Cider season is nearing a close here in Basque Country.
Basque cider is a drink in its own category. It’s not quite French cider, it’s nothing like American…and it’s a seasonal beverage, best enjoyed in the same building in which it is made, the ciderhouse.
There are a few rules that can help an outsider enjoy the ciderhouse experience as much as a local. It’s much more difficult to have a bad time in a place where steaks are sizzling and cider is flowing from wooden barrels, but there is a method behind that madness. Here are some cider house rules:
Is it May? Anytime between June and November? Please, don’t go to a ciderhouse. Unless you are looking for a Disney version of this hallowed tradition.
Reserve ahead because during the season the smaller (read, more local) ciderhouses tend to fill up.
Go in a group. With cider, the more the merrier, in all senses of the word.
Wear a sweater. It’s cold in the rooms where cider is kept in huge wooden barrels.
Come hungry. Four courses include tortilla, cod, steak and traditional dessert of membrillo, cheese and walnuts.
The sound TXOTX! (phonetically, choch) means please head directly to the barrel room.
When taking cider from the barrels, line up directly behind the person ahead of you. Align your glass with theirs, such that when they step away, the cider streams directly into your glass.
Get a little bit of cider at a time. Down it. Get more. Repeat, a LOT.
Another installment of the Basque Food ABC’s. Today, we talk about the letter…B!
B is for….babarrunak. Babarrunak is basque for beans, and nowhere are beans more treasured than in the nearby town of Tolosa. Alubiadas, loosely translated as bean fests, are parties for groups of friends from the age of 15 to 95. And they revolve around a relaxed afternoon of eating beans, drinking, and talking. I’ve been to a fair share thanks to a good friend, and there’s something special about sitting in a square in Tolosa, knocking off the chill and eating your fill of the famous black Tolosa bean, and lingering over cocktails for hours.
The Tolosa bean is peculiar for several reasons: it’s quite expensive, usually running between 7 and 15 euros a kilo. It’s also misleading: when you buy them, they resemble black frijoles. However, after hours of cooking, they turn a dark red and take on their luscious silky smooth texture. These are a must try. My mom was probably confused when I sent her a bag for Christmas, but these beans are as close to a luxury item as legumes get.
Guisantes de lágrima could be the vegetable equivalent of angulas.
These “tear peas” are 500 euros a kilogram, as a recent article reports. That’s $295 a pound. This article reports that the first guisantes de lágrima of the season have appeared. From each pod, 12-14 peas can be harvested. The most famed producer of this delicate legume is Jaime Burgaña of Aroa farm in Getaria.
Basque Country is famous for its incredible raw materials. It doesn’t matter how many star chefs you have in a square mile if you don’t have the quality produce to back it up. In fact, the confluence of talented chefs and incredible fish, vegetables, meat and dairy could be the secret to this region’s cuilnary success.
In places like Restaurant Fronton , this perfection is respected. And enhanced with a little bit of salt and good quality olive oil. Plates that result are like the baby winter vegetables above: cooked to their perfect point. Judiciously seasoned. From the nearby garden to the table. And done with little fuss or showmanship, done because that’s what chefRoberto Ruíz is passionate about.
I had this incredible dish earlier this week: savory artichokes, perfect baby brussels, carrots, asparagus, with little leaves of jamón over a warm, thick vichyssoise. Worth the trip.
Since we’re just starting out together, I thought it might be appropriate to begin with the basics. The really basic basics. So I will be highlighting the ABC’s of Basque food on the blog.
A is for….ANGULAK. Also known as txitxardina, these are elvers, or baby eels. They also cost 1000 euros per kilogram. What, you didn’t know that in a certain corner of the world baby eels were nearly as precious as caviar? Well here in Basque Country, the price of these little guys skyrocketed when demand from foreign soil nearly wiped them out.
Nowadays they are usually enjoyed by the upper crust on special days, such as the Day of San Sebastián (January 20). They are typically cooked really, really simply: a bit of garlic, hot olive oil and just a moment in the pan. It’s a moment for steel nerves, even among the expert cooks of the local gastronomic societies.
You can find the imitation version lining the bars of the old town in San Sebastián. They are served as a simple pintxo on top of bread, with a pepper vinaigrette, or atop salads. It’s worth a try, but neither the texture or taste will come close to the real thing. You can save that for a special occasion.
This is a question that is so much more complex than what most would have you believe. It’s not just pintxos. It’s not just chuleta (steak) or seafood. And it’s not just food.
It’s a table set for all your friends, in a txoko, or dining society. It’s fresh products, eaten at their peak time and with hardly anything added. Basque food means leave your curries, leave your spices, and heck, you don’t really even need your black pepper.
Basque food is a sporting event. Who has the best marmitako? Where do you have your hamaiketako (midday snack)? And most importantly…how many courses can you fit in your stomach? There is no room for people with a hesitant relationship with food. And there is definitely no room for the word ‘calories’. I can’t remember the last time I used it, in fact.
Basque food is bar food, to be eaten one at a time, moving from place to place and always accompanied by a small glass of wine or beer.
Basque food is a food that is shrouded in mystery. Due in part to the mysterious language and in part to the tendency of Basques to stick with their social group of toda la vida (lifelong).
This is just a little intro. Here we’ll be talking about all things Basque, so I hope you chime in!
What do you think of when you think of Basque cuisine?