How a drink fueled a people who lived on the sea

How a drink fueled a people who lived on the sea

Aritz Eguren observed, gazing beyond an orchard that descended into a deep gorge, “Imagine more than 2,000 cider homes here, rolling from the highlands of Zerain to the sea some 200 years ago.” Ponies were grazing in a group below. Fruit trees glistened in the afternoon sun on all sides. From the incline, we could see the functioning farm owned by Eguren and his wife Maite, Oiharte Sagardotegi, and, behind it, a warehouse of steel barrels filled with naturally fermented cider made from Basque Country apples called Moko, Goikoetxe, and Brazil.

Let’s get a drink now, Eguren said.

The cider maker yelled “Txotx!” and unlocked a spigot on the side of one of the barrels in the gentle haze of the farm cellar. Following his onomatopoeic remark, which is Basque for the customary toothpick-sized barrel stoppers that signal the beginning of cider drinking hour, a backlit stream of gold began to flow from the drum toward the floor.

He caught the first pour in a tilted small glass around 30 cm from the flow to stir up the natural carbonation before it touched the chilly concrete floor. He then encouraged me to follow suit. My glass was filled, we exchanged “Topa!” toasts, and then we emptied our glasses.

If you don’t drink cider at work, he declared, “there’s no sense.”

In Basque cider shops, the liquid is dispensed straight from the barrel into the glass.
In Basque cider shops, the liquid is dispensed straight from the barrel into the glass.

The tradition of drinking cider is well ingrained in Basque culture, and soon barrel after the barrel was tapped to the same cry of “Txotx!” My first night spent in a Basque cider house quickly faded into a hazy memory of inebriation and the teachings of centuries of history.

In the same way that single malt distilleries are to Speyside and chateaux vineyards are to Bordeaux, sagardotegi, or family-run cider houses, are to the Basque Country. And from a plot of 1,500 trees in the Zerain mountains, Oiharte produces 70,000 liters of traditional cider annually. Although Oiharte didn’t start operating until 2010, the history of the Basque Country’s harvest goes considerably further back. Since the eleventh century, cider has been produced in this land of the apple, which has 500 different types of fruit.

The following day, our tour guide Amaia Zubeldia Arratibel took me to nearby Igartubeiti, the oldest cider-producing farmstead still in existence in Spain, where records of cider-making date back to the 1600s. “When I was only eight years old, my grandmother would give me one glass of cider with my dinner,” she said.

Artikel is employed by the Basque Country Cider House Association’s Sagardoa Route. She was raised on a farm with several orchards, and the tradition of making cider with her grandparents every fall has shaped her life.

She said that “my father and grandfather used to go to the cider houses four times a week.” “This was the situation. Additionally, men were the only ones allowed in cider homes; no women were allowed. But times have changed, as have our habits. Now, they mostly serve lunch and dinner on the weekends from January through April, when there is a cider festival. Everyone is welcome.”

Since the eleventh century, this apple-growing region has been creating cider (photo credit: Javier Larrea/Alamy).
Since the eleventh century, this apple-growing region has been creating cider (photo credit: Javier Larrea/Alamy).

Igartubeiti is a thatched stone and oak-beam farmhouse with a two-story-high dollaria, a wooden apple press formed of spars that resemble Jenga pieces that compresses and crushes the fruit in the first stage of the cider-making process. Igartubeiti was reopened as a museum in 2001. Arratibel stated plainly, “This is where the story of indigenous Basque culture begins. “not only of industry and cider, but also of food, family, and regional products. The sixteenth century was dominated by agriculture.”

The history of indigenous Basque culture begins here.
A txalaparta, a percussion board constructed from a cider press, was on display on a different floor of the museum and was used to accompany bertsolaritzas, traditional songs written and sung in sagardotegi. Of course, these songs are about hard drinking and making cider. A dried wild sunflower was nailed to one of the oak pillars of the farmstead outside. It continues to be the cider house’s logo and a representation of safety from inclement weather, conflict, and disease.

Irati Arroyo, a museum guide, told me, “We need to take care of this building because it’s the only one left of its sort.” “Imagine the situation: tiny living quarters and beds, a fire inside to keep everyone warm, and cows, pigs, lambs, and cockerels all sleeping inside as well. Then, a full business devoted to producing cheese and cider. It resembled a tiny living factory.”

How a drink fueled a people who lived on the sea

The growth of the cider industry alongside the Basques’ desire to rule the seas is what makes the tale of cider particularly fascinating. In the past, on their way to France, the rulers of Castilla, an old territory in northeastern Spain, traveled through the Basque Country, bringing with them wealth, traders, and commerce. This increased economic expansion for the Basque city of San Sebastian and the nearby port of Pasaia, and the building of wooden frigates and brigantines sparked the coast’s development.

Traditional Basque cider house Igartubeiti has been transformed into a museum. (Credit: Alamy/Juanma Aparicio)
Traditional Basque cider house Igartubeiti has been transformed into a museum. (Credit: Alamy/Juanma Aparicio)

The Basques, who were expert navigators and among the first to circumnavigate the globe, even accompanied Christopher Columbus to the New World. When whale hunting was commercialized, there was a surge in the need for oil for candles, lamps, and soap, which put their abilities in high demand. The whalers drank cider during this time when flotillas of Basque ships were largely headed for Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada, and the cargo holds were stuffed to the gunwales with untapped barrels of fermented apple cider. During extended durations at sea, water quickly went bad. Producing wine was significantly more expensive. Fortunately, apples could be found everywhere. And affordable.

The whaling industry failed just when there was a boom, and the cider industry was in financial trouble.
Due to the high levels of Vitamin C in the local cider and the fact that the Basque Country produced the first whalers in the 15th century, the sailors were mostly immune to the effects of scurvy. By the 16th century, the endurance of the whalers had come to be known around the world, providing the Basques an advantage over other maritime nations and areas. For apple farmers, it was a magical moment, as more cider houses were constructed and more cider was consumed than ever before. In actuality, the profits were used to build San Sebastián. Alboala, a museum in Pasaia, is now constructing a full-scale reproduction of the San Juan, a whaler’s ship that drowned off the coast of Labrador in 1565, as a tribute to this history.

As we thought back on the past, Arratibel remarked, “Nothing endures forever. “The whaling industry sank at the same time as a boom, and the cider sector was experiencing financial difficulties. Apple trees were removed, cider houses and pressing equipment were shut down, and new crops were planted.” There were 100 cider houses in the city of San Sebastián alone at its peak at the end of the 19th century. Now, not one of them is left. Before the now-famous Rioja wines of the Basque Country were on the scene, numerous cider businesses throughout the region were forced to close due to changing tastes, which destroyed the culture of the industry.

Petretegi, which is featured, is one of the outstanding 19 cider homes in the little town of Astigarraga.
Petretegi, which is featured, is one of the outstanding 19 cider homes in the little town of Astigarraga.

However, when the tx ritual was created at the end of the 20th century to remember the traditional ways, there was a revival of both drinking cider and planting apples. And today, the Basque Country overflows with resurrected cider buildings that are open for cellar tastings and tours. Every mealtime at some places, about 200 liters of cider are consumed.

A group of 19 cider houses is located in the town of Astigarraga, which is in the Gipuzkoa region, which is located around San Sebastián. The orchards form a sinuous ribbon of fruit trees in the soft hills that slope north towards the San Sebastián shore, which is only 7 km distant. The goal is to revive native apple varieties and cross-pollinate trees to enable the growth of multiple types on a single sapling.

Additionally, during the September harvest, up to 15 million liters of cider are made around the area. Alcohol splashing, laughter, and general merriment are almost audible.

A trip to Astigarraga and its most historic cider houses, Zapiain, Lizeaga Sagardotegia, and Petretegi, is essential for understanding how the past and present are related. The free-flowing cider keeps customers entertained while servers dish out plates of txuleta (salt-crusted T-bone steak), taco de bacalao (salt fish with green peppers), and chistorra (miniature chorizo). The goal is to enjoy the booze while also learning about Basque traditions and why it has become such a popular destination for foodies. While dinner menus typically cost around €35, unlimited cider costs just €7.

My final day was spent in Petretegi, where I once again heard the “Txotx!” call. Golden cider poured out. Under wooden rafters, drinkers gathered. As night fell and gusts blew up the river, friends in groups topped off and sampled from the barrel after barrel. I joined them naturally and without hesitation.

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