Monday, October 14, 2013

Burning Pasta Travel Guide: Sagardotegia Petritegi and the Wonders of the Basque Region

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I'd love to tell you this story starts at the cider house.  It could, of course.  I could take you right through the front door, describing the tangy yeast in the air, the smoke from the grills.

We could get started that way.  But let's hold off for a second.

Because, you see, this particular cider house, Sagardotegia Petritegi, is in Basque Country, the uncontrolled, proud, gorgeous, decadent region between northeastern Spain and Southwestern France.  And frankly, if I didn't give you a tour of the neighborhood, it would be a true injustice.

The Basque country is mostly farmland, surrounded by deep forests that rise up to the sky.  As you drive along, small towns with quiet creeks beckon you to stop for a spell.

And if you do pull over, you're in for a treat.  In Tolosa, for example, the town square was bursting with the bounty of local farms.  Hard cheeses, local honey, fig jam; by the end of the day, we had filled a suitcase with treasures to smuggle back to the States.

The heartbeat of the region, however, is the bustling town of San Sebastian. We happened to arrive in the middle of the Semana Grande, the annual summer festival, and a celebration of the Basques' independent spirit.

Indeed, the spirit of rebellion is still heady in the streets here -- a common sign, hung from houses, read as such:  "Remember:  You are not in Spain.  You are not in France.  You are in the Basque Country."

This desire to break free finds true expression in the wonderful cuisine of the city, a culinary tradition unlike any other in the world.  Focused around the pinxtos bars that appear every few feet, the offerings combine the best of local ingredients with truly original thought and experimentation.

We ravenously dove in.  From the pickled cod egg sacs . . .

. . . to the ubiquitous and outrageously fresh white anchovies in herbs . . .

. . . to plates of wild mushrooms mixed with orange eggs of a radioactive hue . . . 

. . .  there was not a single misstep, not a flawed dish.  Every night, we skipped from bar to bar, drinking, eating, exploring.  It was glorious.

One afternoon, on a tip from our host, we made the voyage out to the cider region, picking Sagardotegia Petriregi as our ultimate destination.

Situated in a thick-walled farmhouse, Petritegi is one of the oldest and most traditional producers in the region.  As we pulled up to the door, the place was quiet, providing little hint of the wonders within.

And what wonders there were.  Petritegi's traditional methods dictate that the cider be fermented in giant, 15-foot barrels of burnished oak, each several inches thick.

Adding to the complexity of the process, Petritegi ferments each varietal of apple separately, meaning that nearly every tank contained a different product.

Unlike traditional English or French hard ciders, the varieties produced by Petritegi are powerfully dry and funky, with a wickedly sour snap.  If you like Belgian gueuzes, like I do, this is right up your alley.

As one last wrinkle, the cider is not carbonated at any stage in the process.  Rather, it is served in long streams fresh from the fermentation tanks, allowing oxygen to whip into the liquid.

After watching one or two brave souls manage to fill their glasses without getting covered in juice, the Pasta Burner stepped up to the plate.

She handled it like a pro, and I performed serviceably soon after.  With our glasses full, we headed out to the main hall for an early dinner.  Petritegi, you see, also serves a full dinner every night, offering the same menu since they first opened many years ago.

The first course was quite simple -- a pork sausage laced with paprika and gently boiled.  It was here that the cider truly began to shine; the sourness made it a perfect pair for salty foods, and the match here was near perfect.

Next came a grilled filet of cod, covered in sweet green peppers and fried onions.  The fish was exceptionally creamy and sweet, the peppers and onions full of crunch.

By this point in the meal, the hall began to fill with other diners.  As we would see through the night, folks from all walks of life centered their evenings here:  Each of the tables told a story; a birthday for a small child; a group of thirtysomethings casually flirting and joshing with each other; a trio of elderly couples enjoying the warm and familiar bonds of friendship.  Whether in suits and ties, or jeans and a t-shirt, this was the place to be.

Our glasses running low, we headed back to the cellar, knowing that the main event -- the beefsteak -- would be next.  As we passed the kitchen, we stared deep into the the glowing oak coals, wondering which slab of meat would be ours.

We moved deeper into the cellars, each room colder than the next.  By holding the rooms at different temperatures, the cellarmaster manages to produce different esters and flavors from the juice.  The variety was dazzling, and I particularly liked the focused intensity and a clean bite of the cold-fermented ciders.

Our steak arrived only moments after we returned to the table, dripping with blood and fat.  The picture, in truth, doesn't do it justice -- it was of a monstrous size, and equal flavor.

Bursting at the seams, we limped gamely into the final course -- tuiles, quince paste, manchego cheese, and raw, uncracked walnuts.  It was a perfect capper to our gluttonous feast.

After one last glass, it was time to go.  Of course, we managed to escape with a fresh bottle, lined at the bottom with a healthy and active layer of yeast.  Am I making cider in Los Angeles this fall?  You bet I am.

That's all for now.  Join us next time as the travelogue moves into France, and we tour the grand cru vineyards of Bordeaux.

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