Our cab takes us on a series of highways and autopistas just south of San Sebastián until we finally wind our way along a country road surrounded by hills and apple orchards. We’re a little disoriented, but I know exactly where we are. Petritegi Sagardotegia is one of many cider houses—or sidrerías—located in Spain’s autonomous Basque Country. Nestled in the small village of Astigarraga, it’s probably the area’s best-known sidrería, and the only one that operates year-round. The tart, alcoholic apple cider these sidrerías produce is a staple at meals and celebrations throughout Spain—and in recent years it has become easier to find in the States.
But drinking sidra (or sagardo in the Basque language of Euskara) from a bottle—while delicious—is a completely different experience than a night at a sidrería. These cider houses are social hubs built around food and drink. By the time the multi-course meal is finished, you’re three hours in, countless glasses deep, and you’ve become old friends with the locals. Plus, there’s something about getting your sidra straight from a giant oak barrel the size of an elephant.
We enter through the wooden doors of Petritegi into a large open dining room filled with long bench tables. It’s almost 9 p.m.—still early for dinner by Spanish standards—and the place is only about a quarter full. A baguette is already resting on our table. There’s something magical about the bread over here. Tender and crusty, it’s a staple in European meals. And it will help soak up some of the alcohol and tide us over until our sweeping opus of a feast gets underway.
Keep in mind, sidrerías aren’t where you go for an elegant dining experience—this is meat, fish, cheese and bread, simply prepared and incredibly good. The menu is generally made up of four courses: chorizo and a salt cod Spanish omelette called a tortilla; fish, typically hake; a thick T-bone steak, deliciously bloody and seasoned with salt and pepper; and for dessert an assortment of local cheese, walnuts and apple butter. This, of course, comes with all the sidra you can drink. Fact: The more sidra you consume, the more fluent you become en español.
Located off the dining area at Petritegi is another series of rooms lined with 250-gallon barrels propped up on cement blocks. The temperature of the rooms is about 15 degrees cooler in order to keep the sidra fresh. We walk between two of these barrels into another room to find a line of people with their glasses tilted below a five-foot jet of sidra shooting from one of the barrels. A young Basque man is operating the tap. And when we’re done with this, he’ll lead us to one of the other barrels—each one filled with a different aged sidra with a slightly different flavor.
I jump in, holding my glass low and making my way up the stream. Technique is key. The long stream method ensures lots of splash and the proper oxygenation. Here in the Basque Country it’s even more complicated. One old-timer tells me the secret is to hold your glass at 45 degrees and let the stream hit the side of the glass first. And don’t get greedy. Your cup should never runneth over and should only be about three fingers full. Bottle pouring is even more of a challenge. Old pros will usually tip the bottle from above their heads while holding the glass around belt-high with nary a splash.
So what does the stuff taste like? Sidra—not to be confused with txakoli, a Basque white wine made from local grapes—is usually made from a dozen different varieties of apples. There are upwards of 100 producers in northern Spain, and about 20 in Astigarraga alone. Sidra is usually cloudy and has little-to-no carbonation. The first thing you’ll notice when you bring the glass toward your nose is a sort of funky yeast scent. And while it may be a bit jarring upon its first contact with your palate, Basque sidra is tart but refreshing, and it pairs excellently with saltier fare. It quickly starts going down smoothly. And at six percent alcohol content, sidra will sneak up on you in warm and wonderful ways.
Sidra is only available at the source between January and April, with Petritegi being the exception, but it is available by the bottle year-round. There are other varieties of sidra produced all over Spain, most notably west of the Basque Country in Asturias as well as Madrid. More importantly, it is available here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. by the bottle (including Petritegi). And fortunately there are a few that taste nearly as good as getting it from the tap deep in the Basque countryside. But if you do plan on making a trip to Spain, set aside a night at a sidrería for some serious eating, drinking and merrymaking.
POURED IN THE USA
Over the past five years, sidra has become easier to find in the United States. A trip to Bushwhacker Cider in Portland, Ore., offers ciders from all over the world, including three from the Basque Country and a couple from Asturias. 750ml bottles will typically run you $10 to $12 in the States. Be warned: One bottle between two people will disappear quickly.
Isastegi Sagardo Naturala: Available in 375ml and 750ml bottles, this Basque variety is as close to the source as you’re going to get here. The oak and yeast nose and flavor come through in this tart sidra, but it’ll mellow out by your second glass. Relatively easy to find, and easily the best sidra available in the States.
Sarasola Sagardoa: Less tart and less cloudy than the Isastegi, the oak flavor in this Basque sidra really comes through. More balanced for those who prefer a little less pucker.
Bereziartua Apple Cider: Produced in the same village as Petritegi, this variety from the Basque Country has a noticeable smoky flavor.
Trabanco Cosecha Propia: This Asturian sidra is the easiest to find here in the U.S. It’s sweeter with a slight carbonation, which makes it an easy-drinking choice for those trying sidra for the first time.