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Sidrería Astarbe, Bilbao

July 26, 2015

At a conference in Bilbao last week the organisers took a bunch of us out to one of San Sebastian’s famous cider houses. It’s definitely an experience to be recommended. The one we went to was called Astarbe. And they also sell their cider bottled. Some sort of cider making operation has stood on the site for the last 450 years.

We started by being told the rules for the evening. We should help ourselves to the cider from these 10,000 litre barrels. Just pouring a little bit each time from a great height to give the cool, very dry, cider some air and bubbles. Each barrel held between 8,000 – 12,000 litres. A mere 20,000 pints of cider.

So, yes. We should help ourselves at any time. But whenever our hosts yelled out txotx it was mandatory to come up and charge our cider glasses. Challenged accepted Basques!

The food was a set menu and would be coming out shortly. So, drink some cider! Make plenty of toasts and come back to the tables for each course. A perfectly informal experience.

The grill was right next to the long communal dining tables, and when we walked in the staff were cutting 2 inch steaks from a whole side of beef.

The first course that came out was a large omelette, inside the eggs were every so slightly runny and mixed with salted cod (bacalao) and oily fried shallots which everyone ate with crusty baguettes. Its called Tortilla de Bacalao and it’s the traditional starter at all these cider houses.

After a few more trips to the cider barrels some grilled fish arrived. Not entirely sure what the variety was and couldn’t ask! But it was thick fillets, white, and fleshy. Grilled with a topping of mushrooms and fried onions. It had been heavily salted. Maybe even preserved briefly in salt? But definitely not dried.

More toasts and trips to the barrels the steak came out. The cut they were using was called Chuletón de Buey. Which was a bone in rib steak. The sirloin side of the t-bone with some extra fat attached. And it was great. Thick, expertly cooked, and very fatty. One guy told me that the basque buy the fattiest beef that the rest of Europe doesn’t want because it’s the best. And since grilled fat equals flavour this was pretty damn tasty. They served one of these monsters between four people and then came around afterwards and asked if we wanted more. Which about half of us did. The only thing they added to the meat was a sprinkle of salt.

The final course combined walnuts, quince jelly, and a mild cheese. A nice simple end to the meal that went perfectly with the cider everyone was still drinking. It’s like they’ve done this before a few hundred thousand times over the last 450 years that a cider house has stood in this location.

The whole thing cost around €35, including as much cider as you wanted to drink.

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