Submitted by Aránzazu Ascunce
Txotx (pronounced choach) is a Basque interjection used to announce that cider is about to be poured from the cask. A lever on the oak barrel is flipped and a stream of cider shoots out. You position your glass at a distance to aerate the cider naturally. When the cider enters the glass, bubbles are created and you drink, an amount equivalent to the width of two-fingers, sooner rather than later. In short, one of those fancy long distance shots from the cask to the glass that creates bubbles.
The tradition of txotx originates from the Basque Country where the tapping of the cider casks draws people together to celebrate nature’s gluten-free goodness with friends, family and plenty of food. In the Basque Country, txotx season begins in mid-January and goes through May. In North Carolina, this Basque cider tradition is celebrated every year at a festival in November. The hosts of Txotfest are Black Twig Cider House and Maddie B’s from Public House in Durham.
As an American who fell in love with Spanish food and traditions a long time ago, attending this festival was one way for me to celebrate my Basque heritage and learn more about it. The sour smell and pungent taste of Spanish cider transported me to my travels to the two northern regions of the Iberian Peninsula – Asturias and the Basque Country – where cider has been in production since 60 BC.
My parents, cousin, and I packed into the car and drove four hours to attend. It was an ideal day for our pilgrimage-of-sorts. The fall leaves were peaking, the sun was shining, and it felt like we were the only travelers on the road. When we arrived, Maddie B, greeted us with a firm handshake and a healthy dose of southern hospitality.
He gave each of us the glass that is traditionally used in Asturias and the Basque Country for drinking cider, a wide tumbler made of thin glass, and the tasting commenced. More than twenty cider producers, mostly from North Carolina, proudly sampled their locally-made products like: Appalachian Mountain Cidery, Blackwater Cider, Bold Rock Hard Cider, Botanist and Barrel, Chatham Cider Works, Daidala Ciders, Fishing Creek Cider, Good Road Ciderworks, James Creek, McRitchie Winery and Ciderworks, Molley Chomper Cidery, Nobel Cider, Red Clay Cider, and Urban Orchard Coder Company and Bar.
About an hour into the festival, we attended a cider and cheese pairing class in the cider house. Our teacher was the expert cider-marker and founder, Gregory Hall, of Virtue Farm and Virtue Cider in Michigan. He pointed out that the best cider in the world is produced in places that get at least 40 inches of rain each year. Apple trees like rain, but their roots don’t like soaking in it; thus, the importance of sandy soil. After his passionate lesson of pairing cheeses from the cider-making regions with their respective ciders, Mr. Hall was kind enough to chat with us a little while longer as he openly shared his wealth of cider knowledge.
We enjoyed the tail-end of the festival by meeting more vendors and learning more about cider by talking to their makers. To ensure that we wouldn’t fall flat on our face, we made sure to visit the array of restaurant vendors present. They too challenged our palettes with unexpected combinations of flavors like crispy, salty pork rinds with a side of spinach dip, pork baby barbeque ribs drenched in a sweet and spicy Southern chili sauce, warm oyster bisque, and citrus marinated sardines over crème fraiche served on mini toasts.
We capped off the day with dinner at Mateo’s, a Spanish restaurant with a “Southern inflection,” located in the old Book Exchange building in the heart of downtown Durham. It turns out that their vendor who was at the Txotxfest graduated from the same high school in Virginia as my cousin. We arrived before they opened and we were the first ones to be seated.
Thanks to the excellent recommendations of our knowledgeable server, we indulged in a variety of tapas including: BBQ pork croquetas in Alabama white sauce, pan con tomate, a sample of Spanish and local charcuterie, crispy veal sweetbreads, and a cold salad featuring smoked North Carolina trout and caviar over a salad of Yukon gold and sweet potatoes dressed in aioli dressing. We ended our wide, selection of flavors with a cup of strong, hot coffee and a couple of buñuelos for dipping in thick, unsweetened, hot chocolate.
The drive home was wistful. Everyone we met at Txotxfest was kind, generous, and happy to teach us about their well-learned craft. They were warm, friendly, and welcoming. Their hospitality reminded us of our friends and family in Spain. We felt embraced by the roots and branches of our ancestral tree intertwining, offering us its bountiful fruit with its naturally sweet, juice. Txotx may be the call to share cider from the barrels, but it also has everything to do with hospitality, and at Txotfest it flowed as abundantly as the cider.
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