Friday, May 23, 2014

Txotx!

Today was the last day of classes, but instead of sitting inside, we all piled into a bus and went to Spain to visit Sagardoetxa, a Basque cider distillery and museum just over the border at Astigarraga, and then back across into France for lunch at another Basque cider distillery. At the museum we got a brief tour of the verger pédagogique; they do cultivate apples there, trimming and grafting and harvesting and everything, but since it's just a demonstration orchard most of the apples come from elsewhere in Spain, or from Normandy in France, which also has a long history of cider-making. The cider in this region is smooth but sharp, less fruity and more acid than the cidre de Normandie. The tour guide explained that since the slopes the orchards are generally planted on in this area are very steep, they can't use machines, so the apples are (or were traditionally, at least) harvested by hand after they fall from the trees, using a short stick with a sharp right-angled hook on the end called a kizkia. You swing the kizkia down gently onto the apple on the ground to snag it, and then tap the wooden handle on the side of the woven wooden basket so that it drops in. Or if you're like some of the more enthusiastic students, you whack the apple so hard it explodes and then you try to scoop it up into the basket. Whatever works.

Once harvested, it doesn't really matter if the apple has exploded, because the next step is to crush it roughly. In the past, they would use wooden mallets to smash the apples in a large wooden trough. Today, the apples are stored before cidering, so exploded apples aren't any good, and the broken and rotten ones are sorted out before they're shoveled into the crusher. It's important, the guide said, to avoid crushing the seeds, because that will make the cider bitter. The wrong kind of bitter, that is: the Basque cider makers combine bitter, acid, and sweet apples in the percentages that work for them. I don't remember the exact numbers, but it's mainly the bitter and acid ones that predominate.

Inside the museum itself is a model of a cider house, which is traditionally built up against the side of an orchard slope. The apples are dumped in through a large door at ground level (to the slope) to cover the floor of the top story, which has a small opening in it that leads down to the crusher. This model shows an ox-driven crusher, which we got to see in action when the guide pressed the activation button. The ox goes around in a circle with a pole attached to its foot (or some part - maybe not the foot as it would be really inconvenient to walk, I would think) which turns another pole which turns the wheel that turns the grinder that crushes the apples. The crushed apples then get shoveled onto the wooden press on top of piles of hay that act as a sieve to catch the solids, and the juice runs down to the barrel below.

Camilla's parents in England have a similar setup (hay and all) in one of their barns and used to make their own cider every year, though I don't know if they still do. The Devon hard cider, called "scrumpy," is also acid and bitter but thicker, if that makes sense. The "rough" scrumpy is particularly harsh and is definitely an acquired taste. This Basque cider is too, but like most alcohol once you get the first glass down the rest is smooth sailing. At least until you fall over.

I wasn't taking notes, so I don't have a complete recollection of all of the information we were given in the guide's Spanish-accented French, but I seem to remember that she said around fifty or sixty different apple varieties are grown and used in the region. Once the tour was over outside and in the museum, she took us into the tasting room, and explained the tradition of txotx and how to properly get served with and drink cider. In a traditional cider house, a small hole is hammered into the barrel and then stopped up with a small thin plug that she said is called the txotx, or "toothpick." When you want to get a drink, you remove the plug and hold your glass under the stream. Not too close, mind - the trick is to hold it down near the ground and let the cider hit the side of the glass to aerate it, then draw it up slowly towards the barrel for a count of five or six. This doesn't leave much in the glass - just a few fingers of cider - but you're supposed to drink it straight down, because the bubbles and the flavor fade after it's been sitting out for ten or fifteen minutes. Or even five minutes, as the barrel-minder at the restaurant said, quaffing his portion.

The traditional dishes served at a cidrerie (or sagarnotega if you speak Basque) are grilled beef ribs with potatoes and peppers, with Basque sheep's cheese for dessert, and as much cider as you care to drink. Or at least as much as you're allowed to drink, since it's only "poured" when the barrel-minder shouts "TXOTX!" and anyone who wants more cider gets up from their table and walks over to whatever barrel is being opened. Txopinondo offers several menu options, each starting with a selection of pintxos (tapas) which this afternoon included warmed mini chorizo sausages which were okay, and a tortilla, a Spanish frittata with sliced potatoes and salt cod and herbs that was incredible. I could have made my entire meal out of that. I've often thought of trying to make something with salt cod - you could buy it at Pastaworks in Portland, though it wasn't cheap, and here it's everywhere and cheap - but the whole two-or-three-days-of-desalting-changing-the-water-frequently thing has always seemed to be not worth it. Well, it's worth it. Instead of the beef ribs, I opted for the grilled duck breast, and although I got a fairly well-cooked piece faintly flavored with beef, it was quite tasty. The potato accompaniment took the form of generic fries, which I mostly passed on, and the peppers were just jarred roasted Spanish peppers, but they were good, and since no one else wanted them (there were just small piles of them on the platter, more a garnish than a side dish) I ate all of them I could find.

Dessert was a slice of Basque sheep's-milk cheese, one of the thousands of variations on the pâte pressée cuite rounds you find everywhere here, though I was informed by one of the other students who lives in the Béarn region on the other side of Oloron (at Rebenacq, not far from where I was living last year in Gan) and whose brothers make this cheese, that the Béarnais version is non cuite; the cut curd isn't heated up during the brassage stage when it's stirred to release more whey. I allowed myself a small square, topped with some of the local pâte de pommes, a nice variation on the also traditional quince paste. Baskets of unshelled walnuts were passed as well, and the popping of nutcrackers up and down the table almost drowned out the conversation from our table and the long table where another large group was sitting and eating.

Some of the students were singing on the way back as we drove through the winding foothills towards Hasparren, where we'd picked up the bus, and then we spent a few minutes presenting our program secretary with a gift of a small potted olive tree, a pink sparkly scarf, and a new handbag, which she now needs as she set her own bag down in a large puddle on the front steps of the school when we all posed for a final group photograph. Maybe it was the cider (okay, it was probably the cider) but I was feeling just a little sorry that classes are done. Bises and e-mail addresses having been exchanged, Hadji (the other "foreign" student, though since he's from Mayotte, one of the overseas French territories, not as foreign as I) got into the back seat of Cyril's car, I got into the front, and we drove back towards Oloron and Pau. It was a good way to end the year, and some good memories to balance out the more difficult times.

Zure osagarriari!

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