The Basques love their food, but from January to April each year, they also like to show some special love to their cider – the alcoholic kind. During these months, the region's cider producers – known locally as sagardotegi – open their doors to visitors, who can taste cider fresh from the barrel and eat traditional cider-house cuisine.
"A cider-house tour is one of the most authentic Basque experiences you can have – it's a local tradition," explains Jon Warren, CEO of San Sebastian Food, which provides culinary tours led by local guides. "During cider season, people come in groups, sometimes two or three times a week, to taste cider fresh from the barrels and to eat cider-house food."
The Basque province of Gipuzkoa, where San Sebastian is located, is the region's cider mother ship, with about 85 sagardotegis. The majority of these producers are in the towns of Astigarraga and Hernani, both a 10-minute drive from San Sebastian. While cider season is short-lived, the cider itself is available year-round, sold in bottles at supermarkets or served from barrels in local bars.
Many cider producers open only in the evening, but at Gurutzeta in Astigarraga, the lunch crowd is welcome and every table is occupied. Warren and one of his guides, Eli Susperregui, take me past the dining room to a vast, barn-like space lined with massive chestnut barrels. Gurutzeta's owner, Jose Angel Gonik, hands each one of us a thin-walled, wide-mouthed glass.
"You're supposed to tilt the glass so the stream of cider breaks on the edge of the glass, which oxidizes it and releases the flavours," Warren explains. "Ready?"
Gonik pulls out a thin peg – called a txotx – from one of the barrels and yellow liquid comes out in a thin arc. The cider splashes first on my hand and my shoes before I finally get an inch of it in my glass. I take a sip: tart like the apples it's made with and, unlike the English or Swedish ciders I'm used to, rather flat.
"It's unpasteurized and unfiltered, with no CO2 or sugar added," says Warren, who is originally from Britain. "If you leave it in your glass for too long, it will actually turn brown, like an apple. Let's eat."
A big slab of steak, cooked medium-rare, is brought to our table, followed by slices of queso idiazabal – smoked cheese made from sheep's milk – served with quince jelly and walnuts. Eating is a communal affair in cider houses; each group gets one of each dish and everyone just digs in, no serving utensils and individual plates required. The tables are also shared by two, three or more parties.
Before hitting Gurutzeta, we had visited two sagardotegis: Zelaia and Zapiain. At the latter our host, Egoitz Zapiain, served us an egg tortilla with caramelized onion and salted cod, and chorizo cooked in cider. These dishes – the tortilla, chorizo, steak and cheese – are standard fare in most cider houses, Zapiain explained.
I look around the dining room at Gurutzeta, listen to the chatter and realize that, aside from Warren, I may be the only non-Basque here. If that's one measure of an authentic Basque experience, then I'm living it, baby.
That deserves another pull at the txotx.