Once again, Basque cider houses will begin the txotx season, a phenomenon that currently brings together about one million people every year. In essence, the custom of txotx is none other than to meet and celebrate the arrival of the new season, taste the cider straight from the barrels, enjoy the typical menu and, above all, socialize.
We do not know for sure when the custom of txotx originated, but we can safely say that it has a strong roots in Basque society for at least the last several centuries, especially in Gipuzkoa. Obviously, like all customs, the txotx ritual has evolved over time, as cider houses have changed, but it keeps the essence and the roots from which it emerged.
In the 16th century, many cider houses were in the hands of landowners. At that time it was a profitable product, both selling it in the city or using it to invest in the whale hunting expeditions. However, some of the cider remained in the cider houses and the neighbors could enjoy it.
Cider houses did not use open their doors at the same time. They used to open one after the other, and the order was decided by lot according to the law. In 1765 the law changed, and a specific order no longer had to be respected. Cider houses began to become a place for leisure and party.
In the 19th century, the habit of visiting cider houses to try new season cider was known as “txotx berri” (new txotx). Basically, it was a social act through which producers used to present their cider to neighbors. It was mostly a rural custom, closely linked to farm life and the Basque culture and language. The word “txotx” means stick, in reference to the piece of wood that was used and even today it is used in some cider houses to seal the small hole from which the cider is poured.
At the beginning of the 20th century cider houses were much more abundant than now, not only in rural areas, but also in urban areas and cities like Donostia – San Sebastian. In Tolosa alone, which today has 20,000 inhabitants, there were about 50 urban cideries. One of them was called Txaparro, which closed its doors in 1971. 100 years later, this cidery remains as if time had not passed, and guided visits are organized every year.
Before the popularization of other beverages, urban cideries were like bars, and they sold cider in clay jugs known as “txarra” or in glasses (“poto”). Originally, they were wooden jugs. There were different measures, and each of the containers had its own name: “Pitxarra” (2 liters), “pitxerdi” or “pint” (1 liter), “pinterdi” (1/2 liter), “txikia” (1/4 liter) or “txikierdi” (1/8 of a liter). Cider was poured from the tap, and it was paired mainly with simple dishes such as sardines.
Some of the urban cideries had their own press, but many bought the cider that was produced in the farm houses. Cider was brought to the town in carts pulled by oxen and from there it was moved to the barrels. By midmorning, women and children used to buy cider in jugs so that men could drink it during lunch. In the afternoon, men used to bring the snack or dinner to the cideries.
Cider production suffered an alarming decline during the Civil War (1936) and the postwar period. The apple orchards were abandoned, pine plantations were much more beneficial, and labor was scarce. However, the gastronomic societies of Donostia – San Sebastian began to demand bottled cider, and used to go to the cider houses to taste the cider and decide which one they wanted to buy.
Cider was bottled before the arrival of spring and the rising of temperatures, because otherwise it ran the risk of spoiling. For this reason, the txotx season lasts from January to April. It was tasted straight from the barrels, so they could choose which one they wanted to bottle, since there were differences between them. As the cider houses did not serve meals, buyers used to bring their own food. It was a quick visit, so they ate standing up. Soon, cider houses began to serve their own menus.
Txotx, as we know it today, was probably reinvented in the 1970s and since then it has gained popularity until it has become a highly successful social phenomenon. At the time it was an exercise of innovation. The production of Basque cider lived one of the worst moments in its history in the 60s, due to the dark times of Franco’s dictatorship.
Now, cider is drunk in thin wide glasses that have their origin in Asturias, although recently the consumption in wine glass is promoted when it is served from the bottle. The cider house menu is inspired by the old days when people used to bring their own food: cod omelet, fried cod, ribeye, nuts, cheese, quince or apple jelly and plenty of cider. Some cider houses sustain their economy mainly in the production and sale of bottled cider, but for many of them the txotx season is an important source of benefits. So much so, that thanks to the new cooling systems, more and more cider houses are offering this experience throughout the year.
Be that as it may, in my opinion, the experience of txotx has managed to maintain the essence of an old Basque custom, reinventing itself to survive and recover a tradition to turn it into a success of modern times. During the last 27 years, Sagardoaren Lurraldea has organized the inauguration of the txotx season in a different cider house, an event that has a wide media and social impact.
Apart from the scenography, the new production techniques or the current infrastructure, txotx is nothing more than the celebration of our most beloved drink, in good company and environment. Not surprisingly, it is still closely linked to cultural customs such as rural sports (Herri Kirolak) or improvisation of verses, the Bertsolaris.
Indeed, Basque verses have best described the spirit of txotx at different times. For the record, I have collected some historical references that prove the roots of this custom since at least the nineteenth century.
TXOTX IN THE EARLY BASQUE DICTIONARIES
The “Trilingual Dictionary of Castilian, Basque and Latin” (1745) by Manuel de Larramendi makes clear what the origin of the word “txotx” is: Small stick. This dictionary is considered to mark the end of “ancient Basque language” and the beginning of the so-called “modern Basque language”. It’s the first written record of the word that I know.
In the “Bilingual Basque-Spanish dictionary” of J. Francisco Aizquibel (1884), “txotx” is described as “the tap or spigot of the barrels”.
As regards the use of the word to designate the act of drinking cider from the barrel, the “Castilian-Basque Conversation Manual” (1908) by Isaac Lopez de Mendizabal leaves no doubt. “Drinking from txotx” means drinking at the foot of the barrels.
THE ORIGIN OF TXOTX
In an issue of the Euskal-Erria magazine from 1915 there is a very funny article entitled Sagardua that explains how the first txotx originated. According to this obviously fictional account, after being expelled from paradise, one day Adam and Eve found an apple tree full of fruit. Angry and fearful, Adam shook the tree with all his might to get rid of the forbidden fruit. The apples fell downhill to a well but, not happy with this, Adam threw over the biggest stones he found, crushing the fruit.
A few days later, when they both walked thirsty around the area, Eve realized that a golden liquid thread emanated from the well, and they did not hesitate to drink it to quench their thirst. It was the cider that had fermented after Adam crushed the apples. And that’s how the first txotx came about.
TXOTX IN THE VERSES
Cider has had in recent centuries a close relationship with the custom of improvising verses in the Basque language. Many were the Basque bertsolaris who dedicated their verses to the sagardoa, and they still do nowadays.
According to the book “Pello Errotaren itzala“, dedicated to the bertsolari Pedro Jose Elizegi, in the nineteenth century it was common for cider houses to organize verse sessions to attract customers, and proof of this are the many verses in which cider is mentioned. Today, dinners accompanied by verses are also organized in the Basque cider houses.
Sometimes, these verses were taken to paper, and thanks to this we have many records of the customs that surrounded the Basque cider in the 19th century. Some of these verses describe details related to txotx (also known as “txotx berri” or “txoxperri“), which in the spelling of the time was written as “choch”, since a unified spelling had not yet been created for the Basque language.
At the end of the 19th century, the Euskal-Erria magazine was born in the Basque Country, dedicated to promoting the Basque language and culture from 1880 to 1918. This publication has left us many jewels related to Basque cider and among them, some mentions in form of verses to the tradition of txotx. Here are are some of them:
- Errenteriko sagardoaren pregoia (Ramon Artola, 1881)
- Guazen (Marzelino Soroa, 1884)
- Itz bateko gizona (Marzelino Soroa, 1887)
- Edale Garbia (Otegiko Klaudio, 1888)
- Lagunarekiñ (Marzelino Soroa, 1889)
- Sagardoa-ri (Ramon Artola, 1894)
- Erri chiki bateko sagardoaren pregoia (Ramon Artola, 1897)
The Basque improviser who dedicated more verses to sagardoa was probably Jose Manuel Lujanbio Txirrita (1860-1936).
TXOTX IN THE THEATER
The txotx ritual has also been taken to the theater, by the hand of the author Jose Artola who, in his work “Legorreko arrantzalia” (1898), dedicates numerous passages to this custom. One of the acts of this play is entitled, precisely, “Choch-Berriya”.
TXOTX AND MUSIC
The composer, musicologist and folklorist Aita Donostia, who collected numerous popular songs, wrote down at the foot of a latrine from Lekaroz (Navarre) the following clarification:
At the time of trying the new cider they put in the barrel some spikes where the liquid comes out. This operation is called “chocha jarri”, that is to say, put the spikes. “Choch berriko sagardoa” means the new cider, literally “cider from the new spike.Complete works of Aita Donostia
Txotx is also mentioned in an article of the Euskal-Erria magazine of 1914 that collects a popular song entitled “Andre Madalen“. In this article, it’s said that the neighbors of Donostia-San Sebastian used to celebrate the opening of the txotx singing this song at the foot of the barrels. The article is illustrated with a drawing that shows a girl buying cider with a jug in a store.
BASQUE CIDER AND FOOD
The relationship of Basque cider with gastronomy is not just a thing of today. In an article published in 1934 by José María Salaverría in the supplement “Blanco y Negro” of the Spanish newspaper ABC, he wrote:
Sitting next to the tap, the woman does not stop filling glasses, that the men pass from hand to hand and empty themselves, of course, with impeccable correction, in a single and sustained swallow. But the cider has a quality; Strongly whets your appetite. And then the hake casseroles in green sauce, the sources filled with grilled chops, sardine or longfinned tuna dishes appear from the kitchen.Sidrería vasca (1934).
BASQUE CIDER IN POSTCARDS
Painting is another of the artistic disciplines in which the Basque cider tradition has been described throughout history. Although this topic deserves a separate article, I did not want to stop showing some illustrations that show how Basque cider houses were almost a century ago.
Some of those works, in addition, became postcards that circulated around the world. Two of the artists who recorded Basque cider houses were Jose Arrue and Luis Boada Rolin.