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Txotx! Or How to Drink Apples, Part 2

 

IS TXOTX TIMELESS?

Some comfort foods, like some traditions,  are timeless.  Chicken noodle soup in July?  Yes, please.  Ice cream in January?  Why not?  A txotx chuleta or fried cod and peppers in late May?  Goazen (pronounced: WHART-zen!  “Let’s go!” in euskera).  Although there is an official txotx (pronounced: chotch) season in the Basque country, running from January until late April/early May (as described in Part 1 of this blog series), anyone can have the txotx menu and experience in some sagardotegiak (“cider houses” in euskera) year-round.  One classic sagardotegi (“cider house” in euskera) that has welcomed locals and tourists for five generations and that welcomed me and three friends last summer, was Petritegi – or, house of Petri (“Pedro” in Castilian Spanish or “Peter” in English).

It was a warm July day, when a friend from Donosti – J – announced that he was going to show me and two of his other friends (who happened to be visiting from Italy), one of the most Basque of Basque food traditions: “We’re going to a sagardotegi for lunch – for txotx!”  As the three of us non-Donostiarrans had never been to a sagardotegi (let alone a txotx meal), we were excited.  Learning that we would be heading to Astigarraga, a mecca for txotx, added to the excitement.  J explained that many sagardotegiak did not provide the txotx experience during the summer months, but that a few did.  Sure, the sagardotegi may not hit peak crowd capacity or have the same potential for elbow rubbing with neighbors during the summer as during the official winter and early spring months of txotx, but for some, that’s a good thing (here’s looking at you introverts and the crowd-averse).

We arrived at Petritegi’s parking lot, a few miles outside of Donosti-San Sebastian, on the earlier side of lunch.  Unlike the minimalist modern design of Calonge featured in Part I of the blog series, Petritegi has a traditional home-in-the-countryside aesthetic from the outside, and the relaxed and cozy ambience of a neighborhood tavern from the inside.  Another feature that distinguishes Petritegi from Calonge – it’s a fairly expansive property – with the capacity for 400 diners at a time and multiple buildings standing adjacent to rolling hills covered in apple trees.  Although I didn’t take many photos that day, online photos of Petritegi show its links to the local environment and history via its architecture and interior design (with one dining room inspired by a typical Gipuzkoan farmhouse and another by Basque fishermen.  A third dining room is decorated with huge cider barrels typical for a sagardotegi).  At the time of our visit, not all the dining rooms were open (most likely because we went during the off-season).

Antique equipment (I think)

PETRITEGI: A BRIEF INTRODUCTION

From what I gathered during my visit (and from some online sleuthing), Petritegi is a well organized and sophisticated operation – running not just its cider production, restaurant, and sales, but guided tours, tastings, and a hotel.  As Petritegi uses around 25 varieties of apples, some grown on their own orchards, tours may also include a visit to their orchards.  Beyond the typical sagardoa (“cider” in euskera) line, Petritegi offers products like organic apple juice and specialty ciders.  Members of the Otaño-Goikoetxea family have operated Petritegi for five, going on six, generations.  Although the name Petritegi precedes the Otaño-Goikoetxea’s family operation, it’s a link to its 16th century origins, when the cider house’s farmhouse press was built.  Although I haven’t taken a guided tour, I can imagine Petritegi and the Otaño-Goikoetxea family riding the historical highs and lows throughout the centuries – economic prosperity and market crashes, wars at home and abroad, industrialization, emigration and immigration, among other events.  After Agapito Goikoetxea bought the sagardotegi’s farmhouse in the early 20th century, he carried on the tradition of making cider, commercializing the operation in the 1940s.  The family began the txotx tradition at Petritegi in the 1970s, much like other sagardotegiak in Gipuzkoa.  Today, Ainara Otaño, daughter of Joaquín Otaño, manages the family business and runs Petritegi.  Nephews Ioritz y Argoitz Otaño, sons of Ainara’s late brother Jokin, and the 6th generation of this cider-making family, are also part of the family operation.  Given the expansion of Petritegi to overseas markets, accolades for several of its products, and frequent word-of-mouth and media mentions of this classic sagardotegi, it’s safe to say that Petritegi is a brand and local business that has earned its large following and reputation for consistency and quality.

A Petritegi kupela showing the different apple varieties used for its sagardoa.

THE SISTERHOOD OF SAGARDOA

Although Ainara is one of just a handful of women in the male dominated world of the sagardotegi, she represents a long, if often forgotten, lineage of female cider entrepreneurs dating back to the 16th century.  Although documentation has been scarce and difficult to track down, several women who were involved in the production or sales of sagardoa during the 16th to 18th centuries were highlighted in a 2020 exhibition at the Museum of Cider in Astigarraga.  Museum researcher Lourdes Odriozola recounted how many women during this time period dedicated themselves to growing apples, making cider, and selling cider, among other tasks.  With their husbands off working in shipyards and ironworks or gone for long stretches to work as fishermen off the coast of eastern Canada and as hired hands on cocoa production in Venezuela, many of these women kept the cider industry afloat, sometimes literally.  Women were also involved in the transport of cider by boat to the Port of Pasaia.

Joining Ainara in continuing this sisterhood of sagardoa are three Gipuzkoan sisters – Oihana, Jaione y Maialen Gaincerain – who run the Zelaia sagardotegi in Hernani.  Taking over for their father, who retired in 2014, these 4th generation cider makers each run a particular aspect of Zelaia – cider production, finance and marketing, and operations.  Like Petritegi, the Zelaia sagardotegi and sagardoa brand derives its name from its farmhouse, where the Gaincerain family has been producing cider since the 19th century.  Like some other sagardotegiak, Zelaia grows its own apples for use in some of their products.  While not having been to Zelaia, word on the street is that the (award-winning) cider, food, and txotx experience (which follows the official January to April txotx season) are worth trying.

A PRIX FIXE CLASSIC AND A HOUSE (OF PETRI) PARTY

Similar to Calonge, we were quickly greeted by staff upon arriving.  Though we didn’t have a reservation, we were quickly seated – and even given the option of sitting outside. Since the weather was so nice (sunny and warm, but not hot), we gladly accepted the offer.  One advantage to having a txotx meal at a sagardotegi in the summer and arriving early for lunch?  Not having to make a reservation ahead of time (although, typically, reservations are recommended for eating at a sagardotegi).  Another advantage?  Having your pick of tables.

The friendly waitress gave each of us a typical wide-mouthed cider glass after confirming our order.  My Donostiarran friend J (who had grown up with the tradition of txotx) led the 3 of us – all txotx neophytes – to the cellar.  There was already a group in the cellar taking their first swigs of cider.  As we waited for another kupela (“barrel” in euskera) to have its tap open, the other group began to chat us up in a friendly and welcoming way – just neighbors getting to know one another.  During the course of our chit chat, I discovered someone’s daughter was studying in the U.S., while another had family who had just visited Asia. We talked about everything from national parks, languages, K-culture, and more.  I was essentially at a house party, except the “house” was a sagardotegi cellar.  And as three out of the four in our group were first-timers at a sagardotegi for txotx, Petritegi’s staff, our friend J, and other local diners gave us, the uninitiated, some lessons and tips on the best way to catch our cider as it came shooting out of the kupelak (“barrels” in euskera) once the Petritegi staff opened a tap.  The sagardotegi txotx experience, is by nature a social event – where the meal is as much about meeting and enjoying the company of people as it is about enjoying traditional Basque food and hard cider.

Our group joined the revolving door of guests moving in and out of the cellar – at times catching cider in our glasses and at times, eating.  There is an art and a (brief) learning curve to catching cider (which was covered in Part 1 of this blog series).  Over the course of the meal, the 3 of us newbies, quickly got the hang of catching cider without letting too much fall on the floor and without having too much fill our glasses.

We enjoyed the typical surf and turf txotx meal (with the typical gargantuan portions): a cod omelette, a huge steak (which, now don’t be alarmed, we had asked to be cooked medium well), fried cod with green peppers, and for dessert, Basque cheese and quince jelly, whole walnuts, and almond-flavored cookies that are commonly found in the Gipuzkoan city of Tolosa.

As to be expected of a txotx meal, the food was rich, hearty, and simultaneously had us dreaming of a 2 hour siesta and a 2 hour hike.

SAGARDOA’S SECRET SUPERPOWER

That the meal combines elements of the sea, mountains, and plains is no surprise.  The Basque country is home to the mariner, the mountaineer, and the farmer alike.  What might come as a surprise is that sagardoa was not only a beverage, but an unintended elixir – helping protect Basque sailors from a mysterious disease known as “the plague of the sea.”  While the disease – which we know today as scurvy – wreaked havoc on many a European ship, killing half or more of various crews, the Basques, for the most part, evaded this terrible fate.  The disease, which stems from severe vitamin C deficiency, includes symptoms such as loosened teeth, lethargy, hallucinations, internal bleeding, and a general disintegration of the body.  Spending months at a time in the open ocean and lacking access to fresh produce, European crews during the “Age of Discovery” were primed to be easy victims of scurvy, an easily preventable disease.  According to several articles, “from the 15th to 19th centuries, scurvy killed over two million sailors, more than shipwrecks, storms, combat, and all other diseases combined.”  

Basque sailors, however, voyaging as far away as Newfoundland (Canada) to chase whales and cod and the Caribbean to help claim lands for European monarchs bent on colonization, were mostly able to escape the grim fate of scurvy by setting sail with thousands of gallons of Basque cider – which they drank regularly.  The cider was not only a drink that kept well on lengthy voyages but also provided the much needed scurvy preventative: vitamin C.  At the time, the link between vitamin C and scurvy was unknown.  With their miraculous ability to avoid falling victim to scurvy and their vast seafaring experience and knowledge, Basque sailors became some of the most sought after for transoceanic expeditions during the 15th and 16th centuries.

A fallen apple picked up from a random (public) trail in Gipuzkoa

Happily oblivious to the seafaring past and life and death nutritional value of sagardoa that fine summer day, my friends and I relished our hours-long txotx lunch.  It wasn’t until much later that I found out about sagardoa’s importance to the lives of Basques on the open ocean.

Leaving Petritegi that day, I was struck by a feeling – a feeling beyond your typical food coma.  No, not heartburn, but a deep respect.  The culture of txotx is a culture of confluences: where ocean meets land, where locals meet visitors, and where multiple generations meet (as guests in the front of the house and as makers of sagardoa in the back of the house, carrying on their family’s legacy).  There is a lot to be learned about Basque culture and history from this humble beverage that is sagardoa – a drink that empowered women, sustained and protected seafarers, and helped fuel exploration and reset global politics.  So in the coming months, as spring temperatures rise and give way to summer heat, consider venturing out with a group to enjoy the timeless comfort meal of txotx.  You’ll not only be continuing the decades-old ritual of txotx but also helping to support sagardoa producers and sagardotegi operators into the next generation.

To learn more about Part 1 of this 2-part blog series, “Txotx!  Or How to Drink Apples” click on this link.

Disclaimer: All opinions expressed here are my own and are not sponsored or influenced in any way by any business, including Petritegi, Zelaia, or any other sagardotegiak or their affiliates.

SAGARDOTEGIAK WITH A YEAR-ROUND TXOTX EXPERIENCE

Although I’ve only visited Petritegi for an off-season txotx meal, the following are additional sagardotegiak that seem to also have the txotx experience year-round:

Alorrenea 
Alorrene Bidea 4, Astigarraga, 20115
Tel.: +34 943 33 69 99 (Reservations by phone only)

Astarbe (Reservations to be made online)
Txoritokieta Bidea 13, Astigarraga, 20115
Tel.: +34 943 551 527

Petritegi (Reservations to be made online)
Petritegi Bidea, Astigarraga, 20115
Tel.: +34 943 457 188

Sources:

Petritegi, Our History (undated)

Sagardoaren Lurraldea, Petritegi Cider House (undated)

Sagardoaren Lurraldea, “Tres Hermanas al Frente de la Sideria Zelaia” (5 March 2019)

Euskal Sagardoa, Zelaia (undated)

National Geographic, “Basque Country’s Cider Houses Keep an Ancient History Alive” by Annelise Jolley (18 May 2021)

Noticias de Álava, “Las Mujeres de la Sidra” by Pablo José Pérez (5 December 2020)

El Diario Vasco, “Interesante Muestra Itinerante en Torno a la Mujer y la Sidra” by Juan F. Manjarrés (26 January 2019)

 

 

Txotx! Or How to Drink Apples, Part 2 Read More »

Txotx! Or How to Drink Apples, Part 1

Photo credit: AndyRobertsPhotos, CC BY 3.0 < https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Chart showing Basque apple varieties

 

Drinking apples takes a bit of study and practice – at least when you’re in the Basque country, and specifically, in a sagardotegi (euskera for Basque cider house).  And drinking apples as sagardoa (euskera for Basque hard cider) has a long and storied past.  Back in February, a couple of friends and I decided to lunch in a sagardotegi at the height of the Basque cider season or txotx.  The season, which runs from about mid-January until the end of April or early May, is a time of communal feasting, drinking, and socializing over open kupelas (euskera for barrels) of different ciders – like a family-friendly block party, but held indoors and with generous portions of hefty food and free-flowing hard cider.  The kupelas, whose taps are handled by sagardotegi staff, offer their dry and tart golden tipple to thousands of locals and a growing number of tourists each year.

Basque cider makers can choose from over 100 varieties of apples to make sagardoa, often using a combination of several apple varieties.  While each bottle of cider contains an average of about one kilo of apples, not all the apples used are necessarily local.  Ciders with the Euskal Sagardoa Designation of Origin (which was created in 2016) must contain 100 percent local Basque apple varieties, but for those that don’t carry the label, apples may come from other Spanish regions like Galicia or even regions outside of Spain, like Normandy.  Apples are harvested in the fall, pressed, and left in containers (ranging from wooden barrels to stainless steel tanks and even fiberglass containers) to ferment for several months.

Harvesting apples

Photo credit: Sagardun (ARGIA.com), CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>,
via Wikimedia Commons

The Basque country has more than 80 sagardotegiak (cider houses in euskera), which not only produce sagardoa but also provide traditional, local foods.  Although most apple cider from Spain (around 80 percent) comes from the northern region of Asturias, which is acclaimed for its cider both in Spain and abroad, that version is sweeter and fruitier than the more tannic and funky Basque sagardoa.  In recent years, Basque cider and Basque-style cider has made the leap to international markets and become something of an industry darling – showing up in the United States, Chile, and Argentina, among other countries.

Over 90 percent of the sagardoa production in the Basque country comes from the province of Gipuzkoa, specifically, the region surrounding Donosti-San Sebastian.  Located just a few kilometers from Donosti, the towns of Astigarraga, Hernani, and Usurbil serve as the heartland of Basque cider culture.  Astigarraga (with a population of only about 6,000 people) alone is home to 19 cider houses and holds the highest concentration of sagerdotegiak in the Basque country.

Typically, sagardotegiak are rustic stone or wooden buildings with a large, open dining area, wooden furniture, and wood-accented interiors that let in little natural light.  As my friends had grown up in Gipuzkoa and been in the habit of going to sagerdotegiak for years, we decided to venture out to a more modern cider house they hadn’t yet been to – sleek, concrete, and with an impressive ocean view: Calonge.

Calonge’s entrance

Perched high up in the Igeldo neighborhood of Donosti, Calonge was bustling with a weekend lunch crowd.  We were greeted pretty quickly by friendly staff and seated at one end of a long bank of tables.  After our order was taken, we were shown to the stash of wide-mouthed cider glasses.  My friends instructed me to take a glass and we headed over to the cider cellar, directly next door to the dining room.

Calonge is a 50+ year-old sagardotegi (and grill) run by a local family that counts a grillmaster and a butcher among its joint owners, sourcing its meat from immediate family members who raise local, free-range cattle.  I was really looking forward to trying both the sagardoa and food from a family-run sagardotegi that sourced local and sustainable ingredients.

Although Calonge has been around for a little over 50 years, the Basques have been making sagardoa for centuries.   Cider making was first documented in the 11th century, with the oldest mention of basque apple orchards going back to the year 1024.  But the origins of those apples, along with cider making, are a mystery.

The 16th and 17th centuries were the heyday of Basque cider, when Basques from all walks of life regularly enjoyed it as an everyday drink.  Basque sailors and fishermen, who chased whales and cod as far as Canada, were allowed a ration of 2 to 3 apple cider liters per day.  During this golden age of cider, sagardoa was produced by both households and a growing number of companies.  But with the rise of industrialization, making sagardoa became less popular and profitable, as populations moved from rural areas to cities.  The Spanish Civil War (1936 to 1939) dealt a further blow to the cultivation of apples and sagardoa production.  By the 1950s, and 1960s, most cider presses and cellars had been abandoned in the majority of the Basque country, as industrialization took hold and rural communities continued to lose out to urban ones.  Only the province of Gipuzkoa carried on the legacy of making sagardoa.

During the post-war era, gastronomic societies in Donosti (known as txokos in some Basque regions) began visiting sagardotegiak to sample sagardoa to buy.  Because sagardoa ran the risk of spoiling in warmer weather (as refrigeration was not yet available), it was made available for tasting during the cooler seasons of winter and early spring (January until April). Cider was bottled at the end of April after the tastings had finished.  From this practice of sampling and bottling sagardoa, the txotx season was born.   At the time, sagardotegiak didn’t offer meals to its wholesale buyers, who later came from restaurants and inns, in addition to gastronomic societies.  Instead, sagardoa buyers would bring their own food and eat standing up, while tasting sagardoa during their brief business visits.

Starting in the 1970s, sagardotegiak began to offer the modern-day version of txotx, when a menu of traditional foods was offered alongside the tasting of cider from different barrels.

The (typically) 4 to 5 course prix fixe menu – available for lunch or dinner – is pretty consistent among all sagardotegiak in the Basque country, with the price ranging from around 35 to 40 euros per person.  The food is served family-style (that is, on huge plates meant for sharing) and, depending on the sagardotegi, may still be eaten while standing.  Like many things in the Basque country, it’s a community-driven experience.  A traditional txotx meal at a sagardotegi is impossible to enjoy alone (and even difficult for two people), since its protein-heaviness and substantial portion size just begs for it to be shared with a group.  Even our group of three (hungry eaters) was barely able to finish off the courses (with the dessert course being left partially untouched).  If you decide to have a txotx meal at a sagardotegi, come in a group and come hungry.

Although some sagardotegiak do offer some alternatives for vegetarians, the traditional txotx menu alternates between fish and meat dishes.   Our meal started off with a basket of bread and bite-sized pieces of chorizo (Spanish sausage) that’s been cooked in sagardoa.

chorizo cooked in cider

The first three courses (or next three courses, depending on your perspective on the chorizo) were an egg omelette stuffed with cod fish, a really rare (and I mean bloody rare) steak, and huge hunks of cod roasted with green peppers (and not necessarily in that order).  As I’m not a part of the rare steak club, I specifically asked for a portion to be cooked medium-well (yes, you read that right).

To finish off the meal, the final course (dessert) offered was Basque cheese, a sweet quince paste or jelly (membrillo in Spanish), and DIY walnuts.

walnuts, Basque cheese, and quince paste

And of course, there’s the cider.  You can try glasses of sagardoa as often as you hear someone calling out “txotx!” to announce the opening of a tap on a kupela, or barrel.  In the case of Calonge, instead of following the cry of “txotx!” for our cider fix, we’d follow the herd of other patrons as they headed for the cellar’s doors or whenever the restaurant staff would give us a gentle reminder.  Although the barrels were only open from time to time (and one at a time), everyone was always free to head to the cellar anytime to meet and chat with fellow diners and wait for the tap to flow.

The word txotx originally meant “small stick” and referred to the stick that closed the small hole in the sagardoa kupelas.  When the stick was removed, the cider would shoot out in a long thin stream.  The goal for anyone drinking cider at a sagardotegi is to first catch the gushing cider directly into one’s glass without spilling too much on the floor.  The secret?  Follow in the footsteps of the crowd of locals (sometimes literally).

Although this was my second time at a sagardotegi, my cider catching abilities were a bit rusty.  With the help of my friends, a bit of observation (of locals filling their glasses) and a bit of practice, I quickly got back into the hang of it.  First, make an orderly line off to the side of a barrel’s spigot.  Next, when it’s almost your turn, approach the kupela with your glass held slightly tilted and low to the ground.  As the person ahead of you gets their fill, move in from behind with your glass at the ready to catch the flow of cider and then raise your glass as you go upstream.  But, keep in mind, no filling your glass to the brim.  Just take what you would drink in a couple of shots – not only to be able to taste more varieties, but so as not to miss out on maximum taste and fizz, which dissipate over time.

Right photo credit: Mikel Arrazola, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

All told, I tried about four different sagardoak varying in their levels of tartness and funk.  While kombucha fans may fall hard for Basque cider, I mostly tried Calonge’s ciders out of curiosity.  For me, the biggest draw at a sagerdotegi is the traditional food – and the people: locals, visitors, and restaurant staff all filter in and out of the dining room and cellar, giving everyone a chance to rub elbows (or at least to people-watch), all while playing a game of catch with streams of cider.  Several hours later, my friends and I lounged around over the after-meal coffee in the almost-empty dining room.  With full and happy bellies, and struggling not to fall asleep at the table, we left the restaurant to start the descent back to the center of Donosti by foot.

P.S. (Post Sagardoa) the aftermath

So now that I (again) know how to drink apples in the Basque Country, what’s the best way to drink those apples?  Not only at a sagardotegi, but fully prepared – to eat well, to meet your neighbors, and to linger.  After all, as one local mentioned to the New York Times, “Here, cider is not just an alcoholic beverage. It’s a way of life.”

Note: Although the official txotx season has come to a close, several sagardotegiak stay open year round and offer the txotx experience – complete with a txotx menu and tasting from kupelas.  Part II will give a short introduction to one of those sagardotegiak.

Disclaimer: All opinions expressed here are my own and are not sponsored or influenced in any way by Calonge or any of its affiliates.

Sources:

Crafty Nectar, The Ultimate Guide to Basque Cider text and photos by Haritz Rodriguez, aka Ciderzale (undated)

Ciderzale, History of Basque Cider and Txotx,” by Haritz Rodriguez (15 January 2020)

Ciderlands, Basque Country (undated)

New York Times, “In Spanish Basque Country, Sampling Cider and an Ancient Ritual” by Jason Wilson, Photos by Daniel Rodrigues (16 March 2018)

National Geographic UK, “How to Experience the Basque Country’s Best Cider Houses” by Mike MacEacheran, Photos by Markel Redondo (31 August 2022)

Guia Repsol, “El Susurro Vasco de la Carne a la Brasa” by Irma Aguilar, Photographs by Daniel de Pablo (3 September 2021)

Sagerdoa Route, Basque Cider (undated)

Basque Country Walks, Basque Cider Houses  (undated)

North American Basque Organization (NABO), Sagardoa: Basque Hard Cider (undated)

Euskadi Tourism (Official Page of the Basque Government), Sagardoa Mapa (undated)

Saveur Magazine, “Cider House Rules” (undated)

The Guardian, “Cider is Having an American Moment, Thanks to a New Generation of Crafters” by Maria C. Hunt (6 August 2022)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Txotx! Or How to Drink Apples, Part 1 Read More »

Of Crosses And Cures

Map from Beautiful Basque Country

Cherry blossoms, Easter Sunday, and lingering daylight all remind us why spring makes us so happy – it’s a season of promise: of warmth, new life, and sunshine.  Yet in the Basque country, I can be frozen, yet happy too.  And I was, just a few short months ago.  Was I hypothermic and confused?  No, just following the Basque cure for the winter blues: spending time in the mountains and breaking bread in those mountains.  Long before doctors were prescribing time outdoors to improve health, the Basques had already been decades (if not centuries) into the practice of mountain therapy.  With 3,483 named mendiak (the Basque or euskera word for “mountains”) dispersed throughout the Basque landscape, it’s only natural that hiking and other mountain activities are a regular part of Basque life – and a regular part of what keeps people in the Basque country so healthy.

A dose of nature with friends that winter day instantly lifted my spirits. And given the Basque country’s reputation as a gastronomy destination that takes pride in its local food, it’s only natural that the other part of my joy that day came from local (mountain) comfort food.

As I peeled my jacket’s hood off of my head, wet and wind-lashed from the inconsistent rain, I stepped into Agirretxe Borda, a cozy “white cabin” on the plains of Zelatun, at the foot of Hernio (also spelled Ernio), an iconic Basque mendi (euskera for “mountain”).  Our small group, several Gipuzkoans and an American, had just hiked through a couple of windy, muddy, and occasionally rain-splattered hours.  To escape the wet winter chill and give ourselves a boost for the final ascent, we had stopped in for a break and a bite.  

Just your everyday restaurant nestled in the foothills of a mythic mountain. Photo by Agirretxe Borda

The warm smiles of the restaurant staff, a comfort in and of themselves, were a prelude of good things to come: the soothing glow of a fireplace and simple, steaming foods.  Without having to look at a menu, my friends knew exactly what to order: salda (“broth” in euskera) and txorizoa (chorizo in Spanish, a type of smoked sausage).  Knowing better than to diverge from the local culinary advice (and because my favorite, txistorra, wasn’t available), I got the same. 

The salda came first.  Steaming in its cup, this liquid gold brought instant relief to my chilled hands and a nourishing warmth.  A clear meat broth, salda is typical mountain or countryside fare in the Basque country – especially in the colder months.  Forget hot chocolate or coffee, it’s cups of salda that regularly grace the tables of many a hiker, villager or visitor to the Basque hills and mountains.  As one saying goes, “un buen caldito, bien calentito.”  Hailing from states with plenty of cold-weather hiking and with DNA rooted in a soup-based nation, I can confirm the mighty comfort and healing offered by a cup of humble broth.

Salda
Photo by D. Sancho

The txorizoa, resting comfortably in a perfectly toasted baguette-like roll, followed and rounded out the perfect cold weather hiking snack.  With its garlicky, smoky flavor, txorizoa is a cured sausage that can be enjoyed fried, baked, or as is.  When paired with a slightly chewy, yet crunchy bread roll and accompanied by salda, you have a satisfying balance of savory flavors.

Txorizoa
Photo by Agirretxe Borda

As we finished our break and talked about summiting Hernio, I argued with myself: “You don’t really want to go back outside to that, do you?”  As I watched other hikers trudging uphill, fighting against the mighty winds, hesitation turned to inertia.

But after watching my other friends disappear up a slope, I (along with another friend who had also decided to stay behind) had a last- minute change of heart, and we left the comfort of Agirretxe Borda to make our way to Hernio’s summit.  Up until Agirretxe Borda, we had been hiking on paths of dirt, mud, and a few loose rocks, at one point going slightly off-piste through a beautiful mossy, leaf-covered slope. 

The trail 30 minutes before we reached Agirretxe Borda.

But now, starting the ascent to Hernio’s summit, we were met with a well-worn path strewn with smooth, angular rocks – a kind of traction slalom for hiking boots.  Fortunately, the earlier rains had been pushed aside by gusty winds.  

By the time we reached the small stone refuge of Erniozaleak, it was time for a quick break and storytime.  The wind continued to lash us as we stopped to explore the nearby Healing Cross (“Gurutze Zarra” in euskera). 

Erniozaleak refuge
The fans of Ernio” refuge

Standing directly to the left of Erniozaleak, the Gurutze Zarra held various rectangular metal hoops on each of its outstretched arms.  My friend recounted one legend of the famous cross: if you place one of the hoops over your entire body – passing it from head to toe – three times in a row, you’ll be healed of body aches and pains (like rheumatism) for an entire year.  If you want a permanent cure from body aches and pains, as the legend goes, you would need to repeat this hoop exercise 7 years in a row

Testing out a legend.
Will report back in a year.

As we made our way up the final short leg of the hike towards the summit, we were greeted by more crosses.  The first three on the left marked a false summit and stood as reminders of when Mount Hernio was known as the Mount of a Thousand Crosses.  From 1911 until 2015, dozens of crosses were erected by the general public in memory of fallen loved ones.  But when the sheer number of crosses made Hernio look more like a a mausoleum than a mountain, eight surrounding municipalities and the Erniozaleak Cultural Association made the decision to move the majority of crosses to off-mountain sites.  

Photo by D. Sancho

 Today, the summit displays only a handful of crosses, including a prominent white concrete cross on the actual summit.

While Hernio doesn’t come close to being one of the highest peaks in the Basque country (standing 1,078 meters tall), it could easily be considered one of the best for sweeping views.  Located just 15 km from the ocean, Hernio’s summit allows panoramic views of not just one, but three of the four provinces of the Spanish Basque country: Gipuzkoa, Bizkaia, and Araba.  On a clear day, you can also see the shimmering sliver of ocean in the distance and imagine the flaky croissants baking in the French Basque country on the horizon.  To orient yourself, just look to the west of the concrete cross, where you’ll find a beautifully colored circular stone map outlining the various points of interest surrounding Hernio.  Here, other Basque peaks, along with sleepy hillside villages and prominent seaside cities are brought into relief. 

As our group descended Hernio to take a more direct path back to Alkiza (where we had started our out-and-back hike), one friend encouraged me to come back to Hernio in the fall (and not just to cure body aches).  Apparently, I had missed one of the most festive and important times to summit by about 3 months – the autumn pilgrimage or erromeria (in euskera or “romeria” in Spanish).  

Photo by Elisa Alonso

From the last Sunday in August until the last Sunday in September, people of all ages make their way to Hernio for the annual erromeria.  Since at least 1918, people have flocked to Hernio’s summit for this pilgrimage, with a stop at the Gurutze Zarra, and a return to the fields of Zelatun for an open-air celebration, complete with food from local vendors and traditional music and dancing.  As part of the celebrations, visitors and pilgrims bring colorful ribbons to Hernio to tie on its various crosses.

It’s not just in autumn that Hernio welcomes visitors celebrating Christian traditions.  In the spring, Hernio typically hosts an anuual Stations of the Cross, a meditative journey of Christ’s final hours on Good Friday, just before participants make their final ascent to the summit.  Even before the advent of Christianity, Hernio inspired awe among its surrounding communities through legends and rumors of battles with invaders from the east and as being home to a powerful and mythic Basque figure.  Ancient Romans were said to have been in the area around Hernio and, perhaps, even engaged in battle against locals.  Meanwhile, Mari (arguably the most important goddess of the Basque pantheon) was said to have lived in the caves of Mount Hernio and periodically appear in the skies above it.

Standing in the heart of Gipuzkoa, serving as a backdrop for ancient history and legends, and offering cures for both body and soul, it’s no wonder that Hernio is among the most beloved of the Basque mendiak.


Sources:

Sitios Historicos: “Los Secretos del Monte Hernio.  La Montaña Mágica” by Aitor Sarmiento (11 Abril 2020)

Al Filo de lo Improbable: MendiaK Hernio by Alexander Pereda (4 Diciembre 2014)

Diario Vasco: Hernio se cita con septiembre by Iraitz Astarloa (2 Septiember 2022)

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