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“Imagine more than 2,000 cider houses here, rolling from the mountains of Zerain to the sea some 200 years ago,” said Aritz Eguren, looking out past an orchard that tumbled down into a deep gorge. Below, a herd of ponies was grazing pasture. On all sides fruit trees glinted in the afternoon sun. From the slope, we could see Oiharte Sagardotegi, the working farm run by Eguren and his wife Maite, and, behind that, a warehouse of steel barrels filled with naturally fermented cider from Moko, Goikoetxe and Errezil apples native to the Basque Country.

“Now let’s drink,” Eguren said.

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In the soft haze of the farm cellar, the cider maker called “Txotx!” and opened a spigot on the side of one of the barrels. His onomatopoeic declaration – a Basque term for the traditional toothpick-sized barrel stoppers, now shorthand for the start of cider drinking hour – was followed by a backlit stream of gold gushing from the drum towards the floor.

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Before it hit the cold concrete floor, he caught the first pour in a tilted short glass around 30cm from the flow to awaken the natural carbonation. Then, he prompted me to do likewise. My glass filled, we clinked and toasted “Topa!” (Cheers!), then emptied our glasses.

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“In this job, if you don’t drink cider there’s no point,” he said.

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This cider-drinking ritual is embedded in many aspects of Basque culture, and soon barrel after barrel was tapped to the same call: “Txotx!”. My first night in a Basque cider house soon became a faint memory of intoxication and the lessons of hundreds of years of history.

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As chateaux vineyards are to Bordeaux and single malt distilleries are to Speyside, sagardotegi – family-run cider houses – are to the Basque Country. And, at Oiharte, 70,000 litres of traditional cider are produced every year from a plantation of 1,500 trees in the Zerain mountains. While Oiharte only opened in 2010, the story of the Basque Country’s harvest winds back much farther. This land of the apple, with 500 varieties of the fruit, has been in the cider-making business ever since the 11th Century.

Laughter is the sensation of feeling good all over and showing it principally in one place.

Josh Billings

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This is where the story of indigenous Basque culture really starts


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