A Time for Savory and Sweet
In País Vasco, where every celebration or event revolves around the act of dining together, it’s not unusual to hear locals bemoan this “tradition of eating,” oftentimes beyond capacity, and in the same conversation happily resign themselves to it. Eating quality food around a table with those closest to you is an inextricable part of Basque culture, and one that features in their daily lifestyle. The holidays are no exception, testing the limits of one’s stomach at every turn, offering up some savory and a whole lot of sweet.
December 21st marks the official first day of the holiday season in País Vasco in what is known as el día de Santo Tomás (The Day of Saint Thomas). This day has nothing to do with Saint Thomas, nor does it have any religious connection. It is a celebration of two foods – txistorra, a sausage historically eaten during the winter months following the November matanza, or “pig sacrifice,” and talo, a corn bread not so distinct from the soft tortilla found in the Americas.
In the cities of Donostia-San Sebastián and Bilbao, el día de Santo Tomás is actively celebrated on the streets and in plazas and cafés. In Donostia, people crowd the Plaza de la Constitución in the Parte Vieja, the oldest part of the city, where food stands line its periphery. Behind the stands, txistorra is grilled by plump, old men, while women roll, pound, pat, and finally grill the flat, circular pieces of talo. Served warm, it is wrapped around the txistorra. Other stands serve sidra (cider) which spews from its barrels into plastic cups for 1 euro, and is in fact the only way to wash down txistorra with talo.
People here love txistorra followed by a shot of sidra. It’s a flavorful sausage with a mild spicyness. Sidra, an alcoholic beverage, is bubbly and refreshing, with a distinct apple flavor that is at once sour and vaguely sweet. In large amounts, this combination can awaken one’s sweet tooth, which is satisfied by the stands selling pastel vasco (Basque tart) and artisanal chocolate cake by the piece.
A celebration of food and drink, el día de Santo Tomás is also preparation for even more eating. On la Nochebuena or Christmas Eve, Basques unite with family for dinner, and come together again on Christmas Day for a large lunch. New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day follow the same format. While there is little agreement on a typical meal with regard to these celebrations, one item is consistent on almost every holiday dinnertable – dessert.
Mantecados, polvorones, and turrón are the sweets of las navidades (Christmas holidays) in País Vasco and throughout Spain. Indeed, if there is one thing that unites Spaniards gastronomically, it’s their love of postre (dessert) and there is no better time than the months of November, December, and January to enjoy what only Christmastime brings.
Mantecados and polvorones at first sight look like cookies because of their round shape. Often wrapped in paper and twisted closed at the ends, they are both made with flour, lard, sugar and cinnamon, in differing quantities. Mantecados contain more lard, while polvorones contain more flour, thus proving extremely brittle to the touch. Some people opt to smush them between the palms of their hands so they maintain their form. Others simply open them and pick up the pieces. The most popular mantecados and polvorones are made with ground almond and are eaten with their cousin, the turrón.
Turrón is perhaps this country’s favorite dessert, a statement that can be corroborated by many sources. Turrón, like mantecados and polvorones, is unique in the world of sweets. There are two types – the hard kind and the soft kind – which are cut into thick bars. Golden brown in color, the original turrón is made with four ingredients: almonds, honey, sugar, and egg whites. Nowadays it is easy to find it made with chocolate, caramel, or walnuts, for example. Though these variations satisfy different cravings, the original is worth a first try. The soft kind has a rich almond flavor similar to that of almond butter. The bar has a smooth texture accented with crunchy bits of nuts. A thin layer of honey and oil glaze its exterior, adding a degree of moisture and sweetness otherwise lacking in the dry, nuttiness of the bar itself. This is the perfect dessert to have with milk, coffee, or tea.
The way Basques celebrate their holidays and special events can be likened to the way Americans celebrate Thanksgiving. Whatever the event may be, it is always associated with a particular food just as turkey is always associated with Thanksgiving. Cheese in September, alubias (beans) in November, txistorra on el día de Santo Tomás, sidra in the winter, and so on. The holidays here bring us a day of savory, but they revolve around sweet. In supermarkets, grandmothers and children alike fill bags by the kilo-full of mantecados and polvorones, and quickly move on to the tables of turrón. Everyone has their preference. And still some decide to wait because the season of sweet is not yet over. On January 6th, el día de los Reyes Magos (Three Kings’ Day) arrives, which can only mean one thing: the cake named in their honor, the roscón de Reyes, is finally set upon the table.
 A sausage, similar to chorizo, made in the Spanish regions of País Vasco and Navarra.
 An alcoholic drink made from fermented apple juice served year-round, but available at the most authentic sidrerías (cider houses) from January to April.