It’s that time of year again: the sound of “Txotx!” is ringing out from the hillsides. It’s the rallying cry for thirsty cider fans to make their way to the nearest open vat. Throughout the Basque Country, and specifically around the town of Astigarraga, there are cider makers who open up their farmhouses to welcome the crowds keen to imbibe their tart, fruity, chilled apple cider. Locals know what a rip-roaring good time going to a cider house and visitors having heard about these establishments, on television clips or magazine articles about the Basque Country are curious to find out.
The Basque history of cider takes us way, way back into history.
All manner of folk like to claim that their trade is what made the Basques famous/rich/great and strong explorers
“It’s our good trees and expert shipbuilding skills!” the boatbuilders cry.
“No, it’s our use of salted cod that helped to travel the world over!” say the fishermen.
The whale-hunters raised their harpoons and claimed “It was our bravado in the face of a thrashing tail that brought riches to our shores!”.
The cider-makers may have had them all beat, however. Natural cider made in the Basque Country is made from nothing more than pressed apples, fermented for a few months until bone dry with an alcohol level of 4-6%. The juice is rich in vitamins and minerals, particularly vitamin C, which, as we all know, prevents that god-awful onset of scurvy in seafaring folk, making all of these far-reaching excursions possible in the first place.
Centuries ago, subsistence farming families in the interior of the region started planting apple orchards and building their entire houses around a giant wooden press. They’d grow, harvest, press, and ferment the apples, and then sell their commodity to ships setting sail to faraway lands. Neighbors would help out in the pressing, and an instrument, the txalaparta, comes from the sound of people rhythmically pounding the apples with giant wooden mallets. (Google txalaparta… even Madonna had some on tour with her!).
When the cider was ready, cider makers would invite folks over to taste that year’s edition, along with a little something to eat, perhaps an omelette or some cheese. They’d open the tap of different barrels, and guests (usually potential buyers) could taste a splash from each barrel to decide which they’d buy. The call of “Txotx!” still used today comes from the tradition of tasting the cider from many different barrels when visiting a cider house.
As these gatherings grew in popularity, some farmhouses began opening their doors for lunches or dinners, and guests would be provided with as much cider as they wanted, codfish omelette, and walnuts and cheese for dessert. They’d bring their own giant cuts of meat to grill over coals just outside the door.
I don’t think you’d be greeted warmly if you showed up with a huge steak in your purse nowadays (but, this is the Basque Country, and we love our steak, so who knows?), and cider houses have evolved a bit. There are some that are open only in the late winter-early spring, some year-round, some are very rustic with concrete floors and standing-room only (yes, even while eating!), while others are more like restaurants in style. All work within the same framework, however: as much cider as you’d care to drink accompanied by codfish omelettes and fried cod with peppers, followed by a giant, rare, fire-grilled aged steak and for dessert Idiazabal cheese, raw walnuts, and quince jelly.
May they never go out of style.