Cider Time…

Well it’s almost, almost Spring here in the Basque Country – the primavera smell is in the air & the birds seem to think it has arrived already, but the winter weather gods have another thing or five up their sleeves. So it was a perfecto day to be inside, at a local Basque sideria sampling this year’s vintage from the barrels. And once again, our good mate Idoia had sussed & sorted all the details out – all we had to do was make it to the bus stop on time. This year, as opposed to last year, was a luncheon (versus a late Basque dinner) date which held the promise of being a wee bit more on the tame side…

Idoia had chosen a sideria called Gartziategi – a very old school sideria with a serious history. The main building sits on the banks of the River Urumea in a caserio (country house) dating from the 16th century and it most definitely feels like 16th century – cold as and a tad damp which added to the cidery atmosphere. Julian Arrieta was the core bloke behind the start of the cider house in the early 20th century as cider making is a big & honoured tradition here ever since the French, post a battle defeat, ripped out all the Basque grape vines.

Idoia told us that many local folks (both French & Basque) flock to the siderias starting in January, but she feels the cider is far too young then & needs some time in the barrels to settle down & mellow out. But you cannot wait too long as the bottling process for the new vintage kicks off sometime in April and your chance of a visit & a sample vanishes.

The ‘process’ (called a txotx in Basque – pronounced ‘choch’) follows a set pattern both for food & drink. Once seated at your table, a baguette of bread & small plate of sautéd mushrooms & caramelised onions arrives to pleasure your taste buds while you wait for the first shout out of ‘Txotx!!!’, which triggers the mass migration to the cider barrels. You queue up, taking your turn to slip your cider glass under the continuous stream of golden, slightly cloudy & effervescent liquid until all are satisfied.

Back to your table where the second comestible has arrived – a bacalao (salt cod) tortilla. A perfect foil for the crisp, slightly acidy cider that comes from a specific barrel, made from specific apple variety or varieties. This is a lot of the fun – to sample the various barrels and try & pick your fave to return to. Then the shout of ‘Txotx!!!’ is heard again & back we all go…

Top Right: Bacalao Tortilla; Dessert of Basque Cheese, Fresh Walnuts & Apple Paste; Serious Chuleta de Vaca (Ribeye); Steamed Bacalao; Sautéd Mushrooms & Caramelised Onions; Devoured Chuleta

Next table delivery is a chunky, chunky slice of steamed bacalao smothered in sweet onions & sautéd scallion greens – yumbola! And once again (it is repeated A LOT OF TIMES) the call to drink, ‘Txotx!’, was shouted out & we have another barrel to slay…

And then the pièce de résistance awaits us at our table – a perfectly wood grilled chuleta de vaca (rib eye) that could feed a small village (or Billie our Jack Russell). We make a mess of it, but it is all carne fenomenal and tasty as (the 3 French dudes sitting next to us requested another chuleta de vaca – they were BIG FELLAS).

We close out this marvellous, festive feast with a more modest, lighter plate of Basque cheese, freshly harvested walnuts & apple paste…perfect counter-balance to all that preceded it, but of course more cider was needed…

Top Left: The Txotx Pour Begins; And Continues from Another Barrel; 2 Txotx Chicas; Wooden Apple Art

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The Bacalao Pil-Pil Cookoff…

BACAChefs

The Beginning Prep: Top Left – Bacalao/Cod & Olive Oil; Sauce Happening; Swirl & Swirl; Key Ingredient – Garlic.

Bacalao (or cod) is a mainstay ingredient for many dishes here in the Basque Country, but probably the most famous bacalao dish of all is bacalao pil-pil. Recently we were privileged to watch a Basque Cook Off of this very famous Basque dish right here in Hondarribia. About a dozen contestants had been rounded up or entered to try & make the bacalao pil-pil supreme to tickle the judges taste buds & snare a trophy.

BACATrophies

Basque Billie; The Trophies (looks like everyone wins!)’ Da Fish

It is pretty simple as far as ingredients go – garlic, olive oil and bacalao (cod). The challenge is in making the sauce which happens by an emulsion process, very similar to making mayonnaise. So if you have ever attempted mayonnaise by whisking in the oil by hand & ended up with a disaster, you can appreciate the skills at work here.

The cooks place the oil & garlic in the ceramic pan & then the bacalao, which starts the gentle swirling motion – first to the right, then to the left, back to the right, etc…until it all, hopefully, gels into the classic pil pil sauce.

BACAJudges

Top: Chefs Prep & Swirl; Judges Tasting: The Finished Product

The only mildly disappointing thing about the cook off is that we, the audience, never got to sample the goods. All we were offered is what you can see below in the photo – a fried cod pintxo or a chistorra sausage! They both tasted great but where’s my bacalao pil-pil?

Have to venture out to one of the local tavernas then….

BACPintxos

The Sad Offerings for the Audience 😦