How to discover the best cider houses in the Basque Country

In the Basque region of northern Spain, family-run sagardotegi (cider houses) are central to community life and identity. On my visit to the town of Astigarraga, on the outskirts of San Sebastian, I truly feel like a strange man – as confused by the centuries-old traditions on display as by the deeply bacchanalian excess of it all. Many sagardotegi are only open from January to April, after the autumn apple harvest, which means there is a real sense of pent-up demand among locals.

Cider making was first documented in the Basque Country in the 11th century, and the hills that cradle San Sebastian are still dotted with verdant orchards today, home to an almost incomprehensible 500 varieties of apples. In the 15th century, locals came up with the clever idea of ​​replacing drinking water on board whalers with cheap natural cider, and the stock of sagardotegi exploded. In the 18th century there were some 2,000 farmhouses in the Gipuzkoa region alone. When time was called on the Atlantic whale harvest, it led to the eventual collapse of this prized crop, but the Basque Country remains a rock basin of tradition, and today 80 sagardotegi remain open with challenge. Astigarraga, with 18 crumpled farm orchards, is still something of a Shangri-La cider.

Read more: A taste of the Basque Country with José Pizarro

The convention is that any visit to a Basque cider house begins with the ritual of the txotx. So when I visit the dimly lit Petritegi Sagardotegia the following noon, I am greeted by the reassuring sound of a chestnut barrel unplugged by the roar of drowsy drinkers. The largest cider house in Astigarraga is full of giant barrels and gigantic reconstructions of medieval apple crushers. The txotx ceremony here is legendary – as the cider is released from the barrel, there’s a hazy thrill as diners rise, sip and sit en masse, pouring hundreds of liters between them. “Here, cider is the same price as water,” says Jon Torre Gurutzealde, co-manager of Petritegi, raising his glass with me. “It’s our Coca-Cola.”

My last night in Astigarraga calls for something special: Lizeaga Sagardotegia, a timber-framed cellar dating back to 1523 – and the point from which cider barrels traditionally floated down the Urumea River on rafts en route to the Bay of Biscay . The multi-course menu here is meant to keep rosy-cheeked cider-lovers from collapsing, and after a ramekin of baby chistorra (semi-cured sausage), the first course is a half-moon tortilla de bacalao (omelette with salted cod) – a tribute to the sailors who put San Sebastian on the map. Next comes a holy trinity of salt cod with candied peppers, an extremely bloody charcoal-grilled steak and a plate of idiazábal (a sheep’s milk cheese), pearl quince jelly and wrinkled walnuts. It’s a counter kitchen that hasn’t changed in centuries, with no-frills service.

Eventually the food stops coming, at which point co-owner Axier Lizeaga turns to me showing my empty glass. “Ended?” he asks, skeptical. I might as well be, for now. But the Sagardoteg tradition is one worth picking up. It’s not just the seasonal-specific menu or the weirdness of the txtox show. It’s getting up and getting off the table. Meeting new people. The conversation. Cider-wet shoes. Little but often.

How to do

ToursByLocals offers the traditional four-hour cider house tour from £315 for four people. Sagardoa Route, the Association of Cidreries of the Basque Country, organizes cellar tastings and guided tours from €44 (£37) per person.

Three cider house dishes to try

1. Chistorra: This cousin of expensive chorizo ​​is fried then dressed in a pool of paprika-tinged olive oil.

2. Bacalao Tortilla: Served steamed without toppings, this Spanish omelet is rich in caramelized onions and salted cod flakes.

3. Bacalao Tacos: Not a taco in the Mexican sense, but a cube of salt cod fillet, topped with a hat of fried onions and green peppers.

Published in issue 16 (summer 2022) of Food by National Geographic Traveler

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