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Thursday, January 30, 2014

Txotx Season in the Basque Country

Each fall, Basque cider makers start filling enormous wooden vessels full of fresh apple juice. As in England and France, traditional cider making is all-natural: the apples are ground and pressed, and nature takes its course. The difference, of course, is that the cider that begins pouring out of these vessels in January is sharp and acidic.

One of the reasons I delayed my cider tour until the year's bitterest month was to enjoy the start of Basque cider season, which began a couple weeks ago. It's called txotx (the tx combo, common in the language, is pronounced "ch," so txotx is something like choach), but the season includes far more than just fresh cider.  Txotx is a ritual. 

The heart of cider country is Gipuzkoa, the bastion of Basque culture and language. (The Basques are spread across seven states in two countries in the lush hillsides of far Northeast Spain and the French Pays Basque that includes Biarritz.)  Donostia is the population center--the Spanish name, San Sbastian, is often defaced on street signs--but the capital of cider is ten minutes south in Astigarraga. It's a town of 5,000, but the hills are covered with apple trees, supplying perhaps a dozen or more local cideries (it depends on where you draw the line).  In the small area of Gipuzkoa, there are over fifty. 

The first place we visited was Sarasola, where I got an initial taste of txotx. But that was lunchtime. We got the full experience last night at Isastegi, a few miles further south. During the months of txotx season, all the cideries open their doors and serve a massive four or five course meal. You eat right in the barrel room, and periodically someone will holler out "txotx!"--the call to the barrels, or kupelas in Basque. Although anyone can sample from the kupelas at any time, txotx is real a community celebration and the best way to do it is together. One by one people hold out their glasses as a small font of cider arcs out. Basques believe the best way to drink cider is by "breaking" it; that is, allowing gravity to send it crashing into the side of the glass, momentarily aerating it. You only collect two fingers in your glass. The aromas rise, and you drink it while there's still a froth on the surface.  Any left over you dump down the drain. (This apparent apostasy is actually good sense; "txotx" will ring out all night and the prudent pace themselves.)

The menu for txotx season has been fixed since the 1960s. Before that, when this region was almost completely rural, the locals would bring their own food. Now, they come only with an appetite. The first course is an omelette made with cod and rustic bread. Traditionally, there weren't even chairs--people stood around tables.  But at some places, like Isastegi, they still don't use plates. It's family style--you just grab a crust of bread and your fork and dive in. The next course is cod, either prepared in a famous sauce called pil-pil or served with green pepper and garlic. The main course is a huge hunk of beefsteak barbecued bloody rare.  Finally, dessert is cheese and walnuts with an apple or quince paste. In some cases, it seems like the feast begins with a sausage course--because, presumably, the other four might otherwise leave you feeling peckish. 

Cider is meant to accompany food. In every restaurant we visited, it was always available, and about 60% of the time people chose it over local Rioja wine. Basque cuisine is hearty and salty. To my palate, it's the salt that harmonizes with the sharp Basque cider. Salt somewha neutralizes the acidity, and more subtle fruit and tannin notes emerge. Not everyone agrees it's the salt, though--at Isastegi they believe it's the "protein" (umami?) that draws out cider's flavors. 

Whatever it is, the Basque food definetly serves cider well. I would go <i>almost</i> so far as saying you need to salty food to fully appreciate Basque cider. Probably not, but I would certainly encourage the pairing just in case. 

If you do find yourself in what the Basques call Euskadi (Basque Country) between mid-January and Easter, txotx is a must-see event. Sarasola sees 20,000 people come through their doors for it, and more-remote Isastegi 6,000. Attendees are mostly locals (many of whom go back and back), and it feels like you're witnessing a very particular bit of Basque culture. It's not really a tourist event, though tourists are welcomed with broad smiles. Don't expect to hear anything but the rat-a-tat fire of Basque (certainly no English), but it hardly matters. The menu is set and there's really only one word that matters. You'll hear it with increasing frequency throughout the night. 


  1. You mention acidity but not that it is acetic acid. I like the salt angle as the Basques were fishing off Newfoundland in the mid-1500s and triggered likely the first brewing in Canada if not North America in the late 1500s and early 1600s:

  2. I don't know why you aren't getting many comments on your trip postings. Is it just because it's not about beer? I love the descriptions of processes, techniques, culture and traditions. Keep it up. Thanks Jeff.

  3. I agree. I think these posts are awesome.

  4. @Alan
    Wouldn't the Danes [Leif Ericson and crew] have introduced brewing to Vinland [aka L'Anse aux Meadows] circa 1000 CE.

  5. Alan, more on acidity later.

    Timmay, thanks! Interest and comments are not correlated. Sometimes people like a thing but have nothing to add.

  6. Jack: they must have. I am looking for references to the shipment of malt in earlier records but the problem becomes brewing was so commonplace it's like expecting to find records for salt. I love, however, that the ink there has a Basque wine cask in near Arctic Labrador from 1565. The Basques were likely off Newfoundland for many decades if not centuries before that. Cider is on Cartiers ships in 1534:ébec&Itemid=48&tmpl=component&print=1&lang=fr

  7. Alan, I appreciate the shout-out to the Basques. I read Mark Kurlansky's history before we went, and he makes a pretty persuasive case that they might have predated the Vikings. Euskera was never a written language, and so the evidence is only circumstantial. They were, from the 800s on (if memory serves), the kings of the sea and had long developed the capacity to travel great distances. One of the signature discoveries was salt cod, which was light and caloric, and which remains one of the courses of the txotx.

  8. I have tasted quite a lot of French and English cider, but haven't ever been to cider country. This whole series has been a really great read. Thanks!

  9. Just for your information, as I read many "legends" about basques. Regarding basques apples trees it´s normal. The cider revival there began in the 80´ most of the trees have been planted in last 30 years. Cider culture in Basque country ended on XVII century in most of the regions. Just in a small villages around Astigarraga in Guipuzkoa survived a couple of cidermakers...with small productions and rudimentary techniques. The actual Txotx ritual borned also in the 80´s. The glass, the way of pouring, even 95% of material and technology has been imported from Asturias, the strongest cider culture in Spain. So sorry, it´s not basque!

  10. Anon, since visiting the Basque country, I've encountered a number of slightly anxious rebuttals from Asturias (or from fans of Asturian ciders). I'm not sure the two need to be in conflict, though as an Oregonian, I do appreciate the instinct to defend ones' own.

    As far as your point about Basque cider culture, I think it's flatly wrong. It may well be the case that commercial cider-making is a more recent phenomenon, but cider-making itself has largely been a farmhouse product. And on the farm, Basques have always been making cider. I kept get mystified looks from people when I asked how they learned how to make cider. "Everyone knows how to make cider," one of them finally stammered.

    Promote Asturias. There's no reason to disparage the Basques.

  11. Don´t make me wrong.

    It´s not about conflict it´s just to make clear some points.

    As I said "just in small villages around Astigarraga survived a couple of cidermakers". I agree it has been a farmhouse product for long time, just like nowadays in many regions in whole Europe (south Germany, east France, Mostviertel in Austria...), so nothing really special until the 80´s with the revival.

    - Most of Basque Coutry is a wine region, not cider region, "Txakoli" in the north and "Rioja" in south. So just Guipuzkoa keeps the cider culture until the 80´s just in farms, nowadays with a stronger production and promotion.

    - 3/4 parts of Basque Country, so Alava,Biscay, Navarra and French Basque Country had no cider apple trees until last decades, and it´s like this since centuries. It´s something admited in their own books and websites about cider. I am not making anything up.
    - The glass used is the traditional asturian glass.
    - The way of pouring is the traditional asturian way of pouring.
    - Most of old chesnut barrels were bought in Asturias and sendet there in order to look more "traditional" or "old".
    - During 80´s basque cidermakers went in October to Asturias to get people specialized in cidermaking.
    - In the 90´s I still remember many friends from Asturias went to work in basque sidrerías to pour the cider as they had no profesionals there.

    I use to promote Asturias and Basque country both, but I would like Basques to ensure do not leave out this part of the history.