Gluttonous Gijón: A tour of the city through 5 desserts
Sometimes the city where you plan the least amount of time, turns out to be the one you wish you could linger in longer.
Gijón was one of these cities for me.
I was doing a quick 3-day spin through the 3 main cities of Asturias, and I figured that I would make Avilés my base, and spend half a day and the evenings there, because it was closest to the airport and the also closest to my next stop in Galicia. I planned a whole day trip to Oviedo, because it is Asturias’s largest city, and the one I had heard about the most. And I would spend the final half-day in Gijón along the coast, before heading back to Avilés to collect my bags and take the bus to Galicia.
My first impressions of Gijón was just so-so, since the walk from the bus station to the waterfront wasn’t the prettiest. But that impression quickly turned around when I encountered the most helpful staff in the tourist information office on one of the piers. Amazing how it’s really the people that form one’s opinion about a place!
They plied me with a city map, a special pamphlet about the museums when I mentioned I was interested in visiting the Laboral art center of interactive art, a booklet of the Natural Cider Festival which was going on that week, and they even went into the back to find a special English-language Gijón-specific city guide produced by Lonely Planet!
I had learned the night before that there was a program the city had, which gave you 5 or 7 tickets to sample desserts throughout the city. Called Gijón Goloso in Spanish (it’s actually not alliterative because the G in Gijón is pronounced like an H, while the G in Goloso is a hard G as in the word Go), it’s correctly translated as Sweet-toothed Gijón. But Gluttonous Gijón would be a translation! You exchange each ticket for one specially selected dessert at participating pastry shops.
The friendly tourist information guy told me that I could actually spend more than one ticket at the same establishment if I wanted more than one dessert of the same kind, I could share my tickets with someone else, and I could use the tickets up to a year later. “So that you don’t have to eat all 5 desserts in one day, haha!” he laughed.
Haha, I thought, knowing that I would need to sample all 5 desserts not in one day, but half a day!
The guy also informed me that “since it’s a Friday,” there’s a 30% discount on the coupons, so the 7€ price for 5 desserts turned into 5€. Is it really true that the day I happen to be in town, turns out to be the day that that particular program was on sale, or did he offer me the discount to close the sale? I will never know, but I thought that 7€ was already quite a low price, and 5€ was practically stealing.
So of course I bought the coupons, a cardboard sheet with perforated squares of 1-5 printed on them, and they came with a beautifully prepared booklet talking about each dessert you could sample, along with some explanation about the pastry shop and pastry chef. Then there was also a map showing the location of all of the pastry shops.
There are a total of 19 pastry shops, of which I was only able to try 5, but here are my rankings of the 5!
First place: The Amagüestu from Pomme Sucre
This was my very most favorite dessert, by far!
First, it might be useful to mention that one of the main ingredients of the Asturias region is the apple. You could see this on prominent display just walking through their town hall square, which was decked out for the annual Natural Cider Festival.
Whereas in Valencia these might be oranges decorating the balcony, in Gijón, they were apples.
So here it wasn’t a surprise that there was a pastry shop named Pomme Sucre, Apple Sugar.
And their creation for the Gijón Goloso tasting was the Amagüestu, which is an autumnal celebration in Asturias where lots of cider is consumed.
And apropos of the festivities and the season, this dessert featured a soft, moist cake filled with nutty, creamy stewed chestnuts, just barely sweet. This on its own was indulgent with an earthy flavor, but the whole cake was topped with hazelnuts for an added crunch and nuttiness, and glazed with an apple cider jam for a punch of acid and sweetness.
I was in heaven eating this! I loved it so much, that I considered returning at the end and spending my 5th and final coupon on a second serving!
Second place (tie): Pelayos from Collada
For second place, it was a tossup between two desserts that featured apple more prominently. Back in the Cimavilla neighborhood, which borders the main city beach San Lorenzo…
…was a pastry shop named Collada.
Whereas Pomme Sucre had a modern interior, this one was pretty old school, kind of cluttered with tons of things for sale. And it was their “Pelayo” that was the selected treat for Gijón Goloso. I was super glad to have the coupon to exchange for a Pelayo, because otherwise they only sell them in boxes with a minimum of 3. With just one I could have a taste without committing myself to more!
The Pelayo is basically almond marzipan, filled with kind of an apple jelly.
This was intensely sweet, but with an intense tartness to balance out the sweet - and the overall effect was like a sucker punch to the face! Writing this post, my mouth is watering because I can just taste that wallop of sourness looking at the picture of the Pelayo.
Second place (tie): Lazones from A Danas
A bit out of the city center (actually on the way to the Fabada restaurant where I ate lunch) was A Danas, where I found a subtler treatment of the apple jelly.
Like the Pelayos from Collada, the Lazones de Gijón from Danas are a signature pastry of the store, and you can buy boxes full of these.
When I read the description of “hazelnut-filled almond bow,” I was picturing a Nutella-like hazelnut paste, which honestly didn’t thrill me. Instead, what it was were ground hazelnuts lightly sweetened, piped into the ends of the bow.
Inside of the almond cookie - firm but with some give - was a core of apple jelly. It’s kind of hanging in there like a sweet surprise, surrounded by nuttiness.
Now, lest you think that I ate one dessert after another, I can assure you that I did not! I actually had the pastry above after going back to Avilés, and the next one the day after in Galicia.
During a break from dessert-hunting, I visited the Universidad Laboral, considered to be Spain’s largest building with the tallest stone building. It’s really a massive, almost dehumanizing space. Apparently, the structure was created in the 1940s after a mining accident orphaned many children, and in response a foundation was set up to care after the orphans, and this school was built for educating them. I thought it was worth a short bus ride out of town to see, especially since connected to it is the LABoral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial, which specializes in interactive art.
Fourth Place: Princesitas de la Playa and Pastas de Nuez from La Playa
Back in town, and actually right next to Pomme Sucre, was my fourth place dessert.
In the Gijón Goloso book, they said the dessert selection of the shop was the Princesita de la Playa. But actually they gave me one of those, their main specialty created in 1921, plus a Pasta de Nuez, which was also apparently one of their famous creations.
The Princesita is made from sugar, almonds, and egg yolk, and glazed in sugar. Man, this was sweet. And unlike the Pelayo, there’s nothing to balance the sweet. It was like eating pure sugar.
I liked the Pasta de Nuez a bit more. Two crunchy cookies sandwiched a layer of praline, and the whole thing was dipped in chocolate and topped with a walnut half. This was nutty and less sweet, though not particularly special, in my opinion.
Fifth Place: the Bosque Astur from Balbona
Balbona is located in the historic center of town.
Gijón’s center gave me an old-timey feeling.
Balbona, located on Calle Cabrales, was also a pretty old-timey, with a parlor in the back in which you could have lunch or a coffee.
Unfortunately, this was my least favorite dessert, and I must stress that this opinion is highly personal. First and foremost, I knew the cake was flavored with Asturia’s famous Cabrales blue cheese (the same name as the street the store’s on!), and I actually don’t like Cabrales that much but was curious to try it in a dessert. So I suppose, Cabrales in a sweet pastry is something I dislike as much as Cabrales plain.
However, maybe what bothered me a bit more was that while every other pastry shop’s offering was exactly what was pictured in the booklet (or I was given even more than what was pictured, like the pasta de nuez from La Playa), the Bosque Astur (Asturian forest) didn’t match the picture or description.
First, the picture shows a sprinkling of Cabrales blue cheese on top. Okay, I could do without that, since I’m not a big fan of the cheese. but then the description said that it was “filled with chestnut and crunchy hazelnut.” Honestly, I just tasted yellow cake with the strong flavor of cheese. I couldn’t discern any chestnut, and there was certainly no textural contrast with crunch. It was pretty much yellow cake through and through.
Of course, any tasting is likely to have misses along with the hits. And at the end of the day, what made this dessert treasure hunt through Gijón particularly interesting, was that I really felt the pastry chefs designed (and selected for the program) desserts that could uniquely belong to Gijón and the Asturias, with their selection of ingredients from apples to chestnuts, and even Cabrales cheese.
In Valencia, I can’t say I’ve come across the same sensation that pastry chefs have an urge to innovate, create new traditions, and creatively incorporate local ingredients. In fact, the only pastry shops I can think of basically fall into two camps: the “traditional” one with the same selections of sheet cake, palmeras, and muffins in each store, and the “modern” one with desserts popularized outside of Spain like cupcakes and donuts. I’ve gotten used to these two types of pastry shops, so it was a pleasant surprise to see this work going on in Gijón. And bravo to the tourism folks for thinking u[ this concept of dessert tastings throughout the city, and enrolling the pastry shops!