Origin and history of cider
Customs and rituals make Basque cider special
The culture around the "txotx"
Every sip of cider is a reflection of the old Basque customs that are related to the land and farms, on the one hand, and the sea and fishing tradition on the other. These are rituals that are still alive and contribute to the Basque cultural richness.
Apple trees have been present in the Basque Country for several centuries; very much so in the past, since, according to several old written texts, they would cover whole mountains and slopes. In this regard, a document dating back to 1024 already accounts for the production of cider in Basque land.
The importance of apple trees and the production of cider can be seen in the fact that they have been protected by diverse authorities and laws since the 12th century. Many were the laws that banned the presence of cattle in orchards and punished apple thieves.
The marketing of these products has been equally regulated and protected for centuries now. Their buying and selling was thoroughly controlled by the authorities and it was not possible to make profit from apples and ciders that were not originally Basque.
These conditions, added to the rural origin of the cider⎯tightly linked to the farms of Guipúzcoa, Vizcaya and northern Navarre where wine was very scarce⎯, enhanced the character of the cider as a beverage associated to the household. Each farmstead produced its own cider to be consumed throughout the year.
The proliferation of urban areas brought about cider’s expansion.
Cider also constituted the bulk of what the Basque fishermen, ‘arrantzale’ in Basque, used to drink in the Middle Ages and the 16th and 17th centuries during their whale- and cod-fishing voyages to Newfoundland and Greenland. Cider lasted for a longer time than other beverages, at the same time as its vitamins were preserved thanks to its fermentation process. Hence, it was of great help to prevent the propagation of scurvy on board. Ships would be loaded with great numbers of cider barrels, around 50,000 liters per ship, which would amount to two to three liters of cider per sailor and day.
Nonetheless, apples and cider would lose importance from the 17th century on together with the downfall of whaling, the growing in importance of wine in Álava and Navarre, and the introduction of corn as a principal food.
This meant that apples would be considered to be more of a food rather than an ingredient for a beverage, thus causing a decrease in the number of plantations. As a consequence, the consumption of cider saw its circle diminished to the household.
In the 20th century, work for the recovery of cider begins with the publication of several pieces of research about its production and funding for the plantation of apple trees. However, the Spanish Civil War and the consequent famine caused the decadence of the apple orchards and brought the production of cider to an end. From that time on, this production would be exclusively carried out in certain areas of Guipúzcoa.
Since the 1980s this drink has seen a new stage open, regarding both its production and consumption. This evolution is being held to still today thanks to an equilibrium between an ancestral tradition and cutting-edge technology.
Ciderhouses: much more than cellars for cider
The apple press, ‘tolare’ in Basque, occupied a central position in the farmsteads of old since it was where cider was elaborated. As a matter of fact, around the 16th century many of these buildings would be built around the cellars themselves.
These places would later on become ‘sagardotegi’, big dining halls where the cider was tasted. It is in these same ‘sagardotegi’, cider cellars, that this drink is produced, bottled and served today.
Cider season in the Basque Country covers the months from January to May, where a festive atmosphere that includes music and singing is the norm. It is at this time that the new cider is tasted straight out of the barrels hand in hand with the producer. At the same time, the drink is accompanied by typical Basque dishes: cod omelette, cod with peppers, steak, and cheese with quince jelly and nuts. And, as is the custom, cider is drunk after the ciderhouse owner cries ‘Txotx!’.
What is ‘Txotx’?
The cry "Txotx!" marks the opening of a cider barrel, ‘kupela’ in Basque, and gathers the diners around the barrels. These, each with their glass, help themselves to a drink of cider, which must be done with a little bit of the drink at a time and from an appropriate distance so that the cider hits the inner wall of the glass and its aroma and taste are enhanced.
The ritual of the "txotx" originated in the private tastings that wholesale buyers were offered. They would taste the pre-bottled cider from different barrels and choose that which they liked best.
The cider was served by drilling each barrel and then covering each hole with fat. The barrel would later be opened again using a stick called "ziri" in Basque.
This process became easier once the use of a simple stick for covering the whole was adopted. The Basque name of said stick was "txotx".
As these tastings became more and more popular, they would eventually open to the public. Nowadays, it constitutes one of the main events of the year and a very deeply rooted Basque gastronomic custom.