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)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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