Tag: Four Sheets to the Wind

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Barcelona II: This Time it’s Sidra

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.

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Barcelona discovers craft beer: becomes even more perfect

I can’t believe it’s a decade since my first visit to Barcelona, as part of the research for my second book, Three Sheets to the Wind
Back then any new city outside the UK mainland was a bewildering adventure for me. Anything that was marginally different from home was a marvel. I used to enjoy going into Seven-Elevens and Spar shops, buying any beer I hadn’t seen before, good or bad, noting how the snacks were arranged differently, or appreciating that the ham roll was an international standard that took slightly different forms wherever you went.
Last weekend, as I got off the airport bus at the top of the Ramblas (I’d never have dared get a bus on my own that first time) I felt an echo of the old rush, conjured up by Barcelona’s graceful architecture, the relaxed rush of the place. But I was nostalgic for that lost innocence. I’ve become a little blasé about travelling now. Once you’ve done a three month sea journey to India, a European city break is well in your stride and holds little that’s unexpected. This makes me feel slightly sad and a more than a little old.
I feel even older when, after checking in to my hotel, I take my city guide out for a stroll around the Barri Gotic, Barcelona’s old quarter. Stealthily, my eyesight has worsened since I was last here, and I simply can’t make out the street names on the maps. 
I try wandering randomly instead. That first time I was here with the Beer Widow and my wingman Chris, this strategy brought us to Barcelona’s Kojak tribute bar, and not one, but two pirate themed bars. The best thing was, these nautical oddities were just across the road from each other – the only two pirate themed bars in the city; in fact the only two I’ve ever seen. Getting slowly pissed on Estrella and full of jamon and pimientos de padron, we tried to imagine what the story was. Two friends with a vision of the perfect pirate themed pub, maybe, and after opening it together one ousts the other. In his rage, he opens a rival establishment across the road. “There’s only room for one pirate theme bar in Barcelona, and by God, mine will triumph!” Images of cannon firing across the street, and people swinging on ropes across the narrow gap with daggers in their mouths.
It seems both the pirate bars and the Kojak bar are long gone, which adds to my building sense of nostalgia. But then I walk into a small square and discover La Cerveteca. According to the Craft Beer section in my copy of the Rough Guide to Barcelona (seriously) this bar offers the city’s widest selection of beers from around the world, as well as a few local brews.  

Last time I visited Barcelona – about five years ago on a work trip – there was no craft beer. There is now. Ever since my Three Sheets trips, Spain has always been one of my favourite places to drink. Not because of the quality of the beer (although Spanish mainstream lagers are far superior to their British equivalents) but because of the way people drink. Small glasses, often with tiny bits of food, moving through the city until the small hours, ending up happy and sated but not completely pissed. It’s the perfect way to drink beer.

Now you can do it with good beer.

I’d heard that Spain had discovered craft beer and considered reading up on it, maybe contacting a few people before I flew out. I’m glad I didn’t. I can just be a punter again, on a new journey of discovery.

La Cerveteca is in an old building of exposed massive stone blocks, very high ceilings and mosaic floors. It’s a very Spanish bar, which makes the shelves of Nogne O, BrewDog, Meantime, Dupont and Cantillon bottles lining the walls seem all the more incongruous. People stand around large hogsheads on which they drape their heavy winter coats (they seem to be feeling the chill of 15 degrees Celsius more than I do) and perch their beers.

I’m one of those people who usually speaks English slowly, assuming/hoping serving staff across Europe will understand. But here, ordering a pint of IPA in a foreign language for possibly the first time, I realise those three letters have become as international as ‘OK’ or the scribbly airsign you make when you want the bill. Even in languages where the phonetic pronunciation of the letters is different, they anglicise it for IPA, the way Brits sometimes say Zee instead of Zed if it’s in an American context. Say those three letters in a craft beer bar anywhere in the world, and the bartender will nod, whatever languages they do or don’t speak.

As well as ‘Ipanema IPA’, the bar boasts locally brewed beers including porter, saison, red ale and smoked marzen. Some of these are even cask conditioned. A half-drawn just behind the bar reveals an expansive cellar.  The physics-defying heads on the pints being poured suggest there might still be some work to be done there, so I stick to the keg taps.

My IPA is good: clean, fresh and quenching, with a slowly building hop fuzziness, just how I like it.

I’m absurdly happy that I can stand at the bar in a place like this and order a pint of saison with a plate of Jamon Belotta – the king of ham, at least within my budget – or just about. (The first time I had Belotta ham is detailed in Three Sheets in the bit about the Hamburglar in Madrid, who got me and my mate Chris pissed on Ballantyne whisky and tricked us into buying a €17 plate of ham each).

The ham simply melts around it’s fat, sweet and salty. And although it’s not a perfect match with the saison, it pulls the beer into interesting new shapes, making it bolder and more cheerful than a saison usually is.

Craft beer belongs perfectly in Barcelona’s easygoing gastronomic culture, which is even now creating playful new fusions such as Asian-influenced tapas (unsurprising given the Japanese eat and drink beer in a very similar fashion). This is Ferran Adria’s city after all.

The next day I find the actual address of Hook, the last pirate theme bar, and discover it closed last summer. Instead, a few doors down, there’s a bar called CRAFT, selling BrewDog, Meantime and Brooklyn beers far more cheaply than I can buy them at home.

This prompts mixed feelings. The charm of researching Three Sheets was discovering the quirks of drinking culture around the world, realising that there was a universal template for what beer means, and what the beer moment is, and that this template gets dressed up in different national and regional costumes that are unique, and sometimes special.

In one sense it’s fantastic that I can now get the craft beers I know – plus some new ones such as Holz and Aktien, that I’d like to get to know better – in one of my favourite cities in the world. In another, it makes me slightly sad that this seemingly comes at the cost of sitting in a pub lined with prints of Telly Savalas, drinking perfectly average lager, and laughing like a drain.

But maybe those days were gone anyway.