Imagine a room, not too large, not too small, with high ceilings. At the far wall, three gigantic, wooden barrels are lined in a row. They’re the kind you might associate with wine fermentation. The floor gently slopes down from all directions to a drain. And around it and throughout the room are long tables and benches. It’s cold outside, and it’s also cold in this room. Through a door on the right a man rolls in a parrilla (grill) whose coal glows red and orange. Still, it remains cold.
Outside there’s a patio with a large barbeque grill built into the wall. It’s black with soot. There are other doors along a low-roofed building to the left, leading to still other rooms.
This building is a sagardotegi, the Basque word for ‘cider house” (in Spanish it’s ‘sidrería’). One can drink sagardoa (‘cider’ in Basque) any time of year, but traditionally the season of visiting sagardotegis and drinking cider begins in January. The apples are harvested between September and November. They then undergo a process of fermentation that can last from 2 to 5 months. So by January, the first cider is ready to drink.
Surprisingly, a trip to the sagardotegi revolves not around cider, but around the relationship between cider and food. The actions of getting up to drink and sitting down to eat are constant and characterize the entire experience of visiting a sagardotegi. The moment one settles down to indulge in a forkful of creamy tortilla de bacalao (a cod omelette) is likely the same moment the ‘txoko’ is announced.
Shouted out by anyone who feels like it – a friend at your table, the guy across the room, or even the owner – the txoko is a call for more cider. Oftentimes it means an exodus of diners to the sagardotegi’s cellar where spouts are opened and cider explodes out in a fast and steady stream. Though the taste of cider varies considerably from barrel to barrel, almost every gulpful has a chance at excellence depending on whether it’s been properly aerated. For this reason cider is always served, whether from the barrika or botella (barrel or bottle), from a distance and in small amounts. The contact with air affords the cider a fizziness that, if not drunk quickly, is soon lost while waiting in one’s glass.
After the umpteenth txoko, it is back to sitting down. With little more than a fork and a knife, diners share the food placed before them with their companions. The meal is always the same – it’s the menu served at all sagardotegis: first, tortilla de bacalao, second, bacalao con pimientos verdes (cod with roasted green peppers), a large chuleta (steak), an endless replenishment of bread, and a finale of queso, membrillo, and nueces (cheese, quince, and walnuts).
The enjoyment of cider requires the “perfect storm” of different elements. Cold weather, friends, and good food bring out the crispness of the cider that would otherwise seem flat in another environment. Bundled up with empty glasses in hand, the people rush en masse to the cellar and different rooms of the sagardotegi to help themselves to cider that is sometimes sweet, bitter, acidic, or smooth. The flavor of apple is its only constant. Savoury, home-cooked food waits on the long tables, its steam slowly disappearing into the thin air. The people return, sit down, and indulge. The cycle continues and still no one notices the cold.