“Txotx!”, exclaims the toastmaster in his traditional Basque txapela or beret (*in Euskera, tx sounds like “ch”). Twisting the tap of the huge cider barrel (by huge I mean the size of an SUV), the cider flowed out at a speed, color and angle that didn’t look too far off from a proper pee. People speaking Castellano and Euskera (Basque) and everything but English approach with cups tilted sideways, careful to line up one after another and not waste cider, and then finish by filling their glasses on fourth or so full. This is done to aerate the cider and maximize bubbles, but also so it can be fully tasted and drank quickly as the tradition stems from pastoralists bringing food and trading for cider, the tasting being a part of the exchange. These are the roots of the Basque tradition of cider house feasts.
Deep cheers of txotx continue as dinner begins. Originally, cider houses only had long tables, not unlike the ones seen at Hogwarts in Harry Potter, and food would be brought and prepared and then eaten, standing room only. Now there are benches, but people are continually moving to and from the table to the cider kegs and eating occurs in waves. The Basque Region of Pais Vasco is known for its excellent cuisine and pintxos, and the Basque version of the tapa, dominate the scene.
Coming in five separate courses, the meal crosses all over the board, impressing the tastebuds and satisfying more than just hunger, it is a truly social way to eat. With the first four and dessert the fifth, it truly is a feast, each round coming out with huge baskets of bread.
1. Txistorra Succulent sausage roasted in cider.
2. Tortilla de Bacalao Different than the Mexican version, tortilla across Spain, including the Basque region is a thick flipped omlette, cooked in olive oil with potatoes and often peppers, tomato or cheese. Bacalao is the famous Basque codfish.
3. Bacalao with pimiento and Salsa de Tomate, Bilboaina Another round of tortilla, this time one with peppers and another in a rich tomato sauce.
4. Txuleta This is a gigantic slab of steak. About two inches thick, it is cooked well on the outside and rare on the inside. With melt-in-your-mouth texture and an almost buttery flavor, it is truly fantastic.
5. Walnuts, Idiazabul Cheese and Membrillo Dessert. With walnuts, small cookies and fresh cheese with Membrillo, it ends on a light yet sweet note.
It is no surprise that with a rich and unique linguistic and cultural history, the Basque people have endured proudly. So, if in Spain, make your way to Pais Vasco, and don’t miss the opportunity to go to a cider house where you can experience it, alive and well.