The Basque Country isn’t just famous for its sun and waves, it’s also home to some of the best cider in the world and a cider house is definitely the best place to drink it.
JOSEPHINE RYAN MURPHY
A Basque Country cider house is a special place. They are a tradition that has been going for generations, and even better than the massive amount of cider involved, is the whole experience that comes along with pouring a glass of it. Any night spent at a cider house will escalate at an alarming rate from sipping ciders and discussing the difference between their fruity undertones to partying like hobbits, dancing around barrels of appley bliss.
At the beginning of the night as you enter the brewery sober and civilised, the first thing you’ll notice is the smell of fermentation, oak wood and the freshly baked bread laid out. You’ll be greeted like an old friend and shown around. Generally, the brewery is set up in an old building like a farmhouse with stone walls and oil paintings decorating them. You’ll spend the night in this wide room with rows of long tables and benches on one side and three-meter-high barrels of cider on the other.
The First Cider
The cider in these barrels is very different to the piss-like bubbly stuff you’ll drink in pint glasses at a bar. It’s put through a fermentation process and never carbonated, resulting in a vibrant yellow colour with a slightly acidic taste – think apple-cider vinegar but much nicer and much more alcoholic. You’ll be brought around to each of the barrels to try them and make sophisticated comments on the various different flavours but the best bit is filling your glass up. Everyone will form a line, glass in hand, leading up to about a meter in front of the barrel. The tap is opened and a thin, powerful stream of cider shoots through the air and splashes into the first glass and probably also all over your hand. Once you’re done, you sweep it up towards the tap and away so the cider begins falling into the next glass. The correct way to drink your cider is all at once, a tradition that comes from when the cider houses just sold their alcohol to local bars and restaurants and so they would only take a shot of each to decide which was their favourite. You won’t get in trouble for sipping your cider but you just won’t be getting the full experience this way and probably also won’t have enough time between drinks anyway, so only fill your glass with as much as you’re prepared to down in one go.
After everyone has had a taste of all the ciders and is starting feel their effect, you’ll grab a seat and gets served up some pretty great food. The cider houses are not known only for their cider but for their menu too. The traditional sideria menu consists of tortilla with asparagus, cod or anchovies, txuleta – which is a thick-cut ox steak cooked over charcoal – and to finish it off cheese and walnuts. Throughout the meal, if at any point you want a top up, shouting “txotx!” will be met with a chorus of everyone shouting it right back at you and sprinting to a barrel. It will happen so often that you’ll begin to feel like you’re at the Mad Hatters tea party. By the end of the meal the cider will have well and truly hit and everyone’s probably pretty fucked, the old Basque men running the place included and the gaps between cries of “txotx!” will become almost nonexistent.
At this point, you’re probably covered in quite a bit of cider. An accordion is taken out to get the dancing going, acting as a perfect distraction against the txotx mania. The traditional dancing is a lot of fun, hands fly around and there’s a lot of hopping, stand next to a local and you’ll pick up the dance moves pretty quickly. Unfortunately there’s a lot of twirling involved though, which intensifies the cider confusion. Eventually the accordion player will be too drunk to go on and the dancing will die out, ending the night. There’ll be kisses and hugs and you’ll stumble out the door in a very different state to the one you entered in.