By Annelise Jolley - 18 May 2022
“Apple cider kept Basque sailors afloat during the Age of Exploration. Here’s how to experience the effervescent drink in Spain and beyond.
With more Michelin stars per capita than any city on Earth, San Sebastián is the gastronomic center of Spain, and possibly the world. And the world has taken notice.
In recent years the city’s famous pintxo bars (a Basque spin on tapas) have grown increasingly popular with tourists.
Local food tours steer groups away from Old Town, the cramped neighborhood that swells to bursting during the evening rush. But San Sebastián’s culinary heritage includes a potent, older attraction: cider.
A bartender pours cider in one of San Sebastián’s famous pintxo bars. Pintxos—Basque-style tapas—are increasingly popular with tourists.
Dry, tart, and barely carbonated (4-6 ABV), this fermented apple cider has a history that dates to pre-Roman times. It’s a staple among the Basques, who are a unique ethnic group living within an autonomous community in northern Spain.
Basque cider is best enjoyed at a sagardotegi—cider house—where a traditional menu pairs with all-you-can-drink (oh yeah baby!
Barkaiztegi, a Basque cider house where cider has been produced by the same family since 1680.
The sagardotegi is central to Basque community and culinary identity. It represents the rustic and self-reliant nature of Basque gastronomy and offers a welcome detour off the pintxo (“pincho”) trail. To understand the importance of the cider house, however, you first must travel back in time several hundred years—and then out to sea.[...].
Where sea meets land
The original cider houses were a meeting of land and sea—of the Basque’s pastoral and seafaring identities—right down to a menu of cod omelet and veal (or salt encrusted sirloin), steak.
Rural and self-reliant Basques gathered in these spaces to share the food they grew and raised. These exchanges helped solidify the Basque (language and), culinary identity, one “based on the simplicity and purity of the product,” says Orduna. They fostered social cohesion and “the transfer of culinary know-how, a traditional knowledge of the raw materials and of the preparation methods in the kitchen.”
The modern-day sagardotegi, which saw a resurgence of popularity in the 1980s, continues this tradition of gathering people together over simple and unfussy ingredients native to Basque Country.
“Our way (is), to socialize around the table,” says Ane Basurko Barajuen, a San Sebastián local who hails from a traditional Basque family. “We love to share our food and drinks, and we also like to talk about food and its quality—we all think that we are gastronomic experts and critics.”
Cider season, known locally as txox (“choach”), season, runs from January to late April or early May, when the drink is bottled for distribution. Through Basque Country’s long and wet winters, families and friends huddle together in these tavern-like spaces.
Visit a sagardotegi today and you’ll be served a menu that is much the same as it’s always been: chorizo, peppers, and a cod omelet followed by a (hefty salt encrusted veal or), sirloin steak.
The food is served communally, with everyone eating off the same plate. Walnuts scatter across a checkered tablecloth alongside quince jelly and local Idiazabal cheese.
Of course, there’s also cider. Diners receive a wide-mouth glass to refill as often as they like. The call of “Txox!” is diners’ cue to head toward a barrel, glass in hand.
Employees unstop a small hole in the barrel and let the cider rush out in a thin stream. Diners line up and catch the honey-colored liquid in their glasses one by one.
“All these details make the cider house a friendly and enjoyable place,” says Basurko. “The cider house atmosphere is very informal—you have your table with your group, but the cider barrels are communal and you can have conversations with all the other clients.”
Apple cider kept Basque sailors afloat during the Age of Exploration. Here’s how to experience the effervescent drink in Spain and beyond.
”Always look upon the brighter cider of life". Popular Cider Proverb