How a drink fuelled a sea-faring people

Cider is a staple in the Spain’s Basque Country, and its fascinating story goes hand in hand with the Basque desire to conquer the seas.

“Imagine more than 2,000 cider houses here, rolling from the mountains of Zerain to the sea some 200 years ago,” said Aritz Eguren, looking out past an orchard that tumbled down into a deep gorge. Below, a herd of ponies was grazing pasture. On all sides fruit trees glinted in the afternoon sun. From the slope, we could see Oiharte Sagardotegi, the working farm run by Eguren and his wife Maite, and, behind that, a warehouse of steel barrels filled with naturally fermented cider from Moko, Goikoetxe and Errezil apples native to the Basque Country.

“Now let’s drink,” Eguren said.

In the soft haze of the farm cellar, the cider maker called “Txotx!” and opened a spigot on the side of one of the barrels. His onomatopoeic declaration – a Basque term for the traditional toothpick-sized barrel stoppers, now shorthand for the start of cider drinking hour – was followed by a backlit stream of gold gushing from the drum towards the floor.

Before it hit the cold concrete floor, he caught the first pour in a tilted short glass around 30cm from the flow to awaken the natural carbonation. Then, he prompted me to do likewise. My glass filled, we clinked and toasted “Topa!” (Cheers!), then emptied our glasses.

“In this job, if you don’t drink cider there’s no point,” he said.

So we did it again.

And again.

In Basque cider houses, the cider is poured directly into the glass from the barrel (Credit: Javier Larrea/Alamy)

This cider-drinking ritual is embedded in many aspects of Basque culture, and soon barrel after barrel was tapped to the same call: “Txotx!”. My first night in a Basque cider house soon became a faint memory of intoxication and the lessons of hundreds of years of history.

As chateaux vineyards are to Bordeaux and single malt distilleries are to Speyside, sagardotegi – family-run cider houses – are to the Basque Country. And, at Oiharte, 70,000 litres of traditional cider are produced every year from a plantation of 1,500 trees in the Zerain mountains. While Oiharte only opened in 2010, the story of the Basque Country’s harvest winds back much farther. This land of the apple, with 500 varieties of the fruit, has been in the cider-making business ever since the 11th Century.

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

Arratibel works for the Sagardoa Route, which is part of the Basque Country Cider House Association. She grew up on an orchard-strewn farm and, as her grandparents made naturally fermented apple juice every autumn, the cider-making tradition has defined her life.

“My father and grandfather used to go to the cider houses four times per week,” she recalled. “This was how it was. And cider houses were the sole realm of men – women weren’t allowed. But the world, and habits, have changed. Now, they mostly open at the weekend for lunch and dinner, during the cider festival months of January to April, and everyone is welcome.”

This apple-growing region has been the in cider-making business since the 11th Century (Credit: Javier Larrea/Alamy)

This apple-growing region has been the in cider-making business since the 11th Century (Credit: Javier Larrea/Alamy)

Igartubeiti, which reopened in 2001 as a museum, is a thatched stone and oak-beam farmhouse with a two-storey-high dollaria, an apple press made of Jenga-like wooden spars that compress and crush the fruit in the first stage of the cider production process. “This is where the story of indigenous Basque culture really starts,” said Arratibel, simply. “Not only of cider and industry, but of family, food and local produce. Farming was everything in the 16th Century.”

On another floor of the museum was a musical instrument called a txalaparta, a percussive board made from a cider press, used to accompany bertsolaritzas, traditional songs composed and sung in sagardotegi. And, of course, such ditties focus on tales of cider making and hard drinking. Outside, a dried wild sunflower was nailed to one of the farmstead’s oak pillars. It remains the emblem of the cider house, a symbol of protection against bad weather, war and illness.

“We need to take care of this building because it’s the only one left of its kind,” Irati Irroyo, a guide at the museum, told me. “Imagine the scene: small beds and living quarters; an inside fire to keep the family warm; and cows, pigs, sheep and cockerels sleeping inside, too. Then, a whole operation dedicated to making cider, as well as cheese. It was a little living factory.”

What makes the cider story especially intriguing is how the industry grew in tandem with the Basque desire to conquer the seas. Historically, the kings of Castilla, the ancient region of north-eastern Spain, passed through the Basque Country en route to France, bringing money, merchants and trade in their wake. For the Basque city of San Sebastián and its nearby port Pasaia, this accelerated economic growth, and the construction of wooden frigates and brigantines sparked the coast into life.

Igartubeiti is a traditional Basque cider house that has been converted into a museum (Credit: Juanma Aparicio/Alamy)

Igartubeiti is a traditional Basque cider house that has been converted into a museum (Credit: Juanma Aparicio/Alamy)

The Basques were master mariners and were among the first to sail around the world – even accompanying Christopher Columbus to the New World. Their skills became in high demand when the world monetised whaling, as global demand for oil – for candles, lamps and soap – spiked. For much of this time – when flotillas of Basque vessels were bound, mostly, for Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada – the whalers drank cider, with cargo holds loaded to the gunwales with untapped kupelas (barrels) of fermented apple cider. Water soured quickly during long periods at sea. Wine was far more expensive to produce. More agreeably, apples were everywhere. And cheap.

The first whalers from the Basque Country took off in the 15th Century, and – thanks to the local cider and its high doses of Vitamin C – the sailors were rarely affected by the ravages of scurvy. By the 16th Century, the whalers had become renowned throughout the world for their stamina, giving the Basques an almost secret advantage over other seafaring nations and regions. It was a magical time for the apple farmers, with more cider needed than ever before and more cider houses built. San Sebastián, in effect, was built off the profits. In homage to this history, Alboala, a museum in Pasaia, is currently building a full-scale replica of the San Juan, a whaler’s ship that sank off the coast of Labrador in 1565.

“Nothing lasts forever,” said Arratibel, as we reflected on the past. “Just as there was a boom, the whaling industry crashed, and the cider industry was in financial turmoil. Cider houses and pressing machines were closed, apple trees were cut down and other crops were introduced.” At the end of 19th Century, at the peak, there were 100 cider houses in the city of San Sebastián alone. Now none of them remain. Across the Basque Country, many cider houses were forced to close, and shifting tastes saw cider house culture eviscerated before the region’s now world-famous Rioja wineries entered the scene.

The small town of Astigarraga is home to an impressive 19 cider houses, including Petretegi (pictured) (Credit: Javier Larrea/Alamy)

The small town of Astigarraga is home to an impressive 19 cider houses, including Petretegi (pictured) (Credit: Javier Larrea/Alamy)

But at the end of 20th Century, when the txotx ritual was introduced to commemorate the old ways, there was a renaissance of both drinking cider and growing apples. And, today, the Basque Country bulges with born-again cider houses open for tours and cellar tastings. At some, around 200 litres of cider are drunk every mealtime.

In particular, Gipuzkoa province surrounding San Sebastián is home to 70 surviving and reimagined cider houses, while the town of Astigarraga has a cluster of 19, with the orchards forming a sinuous ribbon of fruit trees in the soft hills that slope north towards the San Sebastián coast, just 7km away. The focus is on the recuperation of indigenous apple varieties and the cross-pollination of trees so that a single sapling can grow more than one variety.

And across the region during the September harvest, up to 15 million litres of cider are produced. You can almost hear the sound of splashing alcohol, laughter and all-round merriment.

In considering the relationship between the past and the present, a visit to Astigarraga and its most historical cider houses — Zapiain, Lizeaga Sagardotegia and Petretegi — is a must. Here, mealtimes verge on standing affairs, with waiters spinning out plates of chistorra (miniature chorizo), taco de bacalao (salt cod with green peppers) and txuleta (salt-crusted T-bone steak), and drinkers preoccupied by the free-flowing cider. The encouraging idea is to soak up the alcohol but also to taste the traditions of the Basque Country and learn more about why it has become such a gastronomic destination – dinner menus cost around €35, while the cider is just €7 for as much as you can drink.

On my last day, I visited Petretegi, where the “Txotx!” call rang out once more. Golden cider gushed. Drinkers rallied under wooden rafters. Darkness fell, with winds blowing up the river, and groups of friends topped up, sampling from barrel after barrel. Understandably, and without effort, I joined them.

Join more than three million BBC Travel fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly features newsletter called “The Essential List”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.

You may also like...