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The Ultimate Guide to Basque Cider

 © Text and photos by Haritz Rodriguez, aka Ciderzale*

Take a journey through the history, culture and fascinating splendour of the Basque region and its stunning cider. Many thanks to Haritz for providing this wonderful and comprehensive guide on Basque cider. 

There is no certain evidence about when sagardoa started to be made in the Basque Country. Sagardoa is the name in Basque for cider, and means literally apple (sagar) wine (ardoa). What we know is that apples and cider have been present in this part of Europe for centuries, and it is still very much a living tradition, with the area producing about 13 million litres of cider annually, mainly consumed by Basques (about 2 million people).

Natural Basque cider has its own tradition and terminology, and a rooted culture behind it, which is widely celebrated during the txotx season, where over 800,000 people visit around 80 local cider houses. 

Apple orchard in the Basque Ciderland.

WHERE IS THE BASQUE CIDERLAND?

The heart of the Basque cider culture is in Astigarraga, where most of the cider houses are concentrated, as well as in Usurbil and Hernani. The three towns are very close to San Sebastian and, interestingly, is one of the reasons why this culture has remained alive in this area.

Centuries ago, cider was produced in many villages of the Basque Country, but the arrival of industrial drinks such as sodas, relegated cider to a second level, a beverage that had been consumed in a widespread manner throughout history.

But in the Basque Country, especially in San Sebastian, there is a long gastronomic tradition with cider. In fact, San Sebastian has one of the highest concentrations of Michelin star restaurants in the world. One of the gastronomic traditions in the area are the txokos or gastronomical societies, private dinner clubs in which members and friends gather to cook, eat and drink.

This popular custom is closely linked to local and seasonal products. In these private gastronomical societies, cider continued to be consumed and for some years these groups were probably the main customers of cider houses, which is why production has remained in this area, despite the difficulties and ups and downs of the market. Although cider is produced across the area, 90% is produced in the region surrounding San Sebastian.

BASQUE CIDER BACKGROUND

Although there is no scientific record of when cider production began in the Basque Country, what does exist are numerous evidences that place it several hundred years ago, even some millennia ago. We know that Greeks and Romans dominated the technique of making cider, and there are various theories regarding the origin. Some argue that Basques learned from the Romans, some say they didn't. It's also said that the Celts and Basques made a kind of cider with crab apples. Anyway, it is very likely that both Basques and Asturians made a drink from apples, similar to what we know as cider nowadays, before the arrival of the Romans. 

Examples of this tradition are some ancient artifacts containing the word sagar (apple) or sagasti (apple orchard), and the numerous Basque surnames and place names related to this fruit. The first known document in which cider is mentioned is from April 17, 1014. It refers to the donation of some lands of Gipuzkoa by King Sancho III of Navarre to the Monastery of Leire, and cider and its production are mentioned.

Cider was also important in the naval expeditions of the Basques in the sixteenth century, when they sailed to Norway, Iceland and Canada to hunt whales and fish. The inventories of these ships include the amount of cider that they carried for the sailors to drink - it was an essential good lasting longer than water. It's said that the Basque sailors didn't get sick of scurvy because of the C vitamin content of the cider. They were allowed to drink an impressive 2 litres each per day!

The Albaola Sea Factory explains the importance of cider in Basque maritime history, and they have even created a replica of the San Juan whaling ship found in Red Bay (Canada). National Geographic recently dedicated an extensive report to this.

TXOTX EXPERIENCE

The txotx is a ritual that happens every year in the Basque cider houses when the new cider is ready to be tasted. The traditional season of the txotx begins in the middle of January and finishes in April - May. During the season, the cider houses offer a traditional menu consisting of cod omelette, fried cod, beef steak, cheese, sweet apple jelly and walnuts, accompanied by cider poured directly from the barrel. Txotx means "stick" in Basque, and refers to the small piece of wood that was used to seal the mouth of the barrel from which the cider is poured.

The txotx experience is a custom that has evolved, adapting to the times and the new demands. In the Basque cider houses, it was customary to invite neighbors to taste the new cider, and it is said that a percussion instrument called txalaparta was used to call them. This instrument has its origin in the way the apple was hand crushed with rammers before being pressed.

The txotx experience was reinvented at the end of the 70s, after many years of hardships, due to competition from new beverages and also because of the persecution suffered by Franco's dictatorial regime. The regime considered cider as a sign of cultural identity of the Basques, and against the unity of Spain.

Originally, the txotx experience was only offered during the season, as with the arrival of spring and the sunshine, cider was bottled to ensure its preservation. Nowadays, thanks to the modern cooling systems, more and more cider houses are open all year round.

BASQUE CIDER CULTURE

There is also an important heritage related to cider. This includes architecture such as the 16th-century cider mills Katxola and Igartubeiti, which have been converted into museums. Traditional Basque dances are also linked to cider, with the sagar dantza (apple dance) being the best example.

Cider is related to Basque rural sports, like stone lifting, cutting of logs or handball. It is also linked to music and a custom called bertsolaritzawhere people improvise songs with traditional melodies. 

CIDER HOUSE RULES

The cider houses have some unwritten rules for visitors: 

  1. The price of the menu includes all the cider that you want to taste directly from the barrels. Bottled cider is not usually served.
  2. Traditionally in cider houses people eat standing, using high tables. The reason is simple: the fun part of the experience lies in going to the barrels and socialising. 
  3. In some cider houses, any of the diners can open the barrels whenever they want. In others, there is a person from the team that is responsible for opening the different barrels. 
  4. When someone shouts txotx! it means that they are going to open a barrel. Then a line is formed in front of the barrel and the glasses are filled one after the other.
  5. Basque cider is drunk in small quantities. No more than 2 or 3 fingers in the glass. It is usually drunk in a few shots, because the optimum time to taste it is just after pouring, when aromas remain in the glass. In Basque it is said that you have to drink "little and often".
  6. In the cider houses the atmosphere is informal and festive, and it is customary to sing at the foot of the barrels. 

RECOMMENDED CIDER HOUSES

There are many cider houses to choose from, although on weekends during the txotx season it is difficult to find a place, as they tend to be crowded. There are different styles, modern or traditional, those that receive more tourists or those that receive less. But in any case, a nice and fun experience is ensured in all of them. You can check and book all Basque cider houses online.

TXOTX SEASON
  • Zapiain: The largest producer of Basque cider. Offers guided tours and tastings, in addition to the txotx experience. Calm and family atmosphere. Don't forget to buy a bottle of Bizi Goxo ice cider or their Premium natural cider.
  • Zelaia: Three sisters are in charge of this cider house. 4rd generation in the making. Very good atmosphere.
  • Gurutzeta: Another of the cider houses of reference for the locals, has a smaller dining room and a large cellar in which there are also tables.
  • Oialume Zar: It is a relatively new and not very large cider house, run by the family and with a very local atmosphere.
  • Gartziategi: Run by a new generation of cider makers, Gartziategi is a relatively small cider house with a warm and welcoming atmosphere.
  • Isastegi: It is located a little away from the San Sebastián area, but it has a great environment and views of the Tolosaldea region.
  • Iparragirre: Located in Hernani, they work with organic products.
  • Mina: A small cider house with a special atmosphere. One of its specialties is cod in sauce.
  • Astarbe: One of the oldest known cider houses, working for centuries in the cider making. They produce an exquisite sparkling dry cider called Byhur. Ask for it.
  • Bereziartua: Open from January to May, they produce organic natural cider.
  • Egi Luze: This cider house is located in Errenteria, in a beautiful rural environment away from the city.

ALL YEAR LONG

  • Alorrenea: One of the cider houses that opens throughout the year, with a large capacity of diners and famous for the beef steak.
  • Txopinondo: This cider house is located in the Basque Country under French administration. Run by a Breton, it's a different and multicultural experience.
  • Petritegi: One of the cider houses that has worked the most in tourism in recent years. They also run the Sagarlore hotel.
  • Iretza: This cidery can be described as "urban". Open all year round, they offer several options in addition to the full traditional menu. It is worth going for design and decoration alone.
  • Araeta: Probably the most different concept of a Basque cider house, with a modern design and the only Basque pear cider, poured from the tank as well.
  • Saizar: This cider house is located in Usurbil, a town close to Astigarraga and Hernani. The restaurant is open all year long.

QUALITY LABELS

Euskal Sagardoa is the newborn PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) for the Basque natural cider. It was created in 2017 and allows the use of about 115 local apple varieties grown in the Basque Autonomous Community. It certifies both quality and origin, and the first bottles labeled with its characteristic red brand were the result of the 2016 crop.

The creation of this common protected brand is a milestone in the Basque cider industry, unifying what it was formerly divided. Before the creation of this PDO, Basque cider producers were grouped in two currents, each with its own label. Eusko Label, mostly certifying the origin of apples, and Gorenak, whose main purpose is to set a quality standard.

Now, both groups have come together. As a result, nowadays in the Basque cider market you can find:

  • Natural cider without any label, except of the company's, made with local varieties or imported.
  • Then there are the Gorenak ciders, with certified quality but allowed to be made both with local or foreign apples (it could be all local, mix, or all non-local).
  • And finally the Euskal Sagardoa ciders, always natural, that must have been made with traced apples and have to overcome an organoleptic panel and lab analysis to fit the conditions and quality standard. It has a Premium category, with a golden label, identifying highest scored quality ciders.
  • Along with those options, there are also some ciders produced in the Basque provinces under the French rule, as well as Navarre ciders or even those produced in Gipuzkoa with apples grown in the neighboring province.

All the natural cider is made with 100% fresh pressed apple juice. These quality labels certify only bottled ciders, although you may see these labels in some of the barrels, meaning that the cider inside is being tracked for being marketed with the quality brand.

CIDER TOURISM

Together with the txotx experience, the cider country Sagardoaren Lurraldea has developed fantastic tourism and culture around cider. The heart of the Basque Ciderland is located in the Sagardoetxea Basque Cider Museum in Astigarraga. The museum has 3 different main spaces: Orchard, interpretation center and taproom. Visiting the museum before you go to a cider house is a must, so you know about the history and background of the cider you are going to taste.

During the year, the region organises different activities and events depending on the season. In spring they celebrate the apple blossom, during the summer there are activities like “Cider and the Sea”, in autumn they organize the Apple Harvest Festival and in January the opening of the txotx season event is held in one of the cider houses.

Experiences are also probably the most important part of the Sagardoetxea Cider Museum. In spring, children help pollinate the apple trees and they mark a flower with their name. That way, once the apple has grown, they know which one they pollinated. In harvest time, they pick up apples with the characteristic kizki tool and they make their own apple juice crushing and pressing the apples.

Some of the most successful experiences include Sagarbike” (a bike ride from San Sebastian to Astigarraga and a cider and pintxo tasting), “Cider and Cheese”, or the special cider tasting session called “Txotx Gourmet”.

WHERE TO SLEEP

The Basque Ciderland is located close to San Sebastian and has good communications by bus with the city. During txotx season, the bus service is reinforced with day and night lines. Using taxis is a good option too, as it's a short journey.

If you prefer to stay as close as possible to the cider houses, these are the main accommodation option on offer in the Basque Ciderland.

  • Sagarlore Hotel: Located in Astigarraga, it's a new hotel, easy to get to the town center and not far from the bus stop that takes you to San Sebastian.
  • Pensión Txingurri: Located in the center of Astigarraga, about 10 minutes by car from San Sebastian. Good quality for the price.
  • Pensión Astigarraga: A comfortable lodge situated really close to cider houses like Gurutzeta, Zelaia and Oialume Zar.
  • Hotel K10: This hotel is located close to an industrial area of Urnieta. It’s a modern and well-connected hotel, but it’s not easy to walk to the cider house area. Perfect if you are traveling by car or taxi.
  • Rural Houses: Close to Astigarraga you can find some rural houses, offering a quiet stay not so far from San Sebastian and the cider house area. A car is needed to get to most of the houses. 
  • Apartment rental or hotels: San Sebastian is about 10 minutes by bus from Astigarraga, so if you want to stay in the city check for apartments to rent or there are many hotels in Donostia.

* Haritz Rodriguez aka Ciderzale is a Basque journalist, travel blogger and marketing consultant for the agri-food and tourism sectors. From now on, he is also a collaborator of Crafty Nectar. He is a cider enthusiast and amateur maker discovering a world of ciders, and works for several organizations and companies related to this beverage. He is in charge of the creation and coordination of Ciderlands, among other projects. You can follow him on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

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