“You want a photograph?” he asked, “Come…”
The guys running Oialume Zar, the cider house I was visiting, were eager to show me the piles of beef chops that were stocked ready to feed 160 hungry and already fairly inebriated Basques. This was obviously a far more interesting photo than the shots I was taking of the ducks in the river and the barrel protruding out from the building’s façade. I think he may have had a point!
Cider Houses in the Basque Country are rough and ready eating establishments accompanied by as much cider as you can drink. Unlike the Asturian versions which are more like bars, Basque Cider Houses place as much emphasis on the quality of the food as on the quality of the cider. Although some cider houses stay open all year round the true experience is to be had in cider house season from January to April. Between these months it´s tough to choose which cider house to visit. They spring up like mushrooms throughout Gipuzkoa, practically every caserio seems to have been filled with barrels of cider and long wooden tables. And on the surface they are all basically the same. They are all converted farmhouses around Astigarraga and Hernani in the main. They all serve you cider which you help yourself to from the tap in the barrel. And they all serve an identical menu – codfish omelette and/or codfish with peppers, followed by as much beef chop as you can stomach, then nut s and cheese to finish. So how to choose exactly? Well, by word of mouth mainly.
You need to ask around to find out which one has had a good harvest that year for cider. Which ones are the locals saying has the best meat etc. The traditional cider house experience is to eat standing up, but many have adapted to allow you to sit. Many also have “Txotx” where the owner selects which barrel to open up, selecting one at a time. When he walks through the restaurant shouting “Txotx” everyone has to get up and follow him, form a queue at the same barrel and wait their turn. Others allow a free for all. Whenever you fancy you get up, walk to a barrel and open the tap. Tradition dictates that you should never take a glass of cider to your table, you drink at the barrel and then go back to your table to eat. But like many of the other traditions of the cider house, people nowadays just do what they please.
HOW TO DRINK CIDER
When you´re drinking txotx from the barrell, there needs to be three or four of you to get it right. You hold your glass close to the floor, judging where the jet of cider would hit the ground. Then someone opens the tap and you catch the cider in the bottom of your glass just before it would hit the floor. This is to get some froth and let the air into it. Then you move your glass toward the barrel, catching the stream as you go. While you move up, someone else needs to get into position to catch the stream when you take your glass away, which you should so when you´re about a metre from the tap. Repeat for everyone in your group with the first person to take the cider closing the tap for the last person. Some of it will hit the floor. Some of it will get on your trousers. But it wouldn’t be a cider house experience if you didn’t walk out sticking to the floor a little.
If you´re out of season and are drinking from a bottle, you hold the bottle about 30cm from the top of the glass and pour a finger’s worth into your glass.
In both cases, drink immediately, cider should never sit in your glass.
Situated by a river, surrounded by trees an with mountains behind, standing on the patio in front of oialume Zar you would be forgiven for forgetting you were a minte from a large industrial estate. Yoiu just don’t notice!
After my brief visit to the meat mountain in the kitchen I went inside to the main dining areas. Oialume Zar has three diffent eating rooms, as I was with my family and my young lads, we were in the more respectable eating area with seats and no barrels. As you walk in the first dining area has half a dozen cider barrels and tables to eat standing up, another room on the left had a couple more barrels and tables scattered about. And the whole place is chaotic. Where normally in a restaurant you are shown to your table and you only move to go to the bathroom, cider houses have people wandering from table to table, meeting over the barrels or just generally standing in the centre of the room drinking and chatting. The atmosphere is friendly, brotherly and above all informal. This is the other end of the scale to fine Michelin star dining. Not just cause the food is straight forward, but because the whole atmosphere is well… chaotic.
The food in Oialume Zar is excellent. The beef chops done as rare as is legal and the cod in peppers cooked to perfection. Cider houses also serve the best codfish omelettes in Euskadi.
After trying all the different barrels we soon focused in on our favourites, and after several trips to these we decided to take it east and fill large jars. Very naughty, but laziness was taking over at that stage.
Cider Houses are a truly different experience to the pintxos and Michelin-star experience that San Sebastian is so well known for. In fact, it maybe shouldn’t be considered t a San Sebastian experience at all as they are more common outside the city. Between January and April they are everywhere. Outwith these months you have to check which ones are open and which are doing txotx. There are a couple in the old part, but it´s nice to head out into the countryside if you can.
Cider House Menu. Codfish Omelette, Codfish and Peppers, Beef Chops, Cheese & Nuts, Chocolate Tarts and as much cider as the body will allow: 27 euros.
Oialume Zar, Mikel Arozamena, 16, Astigarraga, Gipuzkoa. www.oialumezar.com
Good guide to Gipuzkoan Cider Houses – www.sidrerias.ws