For the Basques, cider came before wine. The cool, rain-soaked hills of the Basque Country are ideal for growing apples and, like elsewhere, where you find apples, you can bet you’ll find cider as well. Basque cider is generally considered ‘natural’, in that it’s not sparkling like most other European ciders. In order to add a little fizz, the cider is poured from wooden barrels into the glass from about arm’s height.
A sagardotegi (sidrería in Spanish) is a cider house. They’re one of the great institutions of Basque life and are particularly popular with groups of friends (people generally don’t go to a sagardotegi alone). A sagardotegi isn’t just about drinking cider, however, as they also serve food. Traditionally, a meal starts with a cod omelette, before moving onto charcoal-grilled steaks the size of a cow and finishing with dessert, which is invariably the local Idiazabal cheese with walnuts.
A night in a sagardotegi can be great fun. The average cost of a meal is around €25 to €30 per person, which includes all the cider you can drink. But you don’t just go and get more cider as and when you please. Tradition states that each group of diners has someone who calls out ‘txotx’ at regular intervals. This is your cue to get up from the table and head to the big barrels where either a bar man or the leader of your group opens the tap and everyone takes turns filling up before heading back to the table and awaiting the next round.
It’s possible to visit a number of cider orchards and manufacturers, though keep in mind that cider season is mid-January to late May and many cider houses are only open during this period. One place that’s close to San Sebastián is Ola Sagardotegia, near the town of Irun, which offers half-hour tours of the cider production process and includes a tasting. Visits are by reservation only. There’s also Sagardoetxea, a cider museum, where you can tour an orchard, taste a tipple of cider and learn all you ever wanted to know about the drink. It’s located on the edge of the little town of Astigarraga, a short way south of San Sebastián.
The Gastronomic Societies of San Sebastián
Peek through the keyholes of enough Basque doors and eventually you’ll come across the sight of a large room full of people seated around a table bending beneath the weight of food and drink. A restaurant? Try and enter and you’ll be politely turned away. What you have just encountered is a txoko (Basque gastronomic society). Members of a txoko, who are often highly accomplished amateur chefs, meet at regular intervals to take turns cooking their own speciality for the critical consumption of the other members. The day’s chef brings along all his own ingredients and, afterwards, everyone chips in their share to cover the food and a symbolic cost per attendee. As you might expect, it’s often said that the best Basque food is found at a txoko. A txoko is more than just a place to meet, though. The members are normally deeply involved in the cultural activities of a town and make up the bulk of the tamborrada drummers who parade through the streets on San Sebastián Day (20 January). Traditionally, txoko were exclusively male affairs, but nowadays women are normally welcome (though some remain exclusively male preserves). Women, however, are not traditionally allowed to cook – though they are allowed to do the washing up. Non-members, either male or female, are not welcome unless invited, except for on San Sebastián Day when many txoko open their doors to everyone. Txoko tend to be rather conservative establishments and there are many rules governing how they are run. In the more traditional txoko it might be prohibited to talk about politics. During the Franco era, however, when the Basque language was banned, the txoko was one of the few fairly safe places where people could meet and talk – and sing – in Basque. Ultimately, the organisations helped to preserve more than just the language. Their conservatism is also said to have helped preserve certain traditional Basque recipes as well.