When we opened the door, it was like we had been transported to a 10th century Viking banquet, but with fewer horned helmets and a lot more boinas. Long wooden communal tables were lined with loaves of bread and checkered napkins. People helped themselves from the huge wooden barrels that lined the walls. Miguel peeked in the kitchen and saw the slabs of chuleta waiting to be cut- with an axe.
In Madrid, you can throw a rock and the probability that it’ll hit an Asturian-style sidrería is pretty high. One could argue that fabada, cachopo and cider are the Holy Trinity of northern Spanish cuisine. And of course, pouring is half the fun. But until I moved to Gipuzkoa and unwittingly landed in a pueblo that literally had sidra running through its veins, I wasn’t aware that Asturian cider had a Basque sister.
As it turns out, my beloved eskola txikia was in the heart of traditional Basque cider country, a slice of apple orchards and farmland in the hilly bits of Gipuzkoa. Although it was a town with only 500 inhabitants, it boasted two large, family-owned sagardotegiak that were well-known in the area (see the end of the post for a pronunciation and definition guide). Whenever I mentioned to people that I worked in a place called “Mendia,” they would do one of two things: wonder what on earth I was doing in a tiny mountain town or reminisce about how good the tortilla de bacalao/chuleta/sidra was the last time they paid a visit.
Sagardotegiak are not for the faint of heart nor the vegetable-minded. For me, half the fun is that there is a set three course menu so you don’t have to waste any time thinking about what to eat and you can focus on what’s really important: which barrel you’re going to try next.
These meals are multi-hour affairs. In between each course (and during), people get up from the tables and congregate around the kupelak to line up and pour themselves their next glass. Each large barrel holds cider at different stages of fermentation, with its own distinct flavor. I was told that 2018’s cider estará muy hecha, will be really fermented, because of the relatively warm winter.
Getting the cider into your glass requires a bit of technique and some waterproof shoes. First you pick the kupela you want to try and get in line. Then, you hold your glass at an angle a good arm’s length away from the spigot, behind the glass that’s in front of yours. When the barrel is opened and the cider starts flowing, you slowly move the glass up toward the barrel until you have a few fingers’ worth and the person behind you starts the process over again. If you miscalculate and the stream of sidra lands on the ground instead of your glass, you’ll hear tuts from those who consider themselves to be more experienced, but thats what the drains in the floor are for anyway.
Every so often, you’ll hear someone (usually a man) yell “TXOTX!!!” and without conferring, everyone in the room will stand up and file out. The first time I saw this happen, I thought it was some sort of fire drill, since all of sudden people who had previously been seated and eating were beginning to move around and line up. Turns out they were following the txotxero to his chosen kupela, like a cider Pied Piper.
The txotxero picks a barrel to open, usually one outside the dining hall in a hidden back room, and everyone uses this opportunity to take a break from eating and socialize. On one memorable occasion, we were at the sagardotegia at the same time as a traditional Basque band comprised of pierced adolescents. Halfway through lunch, they brought out their trikitixak and tambourines and people got up to dance and sing. Having longhaired teenagers enthusiastically play the accordion while you drink free-flowing cider from wooden barrels is probably as close as you’ll get to a bacchanalian medieval feast in this lifetime.
The cider season begins mid-January to lots of fanfare, and lasts until April or May. There are some sagardotegiak that are open throughout the year, but to me the thought of eating all that chuleta in summer isn’t as appealing.
Going to the sagardotegia is an event that many take very seriously. Since it’s something that takes all afternoon and even into the evening, particularly if you’re prone to the post-sidra nap like I am. People use “tengo sidrería ese día” (literally “I have cider house that day”) as a reason for not being able to meet up. It’s something to do with every group in your social circle: family, friends from infantil, friends from uni, even work colleagues. I went five times in as many months during the year I lived in San Sebastián, and recently we drove the five hours from Madrid to Mendia specifically to spend the weekend getting our sidra on. We have another return trip planned for over the Easter holiday in March.
While there are places that serve cider in San Sebastián proper, in order to get the full sagardotegia experience, you need to venture out into the pueblos. There are specially chartered busses that bring groups from other parts of the Basque Country to the Gipuzkoan cider houses, mainly from Bilbao and Vitoria-Gasteiz. The two in Mendia are indisputably the best, but I realize that I may be slightly biased. The Cider Association of Gipuzkoa has a comprehensive list of all the sagardotegiak in the area. At the risk of sounding like a copywriter for the tourism board, I would say that it’s a unique experience that shouldn’t be missed if you’re in Gipuzkoa and feel the hedonistic need to eat and drink yourself into a coma.
Menú de Sidrería
There may be some variation in the menu depending on the sagardotegia, but traditional fare consists of a lot of egg, fish, red meat and bread to sop up the unlimited cider. Vegetarian menus can be requested, but based on the only time I’ve seen it ordered, they seem to consist mainly of salad. Which, this being Spain, usually includes egg and tuna.
Regardless of the menu you get, each visit will run you around €30 ($37) for three courses, dessert and as much sidra as you can drink before bursting. You can also ask for seconds.
Tortilla de bacalao
Bacalao frito (o en tomate) con pimientos verdes
Fried (or with tomato) cod with green peppers
Chuleta a la parilla
Grilled ribeye steak
1 kilo of chuleta (2.2 pounds) per 2-3 people.
Queso Idiazabal, membrillo, palmeras y nueces
Idiazabal cheese, quince jelly, palmera cookies and walnuts
Tongue Twister Definition and Pronunciation Guide
Kupela (coo-pel-AH): The barrel where the cider ferments and gets delicious.
Trikitixa (tree-kee-TI-shah): The small Basque accordion. Trikitixa lessons are a common extracurricular activity; kids learn how to play it like they would the plastic recorder.
Txotx (tchotch): Catch all word to describe the full sagardotegia experience, also what the txotxero yells to get everyone’s attention before he opens the kupela.
Txotxero (tcho-tcher-oh): The cider Pied Piper, he decides which kupela to open.
Sagardotegi/a/ak (sah-gar-doh-teh-gee/ah/ack): The quintessential Basque cider house.
Sagardotegi referrs to the concept in general while sagardotegia (singular, sagardotegiak plural) is the physical cider house.
Did you try saying the tongue twister words three times fast? Have you ever been to a Basque sagardotegia? Is it now on your bucket list? Are you an expert trikitixa player? Let me know in the comments.
(Featured Image: Basque Country Tourism)