For those of you who may be lucky enough to get to visit the Basque Country sometime, we thought we’d share a few of our favorite places with you.
Did you know that the famed Greek geographer Strabo (64 BCE-24 CE) wrote of the Basques as a race of cider drinkers? The importance of apples, and especially their refreshing derivative, sagardoa ( cider), is celebrated in the Basque Cider Museum: Sagardoetxea (literally, the “house of cider”). Located in a famed cider town, Astigarraga (Gipuzkoa), this is a fascinating museum with plenty of hands-on activities for everyone to get involved in.
Cider houses developed out of traditional farmsteads, and were once no more than converted sheds for farmers to meet up, eat, drink cider, and of course sing. Indeed, there seems to be an intrinsic connection between drinking cider and singing, whether songs or bertsos (improvised oral poems). But cider house culture is also associated with all round revelry and partying. For example, dancing, too, was not uncommon in the cider houses of yesteryear. In The Basques, renowned anthropologist Julio Caro Baroja describes traditional “cider house dances” that consisted of “imitating the sound of a flute and the bass drum with the voice, and then as if one were eating in a casserole dish while having to take off half of one’s clothes, but always singing. Not all, but some, evolved in such a way that it is assumed that they were not at first mere burlesque pastimes.”
Today, cider houses open their doors to offer a unique gastronomic and cultural experience. The most traditional of cider houses are only open to the public between January and April (although others offer an all-year-round service). Family-style dining is the order of the day, as you sit down to a traditional menu of cod omelet, followed by fried cod with green peppers, a big juicy steak, and finish off with cheese, walnuts, and apple quince jelly, all washed down with as much cider as you want from the surrounding kupelak (barrels). Be sure to keep an ear out, though, for the magic word: txotx! (something akin to “drink up!”), which marks the moment when some brave soul goes to open up a barrel.