|Food of Los Dioses|
Around the corner from La Cerveteca in Barcelona's Bari Gotic I stumble (literally) upon La Socarenna, a small bar built into an arch, offering productes asturias y catalans. They make cider in Asturias, and sure enough, the front window is piled high with thick green bottles. I go in.
An ancient transistor radio behind the bar gives football commentary that sounds like it's being broadcast by bees. A grey haired man outside on the step takes his time finishing his cigarette before slowly walking back in and heading behind the bar to serve me. There's one other customer standing at the bar.
I ask for sidra and there's one choice: Camin, a brand from Trabanco. Mainstream stuff as far as the Asturians are concerned, but a far cry from Bulmer's, Magner's or Woodchuck. It comes in 660ml bottles. The bartender pops the cork and hands me the bottle and a traditional sidra glass, thin and delicate with a wide mouth, perfect for 'throwing' the sidra in the traditional Asturian way. I order a bowl of cockles to go with it, and am in heaven.
The other guy at the bar is throwing his sidra properly. This is the Spanish tradition: sidra is flat and very acidic compared to other cider traditions. The idea is to throw the cider into the glass from a great height. It explodes onto the side of the thin glass, which sings with the impact. This aerates the cider, giving it a champagne-like moussy texture and softening the acidity to something pleasant. That's the first swig anyway - anything left in the glass after thirty seconds is poured away.
This means traditional sidra drinking is an active pursuit: small mouthfuls poured and drunk quickly, so you soon lose track of how fast you are drinking.
The floor of La Socarenna is tiled, and right at the foot of the bar there's a neat drainage channel. But this must be for show: it's perfectly dry, and the guy further down the bar has a black wooden bucket at his feet. He throws his sidra confidently from above his head, over the bucket, spilling a few drops.
I know how it should be done. I compromise, carefully pouring from about a foot over the glass. It's not a bad first effort.
The sidra tastes beautiful, more like the easy end of Somerset cider rather than the traditional ascetic Asturian liquid some cider makers insist is just vinegar. There's that lovely soft, woozy apple you get from scrumpy, and the acidity is perfect for me - enough to make your palate perk up without attacking it. Similarly, the farmyard notes are strong enough to suggest character, not so much that your palate is transported to the cowsheds.
Together with the cockles, it's perfect: seafood and clean, crisp acidity together are so simple yet so right. One urges you back to the other, until you're stabbing with your cocktail stick in a frenzy. As typical bar fayre, it beats the crap out of lager and crisps, and is no more expensive.
While I'm writing about drainage and buckets, three very heavily made up English girls stop to look at the menu outside. The surly barman is transformed, drifting over to the window with a big grin he has kept well hidden until now. The girls move on and the grin disappears. The other guy has finished his sidra and left. The barman goes back to conspicuously ignoring me, standing with his back to me, the only customer in the bar.
The sidra is 6% and it's doing its job well. Half a bottle in, from nowhere I'm completely pissed. And in my half-hearted, very English attempt at throwing my cider, I manage to pour it all over my notebook. My cover is blown. I've gone from 'Obviously I'm not from Asturias but I am aware of the tradition and I'm trying to demonstrate that even though I know I can't do it properly' to 'Basically, I'm just a twat.'
I now have about a quarter of my bottle left. Another couple arrive and order a bottle of Camin. A Spanish couple. They sit at a table and she throws the cider from about a foot over her glass, without spilling a drop. He pours his nervously, right over the top of the glass. They both look uncomfortable and transfer their attention to a bowl of olives. The methodical spearing of shiny green morsels is a skill they are both proficient in, and it becomes their entire world. Meanwhile I stand behind them, writing furiously in my sodden notebook at 11pm on a Saturday night, pretending to myself that I look inconspicuous.
It's brilliant that this sidra tradition exists, and that people are aware of it but have different levels of comfort with it, they're not quite sure about it. It feels more authentic somehow that something that is ruthlessly observed and policed.
I pour the last of my sidra timidly, like the guy at the table, neck it and make the universal sign for la cuenta, secretly pleased that my new notebook is now impregnated with smelly booze, and stagger, soused, into the night.