Cider house rules

Frederic manby discovers the traditions around the trademark drink of the French-Spanish border.

When the shepherd who kept sheep in their field died, the Daguerre family decided to plant apple trees to produce the fruit used for a regional cider, usually exceptionally dry and little known outside the Basque areas of France and Spain, and in Asturias. The Daguerres take their crop to a cider-maker in Spain, where the apples are pressed and cider is ready to drink in the early months of the new year.

They sell it to friends and local inns and restaurants to cover their costs in the orchard.

The traditional cider farm will serve cider only in the first quarter of the year, in rustic settings. The patron will open up a barrel and call everyone forward by shouting "txotx" (spoken as "chotch") to indicate that by using a wooden spike, the txotx, he has vented the cask of cider. In they file with large glasses in which they will catch the spouting juice, standing well back to get air into the liquid as it spurts out. Each vat holds 5,000 litres or more, so there is masses of pressure and the occasional bit of wastage is accepted.

The scene is illustrated in the Daguerres' proprietary label, commissioned from the local artist Mattin Partarrieu. A beaky nosed chap in a Basque beret vents the vat, and an arc of liquid flies past the more than ample cleavage of the serving wench. The St Jean de Luz artist has since specialised in a cider farm series featuring a plain man and buxom maid.

It's all very jolly in the true cider farm. Food served includes cod omelette. Or cod with green pepper. The cod has been a favourite Basque fish for centuries. There may be thick T-bone chuleta of beef, too.

In the traditional cider farm you don't eat off plates. Marilys Daguerre explains: "They give you bread and big cider glasses and you eat with your fingers. Originally people would bring their own food. That's before these rituals were fashionable. You stood, you drank cider. You paid a certain amount of money and drank as much as you liked. The meal ends with sheep cheese and quince membrillo and walnuts. No coffee, no other alcohol but cider (or "cidra" in Spanish, "sagarnoa" in Basque.) "Etxeko" means homemade and you will see it on menus and bottle labels.

"In some ciderias you still have to stand. Others are modernised, more like a restaurant." This commercialisation of a local custom is understandable. The tourists' cider season runs from Easter to May, with coach parties from the surrounding cities.

The locals avoid the commercial cider restaurants. "The right environment to drink it is a farm, and there may be singing", say Marilys and Pantxoa. In fact, it would be surprising if there was no singing. The people of this region tend to be immersed in Basque cultural activities and choral music, and the Daguerres and their friends travel the world singing in Basque festivals.

But first, the apples have to be picked, which is where I was at first light one Saturday last October, chez Daguerre. There were about three dozen of their friends and relations assembled, plus a quartet of professional pickers. They grow 17 apple varieties in 500 trees. Varieties include urdin sagara, with just six trees, to errexil, with 67, ugarte, txalak and, the only non Basque variety, reinete gorri from Normandy. They are chosen for their characteristics, maybe acid, maybe bland, maybe juicy or, like the russet red goikoetxea, sweet and eminently edible.

Most cider apple farmers pick every day but this is not practical for the Daguerres, who make an annual harvest on the first Saturday in October. Helping run things are the Daguerres' children, Intza and Kemen. Like their parents, they speak Basque, Spanish and English as well, of course, as French.

The brawnier men will shake the trees and poke a bamboo pole at obstinate apples in the top branches. Then it is a waist-enhancing routine of picking up the apples and putting them in baskets which are regularly emptied into sacks. The commercial apple farmer will use a stick and nail, tapping the apple into the basket. It saves bending down so much. At half-time Marilys serves coffee and cakes.

When all are gathered in, it is back the short walk to the Daguerres' house, and a long trestle table under an awning and the shade of a Mulberry, for one of those distinctly convivial meals you see in France. There was charcoal roast lamb, bean stew, last year's cider, wine and the oh so moreish cannelet, a sticky sweet cake, originally from Bordeaux.

The cider has an alcohol content of five to six degrees, and like many ciders is stronger than you may realise. Oops. The day after the feast the crop is taken over the border to the cider maker in Astigarraga, the village near San Sebastian where there are 30 cider farms. The cider maker will add other apples to their apples to achieve the desired taste. He knows exactly the blend he needs. Some apples are bought from Normandy – with its own cider tradition. One kilogramme of apples makes a bottle of cider. Their cider is bottled in February. The Daguerre 2009 crop was 13,000kg or 13 tons. This year with fitful hot-cold-hot-wet-dry weather and winds the yield was about 7,000kg. They sell it for two or three euros a bottle to friends and restaurants and shops, the latter charging maybe eight to 10 euros.

It is a distinctly regional drink, and one which the French and Spanish enjoy, with a pouring ritual from a bottle held high above the glass. The total annual output is 30m bottles a year in the Basque region. The first place I had it was on holiday in coastal Asturias. We stumbled into a very basic bar off the tourist trail, full of fishermen, each with a bottle. This they tipped from a height towards the glass, turned sideways at first, so there was lots of splashing and laughter. The only other thing served was spider crab. A great memory, but no photographs.

I thought I had been drinking cider until a few years later when I met Pantxoa and Marilys, he a furniture manufacturer, she a teacher of English. As a younger man he was a renowned pelota player – where the ball is flung against a fronton – those tall walls with a rounded top seen in villages. It makes men tough.

Pantxoa adds: "When we came here to build this house on family land there were a few apple trees here and in the village archives it was noted as an orchard. So, when the sheep went we decided to plant another orchard.

"A long time ago all the farms had their own cider. Each farmer would make a few hundred litres for their own use. On fishing trips for cod to, say Newfoundland, they would take their cider in vats. It prevented scurvy. On the return voyage the vats would be full of whale oil used for the lighting in streets in our towns, villages and cities."

The boat classification would be by the number of vats it could carry. The oldest boat found in Labrador dates from 1500 and had sailed from San Sebastien. "There would have been earlier voyages and it is believed they found the Americas before Columbus", says Pantxoa.

GETTING THERE

I drove, sailing with Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth to Caen, returning from Santander, a major city on Spain's Atlantic coast. (www.brittany-ferries.co.uk or 0871 244 0744).

On March 27 the company begins crossings from Portsmouth to Santurtzi, the port for Bilbao, which is nearer to the French border and home of the Guggenheim art gallery.

YP 22/1/11