There are a few things you must know about cider houses: where to find them, the best time to go and how to get the most out of them.
A sagardotegi (pronounced (Sa-ɡaɾ-do-teɡi) is a type of cider house found in the Basque Country. Modern sagardotegis are rather like rustic steakhouses with plenty of cider. Back in the day, most Basque houses outside the cities owned apple orchards, according to Trask, who wrote The History of Basque. The first cider house was recorded in 1291 and gathering apples used to be a communal activity. People who did not own a press would receive a measure of cider for helping out with the harvest.
Cider is a very popular beverage in the Basque Country and the best time to enjoy it, the height of the season, is from mid January (around the 19th) to April or May. This particular cider only has about 6% alcohol so it’s very easy to drink. It’s still and quite acidic rather than sparkling and sweet.
Nowadays, most cider houses (and incidentally the best ones) are to be found in Astigarraga and Hernani, towns that are only 15 minutes away from San Sebastián.
There are certain rules for serving and drinking it, so when you go to a cider house, be prepared to eat and drink heartily.
Once you’re in a cider house, get yourself a proper glass-one that’s wide-rimmed and thin-and make your way to the barrels. Remember to wear a jacket as it tends to be quite chilly!The barrels are usually lined up and the cider master holds the key. Line up behind people who are already being served or ask the cider master to tap open one of the barrels for you. Stand far enough back so that you can tilt your glass so that it is at an angle. The stream of cider should hit the inside of your glass near the top, and make sure you serve only up to two or three fingers. Too much cider in a glass gets cloudy so you want less to make sure it stays clear. As the Basques say, “Little and often.”
Once you’ve had your first glass, you can go back to your table, which is usually a long, wooden trestle table. Some cider houses have benches and others prefer not to have chairs, like in the old days.
Now for the magic word: Txotx! Pronounced choch, it refers to the action of tapping the barrel and pouring yourself some cider, something that only a few men used to enjoy before. Now every time the word is mentioned, anyone who wants can go to the barrels for another serving.
The food, ladies and gents, is another highlight of this experience. As soon as you sit down, your table will be set with knives and forks and loafs of crusty bread. The food parade begins with chistorra, a spicy Basque sausage cooked in cider that’s salty and hot and a great start to any meal. It is followed by a freshly-made salt cod omelet with parsley. Recipes may vary but tortilla de bacalao, as it’s known in Spanish, is an institution here. The eggs are cooked enough for the whole thing to keep its shape yet stay creamy inside. It’s a keeper, I tell you.
The next dish is salt cod in a different presentation: cooked over caramelized onions and strips of roasted green peppers. Be sure to take your time to savor each dish and fit enough Txotx rituals in between.
Then comes the steakhouse reference, chuleta: thick, char-grilled bone-in steaks cooked quite rare and sprinkled with rock salt-meat at its best. And for the final drumroll: walnuts, quince jelly and sheep’s cheese, a classic, winning combination.
During the course of a night, 10 or more barrels may be tapped. And though the usual procedure is to get a splash of cider from the streaming Txotx and then head back to your table, the occasional barrel calls for a second glass. There is a great deal of discussion about the subtle differences between one barrel and the next, and guests tend to have their favourites. Cider houses are an integral part of the Basque countryside. They have become a place for everyone and a tradition that is well worth experiencing when you’re in town, especially during the cider season.
We look forward to hearing your Txotx!