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)

 

 

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