Uncovering Cider Houses in Guipúzcoa
Sagardo Etxea, or Cider museum in Astigarraga. Matías Costa/©ICEX
Author: Jon Warren/©ICEX
Dotted amongst Gipuzkoa's green hills lie one of the region's best-kept secrets - sagardotegis (cider houses). Here, for four months of the year (mid January to end of April), over 80 cider producers open their doors to visitors who dine in wonderfully rustic farmhouses. They taste the season's cider harvest directly from huge chestnut barrels accompanied by traditional cuisine. This thriving local tradition is a gourmet's glimpse into the roots of one of Europe’s oldest cultures in the Basque Country
We begin our route in Astigarraga, the capital of cider in Guipúzcoa and located just ten minutes drive from San Sebastián on the GI-131 road. This village has an incredible number of 20 cider houses, all of them family-owned and run. Renowned for being difficult to find, you might need some help from locals before unearthing them.
We start our route by visiting Astigarraga's cider museum, which helpfully provide local maps plotting out the cider houses in the area. For 3 ½ €, you can enjoy a tour which includes a tasting of two local ciders from the barrel. They can also recommend some historic sites such as the Fort of San Marcos which offers stunning panoramic views or the Chillida-Leku Museum near Hernani, celebrating the works of the famous Basque artist Eduardo Chillida (1924-2002).
Staying in Astigarraga for now, our first cider house is Gurutzeta, owned by Xabier Arrizabalaga. It immediately conveys the atmosphere typical of these glorious establishments; long, hewn trestle tables for eating, no seating (its typical to stand in the most traditional cider houses), and a huge vaulted cellar with rows of chestnut and oak barrels each holding a staggering 25,000 litres of cider.
As Xabier explains, "it's a very social evening, people spend all evening chatting, walking back and forth from the barrels and meeting friends."
As in all cider houses, guests can enjoy as much of free flowing, mellow cider (5-6% alcohol) as they wish all night. Every Wednesday evening during the season, they also have an invited ochote (a male voice choir), who break into song in their mother tongue, Euskera. You might also hear traditional music being played such as the Trikitixa, the accordion popular in the Basque Country as well as see folk dancing, often part of rural celebrations in this region.
For our next cider house, we drive back along the GI-131 turning right at the sign-posted Petritegi Bidea. This long road eventually leads us to Petritegi , which is open all year round and seats up to 400 people under its huge oak-beamed dining room. Owned and run by the Petritegi family, this cider house has an electric atmosphere when busy and is an excellent choice for the first-time visitor.
Lizeaga, run by Gabriel Lizeaga and his brother, is found just past the turning off the GI-131 to Petritegi. It has a cosy dining room, excellent typical cuisine with a passageway leading to the cellars of dusty oak kupelas (barrels). It is one of the most popular cider houses and with only space for 100 diners it should be booked well in advance, especially during the season.
The Cider House Menu
The traditional cider-house menu is based on local ingredients and high quality seasonal produce. You will normally pay between 25-30 €, which will include the traditional set menu with unlimited cider. In Petretegi, we start with an appetizer of chorizo cooked in cider, a house speciality. If you have not already filled your glass, now is the time to walk through a labyrinth of chestnut barrels to join the excited queue. Once back at your table, you will be served a steaming tortilla de bacalao (salted cod omelet), a very traditional dish of the region, cooked runny and deliciously fresh.
Next up is bacalao con pimientos (salt cod with green and red peppers), simple yet delicious. The feast continues with further trips to the barrels (or you can also have bottles at the table) before the main course of enormous T-bone chuletas. These juicy, rare steaks have been cooked a la parrilla (on the grill over an open fire), liberally sprinkled with rock salt.
Local Idiazabal cheese (with Designation of Origin) with quince paste is then served with a basket of walnuts. Finally, you will be given Tejas y Cigarillos, delicious local almond biscuits. By the end of the meal, the table is littered with crumbs and walnut shells and one feels the satisfaction of having done very good justice to a feast of traditional Basque cuisine.
Onwards with our cider route, we reach Hernani, also housing a concentration of cider houses. Situated just 4 km / 2.4 mi from Astigarraga along the GI- 2132, Hernani is a larger town of some 20,000 inhabitants. We now visit Altzueta, which is owned by the fourth generation Goikoetxea family.
"Txotx!" This is the excited cry that will be heard every time a new barrel is opened for tasting. When released, the Txotx (a wooden peg) unleashes a stream of cider, caught in the glass by customers straight from the barrel. It is great fun to experience and camaraderie is developed as people gather behind each other forming a line ready to catch the cider in their glass.
Positioned at an angle, you should try to "break" the cider on the edge of your glass, just taking roughly an inch of cider. This creates foam, oxidising the fresh cider and releasing attractive, yeasty aromas. The taste should be fairly acidic with a hint of sweetness and plenty of apple flavours.
You should drink the cider quickly throwing the last bit on the floor (a custom that dates back to when there was only one glass to share amongst the entire cider house!). Then it's time to visit the next barrel and decide which one you like the most before returning to your table and waiting for the cry of "Txotx!"
The social aspect of this great tradition is undoubtedly the most important reason for Basque people to go to a cider house. As Paddy Woodworth, author of The Basque Country explains, "It is almost impossible to exaggerate the significance of gastronomy here, or the extent to which it permeates almost every social activity and every social class. That, in turn, reflects a lifestyle where time is still more valuable than money, where the texture of today takes precedence over anxieties about tomorrow."
Visiting a cider house in Guipúzcoa indeed offers the chance to see an ancient culture celebrating a beverage they have enjoyed for thousands of years in a way that is rarely seen in today's modern world of gastronomy. Make sure the secret of cider houses is added to your list of culinary adventures waiting to be explored in this magical region of northern Spain.
Jon Warren lives in San Sebastián. He is the founder of San Sebastián Food a food and wine travel company in the Basque Country.