Hannah Swinbank Strong
University of Texas at Austin
Stephen Apking (Chair)
Food is the uncommonly strong passion of the Spanish Basques. Their fanaticism for eating and cooking is evident in their interiors, and one interior in particular celebrates the ritual of dining. The sidrería is an informal cider house where a meal can be had for a few dollars. The menu is similar at all cider houses—salt cod with peppers, T-bone steaks, and quince jam. The experience is best described by Teresa Barrenechea:
“The fun begins when a guest decides to call out the word “Mojon!” At the call, thirsty guests surge toward the cider barrels, glasses in hand. The barrel tenders remove the small wooden plugs called txotx from the kupelas, and guests line up to shove their glasses under the stream, called txiri, of lightly fermented cider. Afterward, it’s back to the T-bones and omelets until the next customer cries out, “Mojon!” and the rush to the barrels is on again.“
The sidrería’s architecture is simple, straightforward, and the interior is similar. These cider houses are warehouses where cider is stored in huge barrels or kupelas. The fronts of the cider houses are equipped with grills and long communal tables. They draw upon the communal tables and barrels of cider for focus. Their surfaces are textured wood. Within the simple structure, though, an elaborate ritual takes place. As in many interiors, it is the activity of the inhabitants which takes precedence over the fixtures or furniture.
Like the Basques, all Spaniards are particularly passionate about food and eating; therefore, I will begin in Madrid, at the heart of Spain, then travel briefly on to Southern Spain, and then finally up to the Basque Country for the majority of my time.
The tapas experience of Madrid, Granada, and Cadiz will serve as an interesting comparison to the cider houses. The insides of tapas bars are simple, too, with almost no furniture—customers stand in crowds to take their meals. I will study these as well as the many plazas with tables clustered along their edges where people drift in and out throughout the day and into the night. These great plazas are the dining room of the Spanish city.
It is the Basque country that holds my specific intent of study, though. With Bilbao as a starting point, I will hold the first of several dinners at the sidrería Eguzkialde. From Bilbao, I will travel to San Sebastian for a dinner at Sagastibeltza. San Sebastian is home to many sidrerías, and I will plan to visit them all—Araeta, Astiazaran, Barkaiztegi, Irigoien, Izagirre, Mendiola, Kalonje, Txokoberri, and Urkiola to name a few. A dinner will also be held in Lasarte at Soila Enea. Many other small villages dot the map between these cities (Bergara, Oñate, …), and they, too, have sidrerías. A guide to Spanish sidrerías will help lead the way to these more obscure locations.
My original intention was to host dinners at various cider houses and to take part in the ritual of dining amongst locals. Through these dinner parties, I hoped to gain entry into what I thought was a rather closed Basque dining tradition and, therefore, gain insight in to the interaction of space, community, and food in that segment of Spanish culture. My plans hit a snag, though, in the form of the limited Basque cider season. I hadn’t realized that, at least in the rural areas of Guipuzcoa—where the traditional sidrería still reigns—cider season fizzles out each year toward the end of April. Arriving in late May, I missed most of this fascinating ritual. Fortunately for my studies, the Basques are a very friendly and very proud people. In plazas, tapas bars, restaurants, and sidrerías, I found no shortage of locals anxious to share with me the secrets of the “true” Basque experience. Although I never hosted an actual dinner party at a secluded sidrería, each time I ate out I took part in a sort of informal fiesta—waiters, barkeeps, regulars, and even passers-by from the street swooping down on me to guide me toward a special entrée or a favorite haunt.
I learned much from these experiences. The Basques, aside from giving me extraordinary hints on local culture, proved a wellspring for personal observation. Watching the flow of traffic between street and bar, the crowds around various tapas and the television during a fútbol match, the greetings of friends old and new, and the even movements around city plazas… all of these will greatly influence my future work as a designer. And my trips into the country—to the hidden cider houses where tradition and design merge seamlessly—will remain with me always.
I was glad, too, to have had the chance to visit other eating spaces in Spain—to see where “Basque” converged with the “Spanish” and the “European.” Throughout my travel, I found people who were open, friendly, and welcoming, and this was reinforced in the design of their many dining places.
The plazas mayores opened my eyes to the sheer scale a space can take on. In such a monumental “room,” it is amazing that intimate gatherings can take place at all. In the plazas there is a dichotomy between slowness and hurriedness. On the periphery, for the most part, all of the brisk walking takes place—people cutting through the plaza as a shortcut to their ultimate destination, some dissecting the plaza to get there even faster—while in the clusters of tables pushed a little further into the space, the dining and talking takes place at a leisurely pace. Spaniards do not hurry through a meal, nor do the Spanish waiters. Dining rarely takes less than an hour, so during your time seated at one of the tables, you can observe hundreds of people passing by, coming and going, greeting friends and then parting, and on and on. You can dine alone and never feel alone. This activity lends a great deal of energy to the space and an atmosphere that you want to return to. This energy is increased by the fact that there is no single origin to it. For instance, there are at least nine different portals leading into Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, so a flurry of activity surrounds an observer within.
It is important to note that a diner does not become lost in all of this activity but is rooted snugly against the buildings for security. A plaza, not actually being an interior space, is composed of these buildings as its walls and stone pavers as its floor. The fact that there is no ceiling allows for another intimacy—intimacy with weather, nature, and the sun. In many ways, the plaza is a refined interior, with its walls’ (buildings’) facades decorated in a manner that is cohesive; however, at any given moment a bird could swoop down and land, and it is this freedom which keeps the plaza’s purpose ever-changing. You may make of the plaza what you like; nothing is outlawed. Tapas bars are much the same and much different—the first and largest difference being scale.
Tapas bars are often tight spaces with little more than a counter that runs the length of the space. There is also a drastic difference in light. Many tapas bars are cave-like, dimly lit places. Whereas in the plazas people move about each other with much space in between, people are crammed into popular tapas bars and can even spill out into the streets. It is very difficult to be only an observer in a tapas bar because you are elbow-to-elbow with the action. The bars have a very convivial, neighborly atmosphere that draws you in. There is no focus in the plazas, but a great one in the bars—the food. Spaniards will return to favorite tapas bars time and time again for the food.
The similarities are striking as well. For one, the same issue of time comes up. The slowness is achieved in the cooking—many of the recipes, while simple, take quite a while to prepare. Roasted meats, baked breads, tortillas all take time to make, and on the other hand, this wonderful food is taken in small portions, eaten in quick bites between sips of drink. This manifests itself in a fairly quick turnover of customers. The tapas tradition of dinner involves moving from bar to bar, choosing a particularly good huevos rotos at one place and heading off to another for the Serrano ham and rarely sitting down during or in between. This quick turnover has shaped the tapas bar’s interior. With little need for chairs and tables, they are mainly very narrow spaces where people line up along the counter.
Cider houses again have an aspect of time and familiarity about them that is intriguing. By familiarity, I mean the willingness of its inhabitants to be together with strangers, to literally take part in something right next to another human being. In the plazas and tapas bars this is true as well. In the cider houses, people are sharing a table, sharing a grill for their meat, and sharing an experience. It is both intimate and stretches the globe—people from all over the world visit sidrerias. In order to better share the cider house meal, one room is used on a given night. Tables and benches are lined up so that diners sit with one another; in smaller sidrerias, only one long wooden table accommodates a smaller grouping. Also, as cider-drinking is the main event at a sidreria, the kupelas are prominently displayed along the walls of the dining halls.
On time—cider houses have very limited seasons. Some cider houses remain open in the off-season to serve bottled cider and a small selection of entrees while many close up completely. Imagine if your favorite restaurant was open only four months of the year; surely it would go out of business. This is not the case with cider houses. The ritual of taking cider dates back to the 1300s, so it is squarely cemented in Basque history. In between cider seasons, the cider is actually produced. This lengthy process is the backbone of the cider house. Good production will allow for a longer season and more business, but as a rule, the production takes far longer than the consumption. It really seems, though, that business has not entered into the minds of cider house owners. Their pleasure derives in carrying out a beautiful ritual. The season comes and goes in a flash, yet people from all over travel great distances to take part.
Spanish culture revolves around its food and its sense of community. This point was reinforced to me over and over throughout my visit to the country. Overall it is a slow culture, taking its time with each meal and each gathering, and its sometimes-hurried movements emphasize this slowness. To visit Spain’s buildings is to step back in time to a slower pace but to be grounded in the present as well.
Hannah Swinbank Strong
University of Texas at Austin