“If we lose paradise because of an apple, we get it back through cider.”
– Asturian proverb
When we think of tapas, we are inherently drawn to images of food-laden plates of chorizo and paella, juicy croquetas and slices of burgundy-coloured jamón ibérico. However, here in Spain, drinks are as much a part of tapas as food is. Wine and beer are a quintessential parts of the tapas experience: bar hopping, sharing food, social eating, specialised bars, eating and drinking at the same time. But this is an ancient country with the most varied countryside on the European continent. There’s far more to its drink culture than just fermented grapes and cereals.
When one hears the word ‘cider’ in a conversation, it would be natural to turn one’s mind to those great nations of the drink: the United Kingdom, France, Germany and a lot of central and northern Europe. Of all regions of the world, perhaps the tradition is most closely-associated with the southwest of England and the legendary West Country: just google Wassail if you want to read more about that.
But, sadly, Spain is rarely thought of; for this is the a land of two-litre jugs of sangria and dark red bottles of Rioja wine. But cider?
This is a place of cider, though. Spain has its own version of the West Country and a culture possibly even more linked to its regional drink!
First things first, before talking of apples and regions, I must state that Spanish cider – sidra -essentially finds its home in two regions of Spain. And they are at war: whose cider is better? These two areas also happen to be some of the most beautiful places anywhere on earth: Asturias and País Vasco. Two green, mountainous and spectacular foodie regions on the north coast.
Which one of them started to produce cider first is matter of great debate and the gastro-historians have yet to reach an agreement. The drinks are also very similar, though they use different apples. Also, the Basque cider is a little more acidic and crisp whereas the Asturian is more peaty like a West Country scrumpy style.
Cider is a foodstuff of the Celts. When the Romans arrived in the England around 55BC, with their wine in tow, they found the locals getting plonkered on fermented apple juice. Nobody knows if it started there, or in northern Spain or France, but what it certainly was was a northern Celtic tradition far removed from the sultry stereotypes that stick to most Spanish gastronomy.
País Vasco, yes, has a cider tradition, and it would be unfair to leave out Cantabria and the Ávila province of Castilla y León and other small regions that are also starting to produce sidra, but Asturias has fermented apple juice running through its bloodstream. There is a whole street in Oviedo nicknamed (and signposted in neon) the ‘Boulevard de la Sidra’.
From weddings to baptisms, birthdays to well-organised get togethers or any other excuse, Asturians often indulge in espichas: cider-fuelled reunions, standing up usually, held if possible in a lagar – cider house where the drink is made. This is usually accompanied with ‘tapas’: ham, Cabrales cheese, tortilla, preñaos (chorizo in rolls). If lucky, there may be someone playing a gaita, bagpipe, in the background. The espicha was originally about tasting the first glass of cider, but, more usually, it’s a friendly and friend-filled piss up. I love Asturians.
Many country families will have their own trees in the gardens around their homes and will produce their own label-less bottles. The apples are collected in autumn and at the sidrería they are washed and crushed and pressed and the juice is fermented. It is for the comparative lack of sugar in these apples that the alcohol content rarely gets above six per cent.
There are various style of sidras – six in Asturias – and these are called palos.
- Sidra dulce – sweet cider often drunk with chestnuts.
- Sidra de hielo – ice cider, made from frozen apples; thus very sweet.
- Sidra natural ‘tradicional’ – ‘traditional’ or natural cider is the classic peaty style.
- Sidra natural ecológica – a more organic style of traditional cider.
- DOP de Asturias – an official high quality denominación de origen protegida cider that can only use local apples: Raxao, Xuanina etc.
- Sidra de Asturias – another controlled traditional style, but not DOP level.
After those flat styles there is also a fizzy style, reminiscent of the French method, served in Champagne-style bottles that have a poppable cork. These can range from sickly sweet to Brut Nature super dry.
With the tart and peaty nature of Spanish cider, it would be a rather intense experience to drink it straight from a pint glass like the Brits. No, in Spain you drink small quantities – a couple of fingers – called a culín, literally a ‘little bum’.
The drink is poured from a great height – escanciar – allowing the fall through the air and the crashing into the sizeable open tumbler at the bottom to aerate and lighten the drink. You can hear it fizzing and foaming immediately after. When pouring, it is important to keep the glass at a 45-degree angle so the juice smashes and curls up into itself. Then you knock it back and pour another one.
Cider bars, good ones, will be full of wood, have splash buckets and sticky floors, and have a fermented apple whiff.
If you love sidra as much as I do, which is difficult, be sure to check out the Gijón cider festival. Nine days of appley carnage from the 11th of October to the 20th.
Where I drink:
Madrid – El Escarpín (Calle Hileras, 17), Casa Mingo (Paseo de la Florida, 34), El Ñeru (Calle de Bordadores, 5), Hermanos Ordas (Calle de Diego de León, 63), La Burbuja Que Ríe (Calle Angel, 16), Sidrería Vasca Zeraín (Calle Quevedo, 3), La Bobia (Calle San Millan, 3).
Oviedo – Fartuquín (Calle Carpio, 19), Sidrería Alberto (Calle la Lila, 25). Anywhere on Calle Gascona: the ‘Boulevard de la Sidra’.
Gijón – El Planeta (Tránsito de las Ballenas, 4), Restaurante Bar Los Caracoles (Calle Rosario, 60).
Lavandera (Asturias) – Casa Trabanco (Camino de los Lagares, 290).
San Sebastián – Sidrería Intxaurrondo (Zubiaurre Pasealekua, 72).
What I eat with it:
Chorizo cooked in cider is a classic but my favourite is a nice hunk of Cabrales blue cheese and crusty bread.
What I listen to:
Make Me a Boat – The Family Crest