While many tourists flock to Spain for a perfect pitcher of sangria, or an alluring glass or rioja red wine, it is perhaps less well known that there is a cider, just as traditional and just as quintessentially Spanish. The Asturias and Basque country, the “España Verde” region of Spain, make the renowned Spanish sidra that has a history and rituals all of its own.
The first testimony about cider from Asturias was made by Greek geographer Strabo in 60 BC, and its production is still going strong, despite a temporary ban during Franco’s reign. Asturian cider is grown in this particular region due to the inability to grow grape vines there; luckily the mild, wet summers and mild winters are ideal for apple growing. This northern province is the largest producer of cider in Spain, accounting for more than 80% of the national production. The traditional Asturian sidra has a 4–8% strength alcohol content and is fermented naturally, without any added sugars or sweeteners. The new batches are released annually in early springtime, and in August, Asturia plays host to the National Cider Festival.
The other main cider producing region of Spain is the Basque country, especially around San Sebastian (renowned amongst other things for the famous San Sebastian Film Festival). There, the cider is shot out of spouts in large barrels directly into pitchers. Their cider is fermented for a month or two, and then drunk from January until April. In Asturias, the cider is kept in vats for about five months, until the fermentation has stopped, and then it is bottled. Drinking Asturian sidra is shrouded in rituals. Because the cider is left to ferment naturally, it is usually still, not sparkling like a lot of other ciders. Therefore, to aerate the cider, and enhance the bouquet and the natural carbonation, it is poured in a special way; ‘throwing’ the cider is called escanciar or echar un culín in Spanish. The cider pourer (the escanciador as they are known to the locals) holds the bottle up above his head, and pours into a glass much like a whiskey tumbler, from a height of 30 cm or 3 feet. This temporarily gives the cider some bubbles (Spaniards call the gas estrella) which you drink all in one.
A proper sidrería is the best place to enjoy this experience. As you cannot order a single glass of Asturian sidra, it is usually a very sociable event. The cider usually comes in 750ml bottles, the same size as a bottle of vino tinto, which the escanciador uncorks at the table. After the pouring and quick consumption of the first glass, it is refilled and passed onto the next person to enjoy. This is why, traditionally, a glass of Spanish cider is never emptied – years ago, spilling the remaining cider over the rim of the glass where your mouth had been was sufficient cleaning, and the same glass was passed around. Today, it is still customary to leave the dregs; they are either thrown onto a sawdust covered floor, or poured down the drain that runs along the bar specifically for this purpose.
Furthermore, you can even cook with Asturian cider. There are recipes for several tapas dishes and even main meals that use sidra as an integral ingredient; why not try chorizo en sidra, cider and toast smeared with cabrales cheese, cider vinaigrette for your salad or even hazelnuts packed in Asturian honey, as a perfect accompaniment to this traditional Spanish drink.
So, when enjoying the famous Spanish sidra, may I wish you “Salud!” and "Arriba, Abajo, Al Centro, y Adentro!"