By Matthew Hirtes
“Higher, Mateo,” urges Ángel. “Raise the bottle in your right hand, tilt the glass with your left, and pour.” Mateo is yours truly, as I’ve found Canarians have a problem with pronouncing Matthew, mangling it in a Cockney-style way as Mafu. I’ve learned, therefore, to introduce myself as the Spanish equivalent. Ángel is Angel Rodríguez, a taxi driver by profession and cider producer when not behind the wheel.
You’ll find Spain’s cider industry in the Iberian peninsula’s north. As acclaimed author Jason Wilson, the scribe behind Cider Revival: Dispatches from the Orchard, reveals: “In Asturias and the Basque Country, sidra culture dates back hundreds of years. As long ago as the 15th century, Basque fishermen set out to sea with hulls full of cider barrels. Many historians believe the wild apples in North America that the first settlers discovered originated from Basque seafarers.”
Cider, A Way of Life
As a Brit who grew up with the potent scrumpy, I consider cider a summer beverage. Indeed, I fondly recall my brother and I bribing fellow Glastonbury Festival goers to help us put up our tent by sharing our supply of the amber libation. It’s the reverse in northern Spain as Wilson discloses: “During a Basque wintertime, the cider house (sagardotegi) becomes a way of life.”
Unsurprisingly, a good deal of my sidra ends up outside the glass and that’s not because we’re in an Asturian cider house where spillage is so expected that sawdust sprinkles the floor to soak up the fluid. We’re in a different time zone altogether, over 2,000km south west of this mainland province’s Villaviciosa in deepest cider country. Our location is north-central Gran Canaria, Valleseco (Dry Valley) to be precise. I’m a novice pourer thrown into further ineptitude by the distraction of Ángel’s bizarre get-up of surgical cap, gown, wellies, and, well, not much else.
Later, listening to Ángel describe the cider-making process though, I realize that he reminds me more of an accoucheur than a sawbones. Why? He’s helping to give birth.
Ángel’s babies are his ciders, which he produces in both still and sparkling varieties, along with sibling cider vinegar. Prompted to describe what sets his cider apart from others, Ángel replies: “Love. They’re prepared with my personal care and attention which isn’t possible for other, bigger producers to provide. I’m in this for the long term too, and short-term commercial gain doesn’t interest me.”
El Lagar de Valleseco, Ángel’s family firm, sits proudly in the Doramas Rural Park. This area is named after a championed canarii warrior. The canarii were the Berber-descending people who occupied Gran Canaria or, more accurately, what they knew as Tamaran before the 15th-century Castilian conquest.
This was Doramas’ manor. He used to roam the rainforest-like green interior before losing his life at 1481’s Battle of Arucas. Governor Pedro de Vera and his army spiked Doramas’ severed head for display purposes. They left it as a putrefying warning in the island’s three-year-old capital, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.
Most of Gran Canaria’s twenty-one municipalities have a fiesta tied to food and drink. In adjoining Firgas, it’s dedicated to watercress, the key ingredient of the island’s signature stew, potaje de berros, and in Santa María de Guía, the Fiesta del Queso celebrates the flower cheese made by utilizing an artichoke thistle’s head to form a vegetarian-friendly rennet. In Valleseco, they party hard about apples with October’s Fiesta de Carmen, the patron saint of the municipality, held during the manzana-harvest season.
Ángel’s previously strange brew (he was the first to produce cider on Gran Canaria back in 2010) has been garnering positive publicity because of its organic roots. There’s a real commitment to KM0 here, with apples sourced from the family’s 700 trees, and at the nearby EcoValles market. Ángel’s still cider is essentially boozy juice, as it doesn’t contain water or chemical additives. He’s keen to stress that you can’t over-press the apples as you risk damaging quality.
The average Canarian will tell you they don’t get drunk like the Brits who holiday on Gran Canaria (although carnival season seems to be the exception, which proves the rule). They certainly produce enough in the way of alcohol to create a stinking hangover. The dark and white rum in north-coast Arucas and east-coast Telde, vodka (the purest in the world) in the south-east’s Ingenio, and wine, primarily in the north east’s Bandama are all well-known. Then there’s the coffee of the north-west Agaete Valley (the only one to be made in the Northern Hemisphere) to help with that morning after the night before.
Despite his outfit, Ángel is very much a showman. He talks about his cider as if delivering a Ted Talk. But then, when seemingly in full flow, Ángel interrupts his presentation to show me his mobile.
There’s a new botellín (20cl bottle) in production and Ángel enthuses about the logo. It’s half apple, half wolf. I can’t help but agree it’s very striking.
Then he becomes more animated. “Lobo,” he almost spits, speeding up. “Two syllables are perfect. Easier to order. Think a-gua, vi-no.”
Ángel returns to the cellar from the everybar his bubbling brook of enthusiasm has conjured up. “Look at these barrels,” he gushes like a proud parent. “Oak. Many use American, but French roble is superior.”
The apples have a Gallic connection too. They’re of the highly-prized Reinette (French for little queen) variety planted in the mid-1800s to replenish Dry Valley land gone to waste. The tree takes pride of place on Vallesco’s coat of arms.
This is green Gran Canaria, a world away from the Sahara-like Maspalomas dunes. The local Tourist Information Office’s Carmen Angulo accentuates the appeal of breaking out of the all-inclusive bubble with a trip to the island’s interior: “Valleseco’s home to Gran Canaria’s only completely ecological market with local, organic fruit and vegetables sold alongside bread made from various cereals.”
I chew on this both literally and figuratively with a late lunch at the nearby Mesón Los Chorros. Where the bread’s matalauva (peppered with punchy aniseed) style and the traditionally salted wrinkled potatoes (papas arrugadas) come paired, as always, with mojo, which is almost as fluorescent as Indian restaurant curry sauce but not quite as spicy. I wash it down with a bottle of Gran Valle cider which, whilst drinkable especially due to the current heatwave, tastes more artificial than Ángel’s product.
Ángel swears by his cider. And by his cider vinegar too. “It’s part of my morning ritual, Mateo, to drink hot water with lemon and vinegar as it cleanses the colon and (many believe) prevents cancer.”
This is news to me. Before my visit with Ángel, I consumed cider vinegar on a regular basis, allied to an intense fitness routine, all to prevent middle-age spread. Many believe it suppresses appetite and lowers blood sugar levels.
We’re back to more sane than manic street preacher Ángel, as he steps up onto his soapbox to proselytize: “It’s all about controlling the pH. The perfect balance between acid and alkaline should be around pH 7.4, as in slightly more alkaline. Acidic cider vinegar becomes alkaline once consumed. Diseases such as cancer, and some have also suggested COVID-19, are no fans of alkaline.”
The Cider Prophet
Ángel has been in full flow since bumping elbows. Which explains my later-than-normal lunch (my UK-reared stomach’s still timed to remind me to eat around midday no matter how much cider vinegar I’ve spoon fed into my system). He’s in tour-guide mode from the off, pointing out the feed he grows for goats one minute, the confusingly-named cidra, which has nothing to do with apples but is in fact a pumpkin whose angel-hair exterior, when combined with sugar, lemon peel, and cinnamon makes for a popular not-quite-sickly-sweet jam and pastry stuffing, the next.
The Ángel gabbier is an incredibly open individual who loves showing people around. There are the certificates on the wall, a testament to the courses Ángel’s completed on the mainland. He returned to his island with Asturian glasses. Nonetheless, he says he’s more interested in producing a stronger Basque-style cider than the more well-known classic from Asturias.
“Look at this, Mateo,” exclaims Ángel as he admires the clarity of his product. “In Asturias, they prefer a cloudier consistency. But I like the simplicity of a Basque sidra which is as clear as chicken soup.”
A Q-and-A session follows Ángel’s presentation. What effect does organic production have on the cider-making process, taste, and price, I ask. “It slows it down with the still cider taking around two months and the carbonated variety between nine and twelve months,” he answers. “Ecological apples are punier and uglier than ones grown with chemicals, but they’ve got far more flavour. In terms of price, not much. I sell as cheaply as possible because, as I’ve already told you, I’m not motivated by profit.”
Ángel turns sommelier when I quiz him about the optimum temperature to drink and what food to pair it with. As he generously pours me yet another generous glass. He adjusts his glasses, which only serves to make him seem more authoritative. “It’s best served cold but without ice. You should treat it like a white wine. For that reason, it goes well with fish.”
Indeed, the Basques marry cider with a renowned cod omelette comprising the expected egg and fish with the less familiar purple garlic and red onion. Ángel offers me olives by way of sustenance, not noted for their soaking-us-booze properties. I make my excuses and leave, not before receiving an invitation to the Rodriguez family’s Fiesta de Carmen celebrations.
Read about Matthew’s experience studying abroad on the Canary Islands!