A meal with a glass of the local speciality? Try the Basque region for traditional hospitality, says Frederic Manby
Cider farm restaurants are a regional peculiarity in the Basque country. Sebastian Zabalegui of Oyarbide is one of several traditional cider producers who put on food in the town of Astigarraga, in the Basque region.
“No. Not Spain, It’s Basque” insisted Pantxoa Daguerre, who has his apples crushed into cider every autumn by Sebastian Zabalegui. We’d come over the border from the Daguerre house near Ainhoa, in French Pays Basque. With us were the majority of the Ainhoa choir in which Pantxoa sings, conducted by his wife Marilys – like him the possessor of a stunning voice. These authentic cider farm restaurants are only open in the start of the year – serving cider straight from the giant barrels into your glass. It comes out in an arc and is caught in the glass. Then, from April, the cider is bottled for sale and the farms return to nurturing their own orchards and various forms of agriculture in the rich landscape.
Last year, the Daguerres produced 10,000 bottles of their dry, tart drink. It’s quite distinct from the softer ciders of north-west France, with similarities to some of the dry ciders from the south-west of England. It has its own drinking ritual, requiring it to be poured from the bottle or spurting out of the barrel from a great height into the glass – enough for a few good swigs. The pouring technique gives it aeration. You have a refill as required.
There is a cultural identity here which is absent from many other parts of western Europe. For one thing, it is almost a secret – not like the commercial all-year cider restaurants in tourist areas. The locals are sniffy about these cider houses but I went to one last autumn and it was fun – lots of cider, decent food (though usually not the “proper” menu) and a conviviality with fellow cider diners. The food is different, the cider may be in a fake barrel but you will get an impression of the real thing. Oyarbide is the real thing. It is up a lane at the back of the village. A wood fired grill is ablaze in the farmyard. A small door lets into the cider cellar or barn – three adjoining rooms stacked wall to wall with huge old barrels holding several thousand litres each.
Long tables and benches complete the picture.
It is a ritual menu: cod omelette, then salt cod with green peppers, then chuleta – a wrist-thick beef rib cooked over wood outside. It is cut up and shared round, no plates, just forks and knives, fingers and bread. It feels very special. The food is interrupted by trips to one of the cider barrels, called forward by Sebastian Zabalegui with the cry of “txotx” – literally, the name of the spike used to open the barrel bung. It is a pure, semi organic blend of a dozen or more apple varieties – the balance judged by old timers like Sebastian.
Lest you think this is one big cider booze-up, the cider is drunk in small quantities, spuming through the air for several feet until it hits the glass.
One drinker after another visits this wonderful amber jet and drinks it while it is still bubbling. It is raw, young cider from the previous autumn without the leg-buckling savagery of Devon scrumpy. It sells for a few euros a bottle in local shops and is best drunk young, if not immediately. The cider is clean, free of chemicals or additives, a natural fermented juice. I woke, fresh as the legendary daisy the next a day with no trace of a thick head.
It is one of the best nights I have had. And they sing. Marilys Daguerre produces a tuning fork, taps it to resonate into a note and the choir chimes into song. The other customers see and hear nothing unusual in this impromptu singing. Indeed, as the clock slips past midnight and the txotx has opened up barrel after barrel, many of them have joined in – knowing off by heart the songs about the sea and love and life which contribute to being Basque. These are not your antagonistic Basque separatists, just peaceful people – a doctor, a graphic designer, a lab technician, a teacher and retired folk who sing with choirs like this.
The singing is uplifting. The repertoire is wide and heartfelt, a league on from corny old embarrassment of On llkla Moor B’aht ’At ..
There’s a vital and warming joy in the way these just-met strangers celebrate their oneness and the cider farm meal is part of this.
Then they all stop singing, riveted first by the crystal clear voice of Marilys Daguerre, joined by the superb tenor of Pantxoa. Afterwards a couple of girls insist on having their picture taken with him – a tribute to his voice. He is delighted. As we leave, one of the family collects our 29 euros at the door.
The French Basque landscape includes picture postcard villages like Ainhoa and St Jean Pied de Port, the French starting point for the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella some 500 miles away in north-west Spain. It is glorious land. Full stop. Biarritz on the coast leaves nothing to desire. Over the border there is Pamplona and on the coast Bilbao with the museum which has transformed the city’s fortunes. Go further west towards Oviedo for superb limestone scenery.
Ryanair flies Manchester to Biarritz. You can take a Eurotunnel train or drive from the Channel ports with P&O. Brittany Ferries has the most convenient crossings from Plymouth to Santander and also from Portsmouth to both Santander and Bilbao and a car allows you to load up with regional food and drink. Note Bilbao port is 14 miles and 25 minutes or more to the west at Zierbena.
Hotels: Santurtzi on the coast is handy for Bilbao and your boat. The NH Palacio de Oriol on Avenida de Cristobal de Murrieta is a large comfortable hotel with costly private parking but reasonable room rates. Go into the town for tapas or the classy Kai-Alde on Capitán Mendizábal.