It’s curious how countries that have much in common culturally can be poles apart on specific customs or practices. You smugly think that you’re getting on fine and dandy, at one with the people around you, but then, all of a sudden, just when you think you’re settling into life in a foreign country, you’re hit out of the blue by something trivial and unexpected and you once more find yourself with a mild case of culture shock. Take for example cider; in Ireland and across most of the English-speaking world, it is predominantly a summer drink. In my mind cider will always be associated with mid-May’s teasing two-week scorcher leading up to exam time (ruefully known as “exam weather”) when, bunking off study for an afternoon, we would lounge in the shade of UCG’s quadrangle while we shot the breeze and the ice-cubes melted into our pints of Bulmers. In Spain, cider is a winter drink.
Indeed, cider is essentially a different drink in Spain than in Ireland. The bubbly, clear and amber fluid we have come to call cider back home is but a distant relative of the flat, turbid and brown-green liquid known as “sidra” in Spanish and “sagardoa” in Basque. You see in Spain (and particularly in the Basque region and Asturias, where cider production and drinking have a long tradition) they like their cider seasonal, fresh and unprocessed. The cider they drink would be considered “craft”, “farm-produced” or “scrumpy” back home (or the rougher stuff “homebrewed!). It’s not filtered or clarified (hence the yeast- and particle-derived turbidity), there’s very little in the way of process control during the fermentation (some of the cider I tried could do with the pH being upped) and it’s not carbonated (explaining its relative flatness compared with a can of Linden Village). Its lack of carbonation explains the way in which cider is drunk in Spain. So that it doesn’t go flat (or oxidize; traditional production methods render it prone to this), it is drunk quickly and in small quantities. Into something like a straight half-pint glass, the cider is poured from as high a distance as the pourer can manage. Hitting the surface of the glass aerates the liquid and renders it pleasantly bubbly for a short spell and this window of bubbliness is all the drinker has to savour the full taste of the cider in his/her glass. Therefore, only a couple of mouthfuls of cider are poured at a time (think of espresso coffee-like quantities). My first reaction upon hearing that cider was drunk in thimblefuls and not in pints was disgusted incredulity. “These crazy Spanish: Are they men or mice?” was a typical thought. Gradually, however I have been won over to the “small and often” side of the argument; skulling a pint of flat and increasingly oxidized alcoholic pea soup is just plain . . . loco!
Not exactly pea soup, because, in spite of its turbidity and strange un-cidery colour, sidra is a lovely drink, scrumptious in fact (if you’ll excuse the pun). It’s more appley and perfumed than the cider I’m used to, is less thin, and has a natural dryness that allows it to be taken with almost any kind of food. It also seems to lack the secondary effects of Irish cider – properties that led to its acquisition of the moniker “lunatic soup” when I was younger. (Although not having consumed more than three-four pints of sidra in any one session, perhaps the dosage has just been too low to induce cideradelia, as the Frank and Walters once called the altered state of mind brought on by the imbibing of double-figured numbers of pints of cider!)
Last weekend we paid a trip to a cider house (sidrería in Spanish,
sagardotegi in Basque) in the Basque province of Gipuzkoa. These establishments are half restaurant/half bodega (except instead of wine it’s cider), where the eatery is cheek-by-jowl with the giant barrels in which the cider is fermented and (and this is the killer app, as they say in business-speak) the barrels are tapped and access to the wondrous liquid inside is unrestricted! Yes, you understood correctly; cider houses are all-you-can-drink, free-bar kinda places! Obviously this business model would not survive long in Ireland, but in Basque country, where alcohol is used more moderately, people tend not to do the dog. Tipples are certainly had. Merriness and well-being certainly increases as the evening wears on, but last Saturday I didn’t see anyone stretchered out of the place.
Cider house season lasts from mid January to April/May. Even if you’re not a fan of cider, a trip to a cider house is recommended if you like your Spanish or Basque cuisine. We were served high-quality cod (bacalao), cod omelette and steak – pretty standard fare at these places – and our party was charged around thirty euro per head. Going to a sagardotegi is a fine opportunity to witness Basque culture and hear the language being slurred. You can even join in the txotx – when everyone at a table goes to a barrel for a shot of cider – and appraise people’s pouring techniques (which diminish as the evening wears on). Remember to dress warm though. The temperature gauges on the barrels of our cider house read three degrees Celsius.