The defining characteristic of the Basque Country is, undoubtedly, the culinary traditions, and the best accompaniment to a special meal is, of course, a special drink. Which brings us to the celebrated local beverage: hard cider.
For centuries, this simple drink has been made from nothing more than apple juice, pressed and fermented according to the traditional practice.
From mid March til the end of April, a celebrated Basque ritual is the txotx season (pronounced “chatch”), when people visit the cider houses when the year’s harvest is ready.
Most of the cider houses are located in the northeast of the province of Gipuzkoa, in traditional towns like Astigarraga, Hernani, Urnieta, and Usurbil. The die-hard ones keep in line with strict traditions, where people still eat standing, heavily dressed to ward of the winter chill in these large, old buildings. The more modern ones have indoor heating and plenty of seats at long, wooden tables to be shared among that day’s visitors.
The cider houses tend to charge a fixed price for the typical meal: codfish omlette, fried cod with peppers, a wood-fired t-bone steak, and a dessert of Idiazabal cheese, quince paste, and walnuts. Of course, this is all accompanied by as much cider as you can drink, direct from the wood casks on the walls.
Traditionally, the cider houses gave customers the opportunity to do a taste comparison from the different casks to choose the one they preferred. In Basque, a “txotx” is a small wooden stick, such as the one used to seal the wood cask in olden times. From there comes the tradition of yelling out “txotx!”, signalling that a new barrel is about to be opened. In this unique tasting ritual originated the custom of customers bringing their own food and ingredients so that they weren’t drinking on an empty stomach. Today’s set menu of a codfish omelette, fried codfish with peppers, and of course, fine Basque meat grilled to perfection is based on these traditions.