San Sebastian is known for two things; its beach and its food. The Old Town is full of the most delicious pintxos you’ll ever hope to taste, and if you’ve got a bit more cash to splash around, there’s more Michelin starred restaurants here per capita than anywhere else in the world.
So, knowing this, I ventured out of San Sebastian last night for dinner.
I didn’t venture far. In the hills surrounding the Basque city, a sprinkling of cider houses are tucked away, offering their speciality plus set menus of home-grown produce. It wasn’t hard to convince some passengers; we loaded ourselves into a few taxis and headed out to Petritegi.
There are a few cider houses about a ten-minute drive from San Sebastian, but Petritegi, running since the sixteenth century, is the one most consistently open and is a firm favourite of locals. When the taxi pulled up, we were surrounded by countryside. Cows grazed nearby and the large stone farmhouse made the whole scene look more like Ireland than Spain. However, I’m sure restaurants open earlier than 8pm in Ireland.
We wandered in and grabbed our cider glasses, with the cider being completely self-serve. This is probably the most unusual part of the whole cider house experience; whenever your glass is empty, you wander into the cool rooms filled with 20,000 litre barrels of cider. You turn the tap and a steady stream of cider runs out; it’s best with two people as one needs to turn the tap, the other needs to catch it in their glass. It’s done this way to let the cider air and create a natural carbonation when it hits the glass.
Spanish cider is different from the Magners and Bulmers we get at home. It’s more flat; it only gets its carbonation from the pouring process. It’s also served in much smaller quantities than the stuff we know better; this is so it stays cool and refreshing. Most passengers don’t like it when I give them a sip of mine on the first night in San Sebastian, but a few more sips is what’s needed to convert the cynics. And here at Petritegi, the cider is unlimited. Yes, you heard me right. You can pour as much as you like until they close at midnight, so it is best to get in as soon as they open and kick back for the rest of the night.
The cider, despite being the main attraction, is often overshadowed by the quality of the food. It’s all local, and our set meal consisted of chorizo, cod omelette, hake, t-bone steak, cheese, walnuts, quince jelly, homemade biscuits, and a cider sorbet. The quality was amazing, we felt very posh indeed.
That posh feeling is probably what separates the cider houses from their relatives in German beer halls. San Sebastian, and the Basque country more generally, is very well-off and it shows. Despite this, the atmosphere is jovial and incredibly local, and all the waiters spoke not a word of English. We got by on Spanglish and mime, with a couple of Basque words receiving wide grins in return.
We got back to San Sebastian feeling mighty proud of ourselves, and that wasn’t simply the result of the cider talking. The whole night set us back about forty euro each; the set menu came to just under thirty euro each with the unlimited cider included, plus the taxis there and back. Not quite a regular stop on the backpacker trail, but we all need an injection of posh on the road every once in a while.