Thursday, March 3, 2011

An apple a day

I am getting along quite well in my Basque class.  We just had a midterm exam and I got a 38/40, so am quite pleased with that.  Imagine how excitd Joseba was!  I've promised him that one day I WILL speak Euskera and here I am making progress - be it slowly but surely.  Anyways, along wtih memorizing verbs, saying sentences a 5-year old would scoff at and racking my brain, my Basque classmates have all formed a group bond.  We often chat a bit after class and sometimes even get coffes together.  So, it wasn't completely out of the ordinary that one classmate (Jose MarĂ­) suggested that we all get together one night at a sidrerĂ­a - to do all things Basque - eat, drink and be merry (while speaking Basque of course haha).

Last week, 9 of our class, including me, headed to a cider house (sargardotegi in Basque) for a fun night.  Before I wow you with the scrumptous food and the refreshing cider, I want to tell you a bit about sargardotegis and where they come from.  First we will start with the word sargardotegi.  In Basque sagar means apple.  Ardo means wine.  And tegi means 'place where something takes place'.  So, all together sargardotegi can be roughly translated to -place where apple wine takes place.  Rough I know, but it makes sense because at these huge buildings which are a cross between a bar and a restaurant along with a wine cellar but the wine is made from apples!

So, these sargardotegis house this delicious Basque cider which has been part of this culture for years and years.  In fact, the Basques fondness for apples shows up in documents all the way from the 11th century.  The King of Navarra in that century mentions sending an envoy to the Basque region and mentions apples and cider-making.  Beyond that, in a pilgrim's 1134 diary, he mentions that Basques talent for apple growing and cider-making too.  An inquistor in the 17th century coined the 'land of the apple' for the Basque Country and various books mention the Basque fishermen's preference of thier cider to water while on long whale-hunting trips.  History books tell us that the vast apple orchards used the be picked by the entire community.  This way, even if you didn't have an apple press you were guarenteed some of the delicious drink.  Nowadays, apples are picked with a long tool that has a nail-like point.  Traditionally, the apples were brought to a two-story farm house and on the top floor were pressed with a quite-advanced contraption at the time, which pressed all the juice out of the apples and caught the liquid and on the bottom floor it was bottled in large barrels to ferment.  Now though, machines do the heavy work.  But the proess after the smashing is still the same - the liquid goes into a huge barrles (think about 250 gallons) of oak or chesnut for a fermenting process to 1) turn the natural sugar to alcohol and 2) to get rid of the sour taste of the apples.  Apple-picking goes on during the month of September, October and November and finally on the 19th of January, the sargardotegis open thier doors and let all the cider fans in with the officially opening day of cider season.

Most sargardotegis, along with the one we went to, have a large dining room where you normally eat standing up and the 'kupela' room - or the barrel room.  Originally sargardotegis were just for testing the cider and then when you left you would buy bottles of the cider from the barrels you liked most.  Nowadays, it is a dinner and social event, but still with the old-time drinking right from the barrel cider.  The meal always starts off with little pieces of txorizo - a sausage - along with some bread.  Next comes a cod omellete and of course bread.  Out of the kitchen comes cod normally served with some green peppers.  And then a txuleta - a huge steak that is practically still bleeding but oh so good.  Last but defintiley not least is the dessert - Idiazabal cheese (a Basque sheep cheese that is very strong) with membrillo (a sort of apple jelly that you cut in pieces and put on top of your cheese slices) and some nuts (that you have to crack yourself - either with your hand or the table).  A very-filling meal is punctuated with many trips to the kupela to fill up the glass of cider.  THe thing is that you never actually fill up the glass - instead you catch about two or three drinks worth of cider in your cup, normally drink them in the kupela room and then go back for more eating and talking.  This is where the 'standing up eating' comes in handy because you are always free to go to drink some more cider!

The cider drinking tradition lost a bit of speed when Navarra upped thier production of wine.  And cider was practically dead during the Spanish Civil War when most people abadoned thier orchards, but since the invention of Sargardo Egun (Cider Day) in 1981, cider has made a huge comeback.  This still-cider (not sparkling) is mostly made in Gipuzkoa (my county) and over 9.5 million liters are produced annually (about 2.5 million gallons).  Only 10% of that is drunk in sargardotegis, the rest is bottled and bought in stores to enjoy at home!  Which I do too!

That night, our group of 2 grandpas, 2 moms, my roommate and our 29-year old Mexican friend and a 30 year-old guy, our teacher and I enjoyed a delicious meal (although at 33€ a pop is quite a hefty bill) and some tasty cider - varying from sour to sweet.  And we did manage to throw some Basque words into the mix.  The two most important words were:  txotx (pronounced choch) which is the cider-makers call that he is opening a barrel and to come and fill up your glass and topa (pronounced toe-pa) which is the Basque way of saying cheers!  My favorite line was Azkena which means 'last one', which is what everyone was saying each time we'd take a drink of cider.  It was so delicious you just have to say 'one more, one more'!

As you can see, my Basque class isn't just about crazy words and off-the-wall grammar, but a nice group of fun people always ready to live the Basque way - by eating like a God, washing down your food with a incredible drink and talk talk talk.

Muxu!  (kiss in Basque)

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