June 30, 2011
On our second night in San Sebastían, we had one of our first standout travel experiences of the trip. Through a couple of english-speaking boat hands that we had encountered on the train, we caught word that there were a number of famed hard-cider production houses that constituted a must-eat class of dining establishments in the region. With the help of Mendelsohn’s trusty iPhone, we identified our target, called to make a reservation, realized we had reserved a time only 30 minutes away, frantically showered and dressed (independent of iPhone aid at this point), searched for a cab, mispronounced the name of our destination, and arrived there a solid 25 minutes late, Sam Schow style. I was dressed like a goofy looking (but unmistakably handsome) American with plaid shirt tucked into brown-belted jeans, Sam Schow style.
Upon entering the cellar-like dining room of the sidrería, the first thing I noticed was that the long wooden tables lined with benches were uniformly un-set. That is, I didn’t see any plates. A kind man sat us down, asked us if we were having dinner, and then brought out a green bottle of neon-looking cider. No this was no Woodchuck (anheiser-busch) or magners; it was clearly a distinct Basque brand of apple drink, and it took little time before we learned to love it. Decidedly less sweet than American-brand hard ciders, this dry Northern-Spanish was far less carbonated and had a much more tannic (to borrow a grape juice term in the description of apple juice, if the reader will permit the analogy) flavor and mouth feel. Taking a cue from everyone around us, we held the bottle as high above the glass as we could while still landing >80% of the cider inside the glass (we later learned that this technique is employed in the service of reducing the level of in-glass carbonation while aerating for flavor development).
A large baguette was placed directly on the table, with forks and knives, but still no individual plates for us. At this point it was clear to us that no menu would grace our table; we were riding on a munchie-train to who-knows-where. The first dish that came out was small sausages that were absolutely delectable. Unique in flavor from any tubesteak I’ve ever had, and decidedly rich but with distinctive component flavors. Jack has since proclaimed those weenies to be his personal gustatory highlight of the dinner. Next to appear was a fish-infused omlette-type dish, which I was nervous about (I don’t have much of a precedent for egg-fish combos), but found I enjoyed. Still, no personal plates; cut the baguette on the table, fork what you care to eat directly from the serving dish into your cider-soaked gullet. Awesome. If you finish your bottle of cider, fear not: no fallen soldier remained on our table for more than 60 seconds before being replaced. Next to show up on our table was a plate full of about 1kg of cod, topped with a comparable quantity of onions and peppers. Well-cooked and seemingly boneless (at least I hope so), the fish was no slacker. But then it happened. A plate of what must have been 48 oz (please pardon my inconsistent units, I had imbibed a few glasses of cider that somewhat hindered my ability to use the metric system, the true language of science; I digress) of juicy steak hit the table. I could hardly contain myself. It was incredibly juicy because it was, in truth, bloody. My new favorite temperature. After a few delicious bites and a survey of the shape of the cut(s), we agreed the we had on our hands a hangar steak, the David Bowie of beef cuts. I was overcome with joy and cider.
It is worth noting that our mood was without a doubt jubilant throughout the entire experience. We enjoyed each others company and the cider to the extent that the laughter was almost non-stop (there was some chewing). One joke in particular, dredged up from the deep recesses of Jack and my own collective memory, had Alex in hysterics (“all I remember was that poor monkey trying stuff that cork back in.”)
A plate full of cookies and nuts hit table to round out the meal, and just when we thought it was all over, we noticed everybody around us getting up with their glasses and heading for the back of the room. For the tunnel at the back of the room. We followed the crowd and at the end of the tunnel was a cellar room that contained six or seven cider barrels laid on their sides, each one 10 feet in diameter. A server removed a nail from one of the barrels and out shot a stream of cider! Everyone lined up and caught a glassful, then stood around and drank it. It was during this that we started talking to a group of people whose goodwilled attempt to inform us of what was going on in small bits of enlglish quickly turned into a friendly camaraderie in the best Spanish that we could produce. They were two fun-loving couples and admitted regulars of the sidrería. They made sure we were in on the three subsequent trips back to the cellar to catch cider from the peeing barrels, and it wasn’t long before they invited us to follow them back to their hometown after dinner for more drinks. We agreed without hesitation.
Walking through the temperate, clear night, we learned the names of Xabi, the screw (tornillo) salesman, Juan, the crazy refrigerator repairman whose complete lack of English speaking ability was more than compensated for by his propensity for vulgar gesture, and their respective wives, Asnei and Ali. We eventually arrived in a very sleepy town save for the action at two bars across the street from each other. We hung out for the rest of the night, chatting and doing what comes most easily when bridging a language gap: comparing raunchy slang terms. I added a few unmentionable Spanish words to my vocabulary, we drank a few rounds, hopped between the two bars, and a fun time was had by all. We basked in the company of our new local friends, and at the end of the night they called a cab for us (the one stipulation we made before following them to the bar in a town that remains a mystery to me), and we headed home in truly high spirits, full of food and the revelry of the night.
The next morning, we woke up still feeling the joy of the previous evening, only from a slightly different angle. We emerged from our room and were greeted by Jolly Hostel Daddy, which provided a perfect opportunity to test out a new vocabulary word we had learned. Tengo clavo (directly translated: I have a nail) means “I have a hangover.” The jolly man was glad to hear of our fun night at the sidrería, despite the figurative nails in our heads, and his belly shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly.
Straight to the beach was the certain cure for our ailment, and before long we were back lounging among the bikini-clad babes. It was a great final day at the beach, complete with a man vs. shorebreak swimming session where I was whistled at by a lifeguard for trying to swim too far out into the waves for bodysurfing purposes. Alex continued to hone his prodigious napping abilities.
All in all, San Sebastían was a standout stop on our tour, and we left Spain the next morning with nothing but good vibes.
But then we got to France.
Next post though, next post.