £45 return.ryanair.com
Spanish Tourist Office is the official tourist board and its website has a host of information on hand for planning a trip to Cantabria. spain.info
Fun & Food’s Carmen Sampedro Cordero has the inside line on Cantabria’s culinary charms and can help you discover the region’s finest producers. funandfood.com.es
To offset your carbon emissions when travelling to Cantabria, visit climatecare.org and make a donation. Return flights from London produce 0.3 tonnes of CO2 meaning a cost to offset of £2.45.
Where to eat
Prices are per person for three courses with wine, unless otherwise stated
Busy central pinchos bar and restaurant serving a selection of delicious and refined small plates and full courses, which can be ordered as half or full raciones. Duck liver, caramelised apples and emulsion of pasiego cheese crop up in combination with bacalao, seafood and superb local charcuterie. From £31. Daoíz y Velarde 23, Santander, 00 34 942 035 238
Bodega del Riojano
A Santander institution, known for its beautiful and cavernous tavern interior and ranks of great wall-mounted wine barrels decorated by painters, some illustrious, and its copious and impeccable traditional plates, such as pastel de cabracho (scorpion fish paté) and snails à la Riojana. From £21; tapas plates from £2. Calle Rio de la Pila 5, Santander, 00 34 942 216 750, bodegadelriojano.com
This classy city restaurant has it all: pinchos bar, watering hole, and a substantial sit-down menu out back. Expect contemporary takes on regional cuisine such as Liébana chorizo croquetas, salt-baked hake and stews. From £32; tapas plates from £1.50. Calle Gómez Oreña 15, Santander, 00 34 942 314 149, restaurantecanadio.com
Cosy old-fashioned bar-restaurant just off the historic centre of the attractive town of Comillas, located behind a beautiful wood and multiple-paned glass facade, with a petite front terrace. Modestly priced traditional Cantabrian dishes include cocido montañés, fresh fish and a very good arroz con bogavante (rice with lobster). From £26. Calle Ignacio Fernández de Castro 11, Comillas, 00 34 942 722 446
Hotel del Oso
Close to the gastronomic heartland on the slopes of the Picos, this elegant restaurant is frequented by locals and visitors, who come in many cases to taste one of the finest available versions of the celebrated cocido stew of the Liébana region. From £35. Cosgaya, Camaleño, 00 34 942 733 018, hoteldeloso.com
Hostería de Quijas
Dining room with old colonial furniture dating back to 18th-century Cuba, and cooking of great skill from a chef experienced in San Sebastián’s top kitchens. Expect salt cod with crisply fried cod skin, beautifully chosen and cooked veal or lamb, accompanied by potatoes two ways: a gratin with onions and crisp wafers. From £44. Barrio Vinueva, Quijas, 00 34 942 820 833, hosteriadequijas.com
El Jardín de Gil Blas
Good food served in either the big conservatively furnished dining room or in the charming patio garden. Excellent set menu with four starters including fresh squid, Santoña anchovies and clams from Pedreña in green sauce, plus a delicious entrecôte of local veal with fried potatoes and peppers, or specialities such as sea bream baked in rock salt and cocido montañés. From £44. Plaza Ramón Pelayo 11, Santillana del Mar, 00 34 942 028 028, keytel.co.uk
Situated in a harbourside edifice dating from the early 19th century, its big arched windows overlooking the fishing fleet, this is a classic purveyor of seafood from Santoña and the adjacent fishing port of Castro Urdiales, all fairly priced by weight, as well as succulent meat dishes and pinchos. From £44. Calle Correria 23, Castro Urdiales, 00 34 942 860 005, mesonmarinero.com
Fresh catch of the day plucked from the brackish waters of the Bay of Biscay comes courtesy of the nearby market at this Michelin-starred restaurant. Other local specialities put to good epicurean use include tender Tudanca beef loin with coriander pesto and pine nuts, and Cantabrian cheese ice cream with honey and quince. From £41. Calle Andrés del Río 7, Santander, 00 34 942 222 515, elserbal.com
- Almejas a la marinera
- Clams cooked in garlic and white wine,a typical dish of Santander also found across the entire of Green Spain
- Baby elvers. A pricey delicacy eaten with wooden forks so as not to compromise their flavour, not to be mistaken for near-identical gulas, their processed imitation form, which is often served as pinchos
- Anchovies, typically from the Cantabrian Sea. A speciality from Santoña, mostly found canned in oil. Look out for the fresh ones as boquerones in pinchos form, marinated in vinegar and olive oil
- Bonito del norte
- Tuna, which is grilled and stewed when in season,or preserved in olive oil and served in salads with roasted red peppers
- Brazo de gitano
- The Pas area’s version of a Swiss roll
- Bacon, ham, sausages – the best are from Liébana’s pigs
- Cocido montañés
- Emblematic dish of the region; a rich stew using compango (see above) and morcilla (black pudding) with potato, cabbage and local white beans. The variation cocido lebaniego includes dried beef and chickpeas from the town of Potes. Typically the soupy element of the dish is eaten as a starter, and the rest as the main
- T-bone veal steak, often from Tudanca cattle
- Wettish curd cheese from Selaya in the Valles Pasiegos area;a staple of Cantabrian breakfasts. Queso de nata is a local soft cheese
- Quesucos de
- Liébana Circular, buttery cheese made with a mix of cow’s, sheep’s and goat’s milk, smoked over juniper for a woody flavour. Áliva is another smoked cheese from the Picos area, with tangy notes
- Quesada pasiega
- Cantabrian cheesecake made with fresco
- Strong blue cheese from the Picos de Europa area
- Rabas fritas
- Calamari fried in batter, a Santander pinchos staple
- Fresh bonito (longfin tuna) stewed with onions and potatoes
- The region’s ubiquitous patiserrie. Rich, dense, egg-heavy sponge with hints of lemon and rum. Served at breakfast, or as a warm dessert with custard and, in the autumn, with jams of foraged fruit
- Olla ferroviaria
- ‘Railway cook pot’ – a veal stew with potatoes, garlic, onion, carrots and pepper, originally cooked for the first railwaymen on the 1895 Bilbao line and kept hot in a double metal cauldron on legs
- Colloquially ‘firewater’. Kicky local grape pomace from the Liébana area, specifically Potes. The aged gran reserve is softer than the raw spirit, which is grappa-like. Some are flavoured with honey or wild herbs
- Large, oval local potatoes
Food and Travel Review
Tucked between the Basque provinces to the east and the wild Atlantic coast of Galicia to the west, beautiful and beguiling Cantabria is Spain's fifth-smallest region. It's a land of broad sand beaches, rocky bays, and sweeping green hills culminating in
the Picos de Europa mountain range and national park, which
celebrates its centenary this year. In food terms, it’s classic
mar y montaña territory, or ‘surf and turf’ in Anglo speak.
Arriving in the capital, Santander, an elegant Edwardian resort where ferries disgorge carloads of Brits from Plymouth, we check out the sea. Surfers ride the waves on the wide expanse of Sardinero beach, overlooked by grand 19th-century edifices – the Hotel Real, the Palacio de la Magdalena, the Casino – which attest to the city’s heyday as summer holiday destination of the Spanish royalty and plutocracy. Plus, parked startlingly in the middle of the central seafront like a stranded 1950s space ship, their 21st-century equivalent, a brand new mini Guggenheim-esque arts complex, a gift, some say not entirely wanted, from local boy Emilio Botín, chairman of the world-conquering Banco Santander.
A couple of streets away, behind the Cathedral and the Ayuntamiento, the ornate stone facade of the Mercado de la Esperanza conceals hundreds of stallholders doing brisk business. The basement, devoted to the gleamingly professional stands of the fishmongers, is the place to identify the harvest from the Cantabrian Sea. Tuna, sardines, hake, lobsters, crayfish, prawns, crabs, clams in half a dozen sizes, sea urchins in the autumn. And a curiosity: jars of gulas, almost identical visually to angulas – baby elvers – eagerly snapped up at £35 a kilo during their winter season, but actually imitations, made like surimi of processed fish.
At lunchtime, gulas appear with scrambled eggs on the pinchos (tapas) menu of bars like El Diluvio and Asubio, and other eating places whose modest entrances hide cavernous interiors busily dispensing a creative range of small dishes: bacalao (cod) in tempura with aïoli, tuna tartare with duck liver, tripe tortilla. And fabulous local anchovies, but that’s a whole other subject, which we will get to.
Then, we hit the road towards the montaña, and we’re soon among Cantabria’s most prominent non-human population. Cattle dot the lush meadows: black and white Friesians, cream and caramel Limousins and, on hillier pastures, the delicate grey native Tudancas with their lyre-shaped horns, white muzzles and black kohl-lined eyes. In Ampuero, just down the road from our destination for the night, the Parador de Limpias, there’s another species, fighting bulls. In autumn the encierros – the pre-corrida running of the bulls – are among the half-dozen most celebrated in Spain.
Higher on our agenda than taunting cattle, however, is a good dinner. The Parador de Limpias obliges. Formerly known as the Palacio de Eguilior, built in the early 1900s by a local man who rose to become Count of Albox, this is a big, square, modernist mansion of grey granite, surrounded by tall trees and atmospheric gardens shrouded (as is often the case in this verdant part of Spain) in thick mist. Entirely credible are reports of it being the site of hauntings by various deceased members of the Eguilior household. The old river port of Limpias on its marshy estuary is atmospheric, too, especially at night, and once did a good line in witches, according to 17th-century records of the local Inquisition at Logroño.
The modern parador dining room is haunted only by the spirit of conviviality, with a calm but serious atmosphere and a cheery hum of conversation. We order cocido montañés, a rich stew of pork, potatoes, cabbage, parsley and pulses, one of the region’s most emblematic dishes. It’s delicious, as is a soup of beans and clams in a tawny-coloured broth. For afters, we enjoy a terrific old-fashioned dessert of sobao (sponge cake) filled with custard and served in a light crème anglaise.
The following day it’s more hills and more cows, in this case, of the dairy variety. We head to the town of Selaya, in the Valles Pasiegos, another area rich in folklore and food, from wall-vaulting to personalised butter-stamping. We’re looking for cheese, but time first for an exploration of a more recent product, wine. We take the winding hill road up to the vineyard of Sel D’Aiz, whose rows of vines stretch between the wide valley below and the huge sky above. ‘We planted albariño, riesling and godello because they withstand the cold and rain,’ says Miriam Pinto, one of the family that founded the business. Although small pockets of winemaking have existed for centuries, most of the new winemakers are pioneers and their products relatively scarce on restaurant wine lists, which concentrate for regionality on the Ribera del Duero or the very popular Galician albariño. Cantabria is also a major producer of cider, though not to the extent of it’s neighbour Asturias, and of a grape-pomace brandy of ancient origin called orujo. Produced around the town of Potes in the Liébana Valley, its celebrated, grappa-like kick has led to the moniker ‘firewater’. Needless to say, there’s now Cantabrian gin, too, notably the Siderit brand, whose elegant labels adorn all the smartest bars.
Detour complete, we press on to La Jarradilla, one of the stars of the flourishing Cantabrian artisan cheese scene. Proprietors Álvaro Carral Sáinz and Rosario Gomez Gutiérrez greet us in the dairy, immaculately white and stainless steel apart from the faint grey mould stains on the ceiling, a valued sign not of poor hygiene but of the vigorous microbiological character of their operation. Women are preparing the daily trolley loads of fresco, a bland wettish curd cheese beloved of Cantabrian breakfasts. ‘You know what Mary Holbrook said about our fresco?’ laughs Álvaro. ‘It’s not even cheese, it’s completely pointless.’ Álvaro’s knowledge of British cheese gurus like Holbrook stems from a seminal period working in Neal’s Yard in Covent Garden before returning to his home village and joining Rosario in taking over her parents’ small farm. Rosario’s mother diversified into cheesemaking at La Jaradilla in the 1980s when the arrival of EU quotas and the fashion for sterilisation and uniformity was killing the traditional dairy farms and depopulating the valleys. Now La Jarradilla supports a community of a dozen family members, committed not just to a job but to the continuation of life in the country. Cantabria’s relatively laissez faire governance works in the region’s favour, according to Álvaro. In the neighbouring Basque Country, the government promotion of prestige gastronomy has involved heavy investment in one flagship cheese, Idiazábal, with the result that others have tended to wither away. Cantabrian cheesemakers, left to their own devices, are flourishing, as La Jarradilla’s tasting demonstrates: lovely delicate Cantal- like braniza, buttery, soft divirín or the aged pasiego with its rough-crusted rind redolent of mushroom, cabbage and forest floor.
The sequel of cheese is, of course, dessert. Conveniently, Selaya is home to a number of bakeries specialising in the local patisserie extraordinaire, a sort of rich sponge cake with rum (sometimes orujo) or lemon known as a sobao, which we come to realise is ubiquitous throughout the region and the day: served cold at breakfast or hot at supper as in the fine Limpias dessert. Even more conveniently, Álvaro’s family run Joselín, one of the best of Selaya’s bakeries in what looks like a multi-car garage beneath their village house, adorned with a large banner of Our Lady of Valvanuz, the virgin whose bell-towered sanctuary watches over the town. We leave laden with sobaos and quesada pasiega, (Cantabrian cheesecake), the valley’s other claim to patisserie fame.
Sweeping back down to the Atlantic, we check into the Parador de Santillana Gil Blas, by a road dotted with backpacking pilgrims en route to Santiago de Compostela. ‘You know Northern Spain has three great S-es,’ says our hostess. ‘San Sebastián, Santander and Santiago, but we always say there’s a fourth.’ Sobao? I’m tempted to interject, thinking of the bulk in my luggage. No, it’s Santillana del Mar, the remarkable complex of medieval and baroque buildings we’ve come to visit. Along with the nearby Palaeolithic cave paintings of Altamira, the cobbled streets of Santillana draw the crowds, with a concomitant profusion of traveller-friendly restaurants.
Santillana reminds me of Trinidad, Cuba’s similarly exquisite but touristy colonial jewel. The connection doesn’t stop there; the town, and its near neighbour, the little port of Comillas, are centres of Indiano influence. Indianos are the emigrants who left impoverished Spain to seek fortune in the colonies, often Cuba, and returned rich to build mansions, railways and hospitals. Comillas’s most extravagant example is the extraordinary Gaudí house El Capricho.
In spite of their striking visual enhancement, the Indianos have had relatively little impact on their homeland in terms of food. The culinary exchange went the other way, with the exception of rum, implanting a taste for creolised Spanish cocidos in Cuba. But we come across a fine coincidence of Indiano architecture and cooking 5km from Santillana, in the hotel restaurant of the Hostería de Quijas. Here, a retired butcher and his Arzak-trained chef son have transformed an ancient stone house complete with chapel and original mahogany beams and furnishings into a haven of good food. Chef Rufino Castañeda serves us salt cod with crisps of fried cod skin, superb veal chops and a fresco ice cream served with a locally-foraged bilberry compote. Meanwhile, his father Demetrio explains why meat from working Tudanca cows is best, dismissing the penchant for hanging beef for longer than 28 days.
But tempus is fugitting and there’s still a major item left on the fish agenda. The aristocrats of Cantabrian seafood are anchovies. In Santillana, our waitress at El Jardín de Gil Blas briefs us sternly on how to eat them – ‘By themselves, and sucking slowly to get the full taste’. The result is meaty, rich and salty. The port at Santoña is anchovy mecca. Approaching from the west, you pass the wide beaches of the Costa Esmeralda, which change to the Costa Trasmiera near the elegant promenade of Laredo. Then you enter Santoña port and town centre, before emerging at the edge of a spacious lagoon, flanked by a line of conservas (artisan canning producers) – Ana María, Catalina, which received a Great Taste award a couple of years back, and Sanfilippo – overlooked across marshes by the historic prison of El Dueso, Cantabria’s Dartmoor.
We’re shown round Conservas Emilia, a family firm and leader in
the local canning industry, whose founder has her portrait on the
wall, and dauntingly entitled biography, The Bitter Husk, on sale at
reception. Rows of white-clad women trim each tiny fillet to
perfection before manoeuvring it expertly into vertical layers in a jar
or tin, a scene reminiscent of Cuban cigar factory. Tasting an
anchovy raw before re-immersion in olive oil (never extra virgin; too
strong a taste) is the nec plus ultra of anchovy snobbery. Afterwards,
the on-site shop beckons, with visitors snapping up discount
anchovies in smart packaging like cut-price garbs at a designer
outlet. Just the thing to crown a gastronomic trip to Cantabria,
though you may have to jettison a couple of kilos of sponge cake
if you overdid it earlier in the sobao bakeries.
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