While researching the prospect of bringing nutrition students to Oviedo, Spain, next summer for a medical, language, culinary and wine-tasting "Eur-odyssey," I enjoyed the local fare and did some writing while eating alone one afternoon.
I stopped writing when hard apple cider suddenly sprayed my eye. As per "cider house rules," the waiter had poured it from above his head into a deep, wide-brimmed tumbler glass held at an angle below his waist. Cider gets aerated and frees up aroma through this Asturian ritual. The technique can be performed most artfully, as a torero would coax the bull, or a flamenco dancer performs her art. In sidrerias (cider-serving bar/restaurants) where they pour cider, one can't help but watch the servers.
As the spraying incident unfolded — and a woman at the next table got misted ankles as well — I was anxiously awaiting a dish of Fabada Asturiana, a soup of sausage and "lacon" (uncured, cooked pork) stewed in tomato broth and white beans. When it arrived, I was a bit surprised by the amount of meat in the dish. My American expectation of a whole sausage and slab of lacon was unmet. I got a mere piece of sausage and a trozo (cube, chunk) of lacon. As I ate the delicious stew, I was reminded that Europeans don't typically eat the quantity of meat per meal that we're used to.
Thus, a lunch that would be considerable in saturated fat and cholesterol is lower because the meat is being used more as a flavor/condiment than as the central source of protein — portion control, Asturian-style. The beans contain protein, yet they also have lots of soluble fiber, which helps lower cholesterol absorption. The tomatoes feature lycopene, a plant chemical that protects our cells and shows promise for cancer resistance. Moreover, since the meal was lunch, I still had the opportunity to burn those considerable calories walking around, even fueling my brain for several more hours.
Well, perhaps the cider interfered with that a bit, yet as with grape wine, the acidity enhances fat digestion. Though apples are not notably high in vitamins, they have respectable antioxidant values, thus further protecting our genes and cells with their distinctive plant-chemical profile.
We don't have to travel thousands of miles to capitalize on the benefits of a European diet. We can make our own stateside stew, teeming with tomatoes and beans of choice, using local, grass-fed meats for flavor and adding herbs. Pear cider may be the perfect accompaniment.
Michael Altman is a nutritionist at Ventana Wellness in Medford and the Centre for Natural Healing in Ashland. He also teaches at Southern Oregon University and College of the Siskiyous. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org