May 28, 2011 § Leave a comment
Yesterday my aunt and uncle and I made an excursion to a sidreria for lunch. Sidra is a traditional beverage produced in Asturias which is something like the hard cider we drink in the states. It’s significantly lighter, however, and it’s a bit fizzier, too. The flavor is different, although hard for me to describe. It’s not as sweet as some hard ciders, and it’s almost got a vinegar hint. That’s not a particularly flattering description of it, but it really is great. It goes well with a meal because it’s so light, and the flavor is not strong enough to clash with anything. It’s really very enjoyable, although it is, as I discovered pretty quickly, somewhat dangerous. It has about the same alcohol content as beer, but you typically drink a greater volume of it. For instance, the three of us drank an easy three bottles (roughly the size of a wine bottle), one per person, which is basically like drinking half a bottle of wine (sidre is 6% and wine is typically around 12% alcohol per volume). I was rather surprised to find about half way through that I was really quite well buzzed. As we discussed later, however, it’s a very quick buzz that disappears just as rapidly as it comes on. By the time we got back in the car to leave, I was feeling perfectly un-buzzed again.
Drinking sidra has a whole ritual that goes along with it. You don’t simply pour yourself a glass of it and sip it throughout your meal. The tradition involves a server coming to the table with (for our party anyway) two glasses. The server holds the glass in his left hand by his left hip. He then holds the bottle up at arms length above his head with is right hand, and pours the sidre into the glass from that great height. The sidre has to hit the side of the glass (held at an angle). The impact and the effect of hitting the side of the glass are what give the sidre its fizz. The server pours about an inch or an inch and a half into the glass and hands it to one of the people at the table. That person then drinks the whole glass at once (you don’t have to do it in one big gulp, but you drink it all straight down). In the mean time, the server has given another glass to someone else at the table. The first person gives the server back her glass, and he fills it again for the next person at the table. So, the glasses make the rounds over the course of the meal, and thus only a couple of glasses are necessary. Typically each person at the table has one glass, then they all continue eating for a bit until the server comes back around. I’m sure there is an actual term for the server other than “server,” but I don’t recall at the moment what it is. I’ll try to remember to ask.
Today, people find it somewhat cumbersome to have to have a special server come around and pour the sidra, but it requires a bit of skill that those who are consuming the sidra likely lack (and more so as the meal progresses, I’m sure). Thus, today there are a number of contraptions that will give the sidra the fizz but without it needing to be poured from a height. For instance, there is one sort that I saw at another establishment where you press your glass to a button on the side of the contraption which is set onto the top of the sidre bottle (with a straw or tube running down into the bottle). The contraption (often made to look like a mini version of a barrel that the sidre is fermented in) then shoots the sidra out against the side of the glass.
A sidreria is a place that makes sidra. They often have a restaurant attached. The one we went to is up on a mountain just outside of Gijon, probably about a 15 minute car ride from my aunt and uncle’s house. The views are truly incredible. This sidreria was located in a small mining town which gives the sensation of being pretty rural. The wonderful thing is, however, that you have all the joys of a rural location with the convenience of the city ten minutes away. It’s really quite delightful! And, as I may have mentioned, the landscape is just stunning.
For lunch we had a number of dishes. We had a simple salad; Asturians are not particularly enthusiastic, traditionally, about vegetables, and so a simple salad of lettuce, tomatoes, and onions is very common. We also started with an appetizer of Brussels sprouts wrapped in bacon (I’m pretty sure you could wrap ANYTHING in bacon an it would be delicious… case in point). Then we moved on to fried calamari, which is a standard favorite of mine, although this was significantly nicer because the calamari is so much fresher. As with the other seafood I had the day before, the flavors are stronger here because the seafood is fished from such a cold ocean and is available so very fresh. I’ll never be able to eat satisfactory seafood again anywhere else, I think. Our third “first plate” (it is typical to order a first plate and a second plate; the first plate is intended to be a bit lighter, I think, and the second plate is more heavy duty) was a dish of calamari cooked with potatoes and onions in the ink of the calamari. It’s a blackish dish with pink chunks of squid and pale pieces of potato and onion. The potato cooks down quite a bit, so the ink sauce is sort of the texture of – shock! – a thin potato soup. The flavor, of course, is largely that of the ink, which is delicious. The two calamari (fried and inky) were different animals, I was told, from the same family (both squid, obviously). Their flavors were somewhat different, although it was hard for me to distinguish how much of the flavor difference was in the preparation and how much was in the squid itself.
Our second plate was a dish of salt cod (which had been de-salted) served with very thin slices of onion and red pepper that had been flash fried. The onion and pepper were sweet and crispy and a little sticky, while the fish was flaky and salty and delicious. It was a really incredible dish.
Finally, my aunt and uncle insisted that I try a dessert because the sidreria was said to have quite delectable ones. We ordered arroz con leche (rice with milk) to share. The rice and milk is sort of the consistancy of (and has a similar flavor to) rice pudding. It is served cool, with sugar on the top which is burned into a brown crispy layer. It is not unpleasant in the least. That was followed by a coffee (espresso mixed with a splash of milk and lot of sugar, the name of which I’ve also forgotten, tsk tsk), which was also pretty damn good. I’m convinced that I’m being fattened up for the roast, although my aunt and uncle claim that this is just an effort to make up for the atrocious food I’m likely to find in the UK. ;)
After our wonderful, long lunch, we drove to a neighboring town, Oviedo. Oviedo is the capital of Asturias and is a bit more … self aware, maybe, than Gijon. My first impression was that it was a bit more of a bustling hub of a city than Gijon, which, although it is bustling and a city, seems to be less businesslike. In Oviedo we ran a quick errand and then set out to tour the city on foot. We wandered through a commercial area with lots of shops where we stopped for some postcards and for a map of the area so that I might better understand my own location. We continued on into the historic district of the city, which is full of beautiful old buildings, churches, and plazas. We stopped for a tea an an outdoor cafe in a plaza surrounded by balconies covered in flowers.
We did a fairly complete tour of Oviedo in a couple of hours (again, it’s a very small city), then headed back on our way to Gijon. After relaxing for a bit, we had a dinner of guacamole, quesadillas, and margaritas. That, plus much conversation, led to an extremely late bedtime and a similarly late wake up (at least for me). Today has been a quiet day, with a delicious lunch of sea bass prepared by my uncle and a tart with strawberries prepared by my aunt. This is really just a food journal, isn’t it?
Tonight we are going to a Bollywood dance show at the Laboral Centro de Arte y Creacion Industrial. Bollywood really has nothing to do with Asturias, so this is not part of my education about the region. Rather, this is us taking advantage of one of the many varied cultural offerings which make Gijon such an interesting city.