At the Sagardoetxea (cider museum) in Astigarraga, Spain, our tour guide asked us, in all seriousness, if we had cider in America. She also asked us if we grew apples. Later, showing us a graph, she said “a lot of people think cider is only a Basque thing, but it’s not true – they actually make cider in many other places!”
She can be forgiven. Here in the Basque hills, the people are almost superstitiously fond of their “sagardoa” (hard cider) – and Astigarraga is the capital of Basque cider making. If you’ve grown up in town, everywhere else must seem pretty dry. Here, two men practice the art of the “txotx” in a local cider house.In mid-November, the apples were already picked and mashed, the juice pressed, the cider fermenting. At the Sagardoetxea, only bare limbs and wrinkled fruit were on display. Cider fermenting is an ancient part of the Basque culture, and imbibing is traditionally a strictly seasonal thing. Beginning in January, when the alcohol has been finished, the season runs until the end of April. Before modern refrigeration, the barrels would spoil in the summer heat, meaning that the cider could only be drunk during the cooler months. Most of the cider houses in Astigarraga are closed during the rest of the year, and the town felt a little empty when we visited.
The Basque country is mountainous and difficult to cultivate, with cool winters at altitude that make viniculture tricky. Apple trees are better suited to the climate, and the people here have long embraced the fruit as a means to produce alcohol. Unlike common varieties bred for eating, the Basque cider apples are typically small and characteristically acidic, with a few specialty breeds grown specifically to add sugar. There are scores of old, heritage breeds, most of which are now quite rare. In the early twentieth century, as beer and wine began to be brought into the region in greater quantities, many orchards were cut down so that pine trees could be planted to supply the growing paper industry. At the Sagardoetxea, they have over forty rare apple trees, planted for preservation as much as exhibition.
Sagardoa is a dryer drink than sweet cider, with about five percent alcohol and a woody flavor from the aging barrels. Unlike sparkling cider or most American and French versions, the fermentation is allowed to finish, using up all the sugars in the juice and creating a flat, non-bubbly drink. The tannins in sagardoa react differently than the ones in wine, and the flavor usually won’t improve with age – even bottled, it’s best drunk within a year of production.
The real way to drink cider is by “txotx,” straight from the barrel at one of the regional cider houses, called “sagardotegi.” The huge casks at these places are fitted with miniscule spigots that, when opened, spew liquid several feet across the room. The drinkers line up with their glasses, catching the cider as it goes, angling their vessels just-so to produce a light foam. The purpose of this exercise is to aerate the drink and improve the flavor – although there’s hardly any effervescence in sagardoa, the action of the txotx almost makes it seem bubbly.
Sagardotegi serve their cider with a narrow range of traditional staples, which usually consist of meats, sheep cheese and a cod omelette. At most, patrons pay a fixed price for cider, and are then free to drink as much as they want.
At Alorrenea, a sagardotegia in Astigarraga that remains open all year, meat was the primary focus. A large grill station enjoyed a prominent position in the hall-like space, and huge cuts of meat – ordered by the kilo – were served bloody rare on thick wooden tables. The patrons, mostly men, went from barrel to barrel, drinking seriously and contemplatively between platefuls. The air was heady with the scent of both steak and spilled cider.There is, of course, some protocol to observe when drinking sagardoa by txotx. A group lines up with glasses at the ready, every member poised to reach out and make the catch. When one imbiber has taken their share, the next must already have his or her cup behind the first, so that not too much is spilled (some always spills). Most important, each “pour” must be finished in one gulp, before the air has gone out of it – a moderate amount is preferable, deep draughts are laudable. Any liquid not drunk has to be poured immediately, with a look of disgust, down a drain in the floor. Also, for whatever reason, the person who opens the spigot must also close it and is the last of the group to fill their glass.