There’s a big difference between eating a meal and enjoying a dining experience. I encountered both of these concepts during my trip to San Sebastian, however I firmly believe that dinner at the Mizpiradi Ziderhouse represented the ideal dining experience. (In America, we would call this establishment a “ciderhouse” but in Basque a z is used instead of a c.)
As I enthusiastically learned more about the Basque culture, I discovered that the ingredients used in this 5-course meal such as cod and T-bone steak are authentic for this region and are commonly used. Fortunately, the chef at this ziderhouse was particularly capable; each dish stood out and even now I am impressed after mentally reviewing my entire trip.
Andoain, Basque Country (Spain)
4.5 stars out of 5 stars
A brief history of the Basque Ziderhouse:
The cider that we consume here in the United States is not congruent at all as compared to the variety in the Basque country. While I have tried regular apple cider and hard cider, the kind served directly from the barrel in a sagardotegi (Basque ziderhouse) stands somewhere in between. This cider is still instead of sparkling, has a low alcoholic content of 4-6%, can be quite foamy at times, and possesses more of a true apple flavor.
In the 16th century, cider production occurred in Basque farm houses and the intricate pressing machine was spread across the top and bottom floor. Today, modern machinery is used: the apples are crushed; the pulp is transferred to a press, the juice collected in vats, and then processed and stored in large barrels.
The Mizpiradi Ziderhouse uses the kupela, which is the largest of all cider barrels, holding up to 1000 liters! I was fortunate enough to touch this barrel and I pumped cider from it several times which was amazing.
Apples are collected from the end of September until the middle of November; the Basque cider season officially starts around the 19th of January and lasts through April or May. (I arrived in San Sebastian on January 16th, lucky me!)
Cider is considered best when consumed with a meal, therefore many customers used to bring along food for the tasting. This has evolved into a gastronomic tradition where these establishments became a cross between a grill and a cider house, which turned out to be the perfect combination for me.
The dining experience:
I felt happily overwhelmed when I stepped into the ziderhouse. I quickly discovered several sounds and smells: I attempted to acclimate myself to the constant conversation around me in Spanish or Basque, I heard the sounds of the ever present rain, and I literally smelled the aroma of apples in the air!
As for the dinner, we started with chorizos (txorizos in Basque) which were cooked in the cider. I was already a big fan of this variety of sausage, and this dish exceeded my expectations: the smoky flavor of the excellent sausage paired well with the reduced sweetness of the cider sauce. (I found that San Sebastian makes some of the best sausages and there is even a great variety which is just made in the Basque Country called txistorra.)
The next dish was a cod omelet which was definitely a winner. It somehow felt like comfort food, which sounds strange, but the flavors of the eggs, cod, and onions seamlessly merged together.
I was surprised when the third course of fried cod was served: I was expecting something akin to the fish and chips variety of cod, but I was quite pleased to eat this version which was closer to being pan fried. Fresh fish is certainly a strength in this area; the well seasoned and flavorful dish was another example of this.
I was anticipating the arrival of my t-bone steak (chuleta), and after my first bite I was astounded by its taste. I thought I detected a few types of seasoning, but was told that it’s simply cooked with sea salt. (That must have been a great kind of sea salt!) While it was a bit tough or fatty in places, I enjoyed my first piece of beef in the Basque country.
Finally, it was time for the last course and I felt a bit disappointed that this great experience would be coming to an end soon. While I am extremely picky when it comes to cheese, somehow I actually enjoyed my dessert: a slightly sharp Idiazabal cheese topped with membrillos (a type of sweet quince preserve) served with a variety of nuts. It was the perfect light ending to a fantastic dining experience.
Please stay tuned for more of my adventures in the Basque country and reviews of restaurants in San Sebastian!