The Basque Country’s Golden Rule of Cider
Spain and the Basque Country share the same passion for food and wine, but the Basques also consume huge quantities of cider, a taste not shared in southern Spain. Called Sagardoa, this sour, low alcohol drink is actually a probiotic food, one that is so healthy, the life expectancy of Basque women is 86.2 years, the highest in the European Union. And Basque men, at 80.3 years, have a higher life expectancy than all but Swedish men, who can expect to live an average .1 of a year longer. Basque longevity is at least partly attributed to their lifestyle and diet. That includes drinking plenty of cider.
Cider Houses (“sagardotegis”) are Seasonal Restaurants
Basque cider is healthful in another way. It has spawned a huge family recreational activity called Cider Houses. (“sagardotegis” is Basque for “cider house”)They are like the Canadian (maple) Sap Houses, only here, instead of maple syrup production and yummy things to eat like poutine, truckloads of apples are turned into huge barrels of cider each fall. Then the restaurant, with dining halls lined with these massive barrels, opens for business and stays open until the cider runs out. Families and friends gather to eat, drink and entertain themselves.
Just outside of San Sebastian is the Alorrenea Cider House, where quantities of cider are consumed and 100s of people are fed each day in their vast halls. While normally I would go to a restaurant and say I dined there, in the Cider House I did more than that, I experienced Basque culture and an important part of Basque family life. Going to a Cider House turns out to be an event.
Communal Dining Without Plates
First off, the dining is communal. Different groups will be seated at the same long table, although each group orders their own food. Even that is simple. Are you having a small or a large meal? The courses are set, and the quantity based upon how many in your party, so all you have to decide is how hungry you are and how long you plan on staying. The large meal has more courses; maybe a salad, an egg & potato omelet, and a huge plate of sausage are added. I was so busy people watching I lost track of the platters being carried to other tables.
We ordered the small meal because we didn’t have time (not to mention room in our stomachs) to stay and spend the afternoon eating. That meant we were seated across from one another separated by a long baguette of bread in the middle of the table. At our place-settings were big cloth napkins and utensils – no plates. Would the four of us be eating from the same serving platter?
Cod Served Two Ways
Our first course was a huge, fluffy, salt cod omelet. If you think the cod/egg combination is an odd pairing, let me assure you – it works! I love cod. It was delicious. I wish my omelets were that puffy and good. And while at first it seemed a bit odd for four people to be sharing the same plate, by the time it was empty we were all comfortable with the idea. It seemed normal, and everyone around us was doing the same thing. If you wanted bread to wipe the platter with, just pick up the loaf and rip a piece off. We did!
Our next course was the same sized platter filled with pieces of cod smothered in green peppers. They weren’t bell peppers, but a slender, milder, more complex tasting one. Again – a delicious combination of flavors. I don’t know how salt cod can taste so good in Spain and so blah when I make it at home, but it is a dish I never tire of when I visit.
The Ritual of Pouring the Cider had to be Mastered
Our place-settings also included a short, squat glass. One wall of the hall was lined with huge barrels of cider. The plan was to pick a barrel, any barrel, and master the ritual of the pour. The spigot points straight out of the barrel high up the front. The idea is to hold your glass low and an arm’s length from the barrel and open the spigot so the cider shoots out 4 or more feet into your glass.
As if that feat were not enough to master, you then bring your glass forward following the stream of cider up while the next person holds their glass where yours was. When your glass is about a third full you pull it out of the stream and the person behind you begins the same ritual. If you are lucky there are only a few behind you. Luckier still are the ones just filling their glasses and leaving you to continue the pour. Either way, there is a connection made with perfect strangers until you become one of their group too.
Sometimes there will be singing, always in the Basque language so it is difficult to sing along, and occasionally someone will have an accordion or bagpipe, and the whole jovial atmosphere becomes even more so as we sway shoulder-to-shoulder in time with the music. Little kids stop running around to dance, sometimes with their parents, and we all have a jolly time.
The Meat Always Looks Too Rare
Then more food comes out. For us it was a meat course. Picture a huge rib steak about two inches thick, crusty dark on the outside and blue in the middle. I’ve eaten in cider houses throughout the Basque Country and it is always the same. I think just once I’d like it medium-rare. The raw look is off-putting, unless you’re Basque until you carve off a piece and start chewing. Then you find it is amazingly good! That’s when I realize I wouldn’t change a thing.
Well, the cider is a bit sour for my taste, but it grows on me. And while no one gets drunk, there is a looser, more relaxed feeling to the room after folks have poured from the unlimited cider barrel a few times. That was about when the idea of another steak took hold, so we pretended to be cannibals one more time with another unbelievable slab of raw meat. Gnawing on the rib, I was glad for the dish-towel sized napkin yet again.
The final course is always Idiazabal cheese, membrillo (quince paste), and whole walnuts still in the shell. The walnuts are such a Basque tradition that there was a complimentary bowl of them in my room at the Miro Hotel in Bilbao. We cracked nuts, drank more cider, and finished off the last of the bread with the cheese. By then I felt like I was at an extended family holiday dinner – my newly found Basque family – and I realized yet again how much fun a sagardotegis can be.