Savages and Cider
The slightly less discovered side of France
For many tourists, a visit to France is all about Paris or the Mediterranean coast. I would like to suggest deviating from the norm a little and visiting the Basque country. Pays Basque sits to the south-west of France where the border with Spain runs through the rugged Pyrenean Mountains and then drops steeply to a rough Atlantic coastline. On the Spanish side of the border relations with the government are testy and have historically descended into violence. The French Basques have a more relaxed relationship with the government but are still fiercely independent and will quickly correct you if you try to suggest they are French.
As you enter the region you will experience a noticeable change from other parts of France. In many ways, it feels as though you have traversed some invisible border and entered another country. As far as many Basques are concerned, you have. The architecture becomes more Spanish and the mountains more dominant. Even the graffiti changes and you will frequently see the word ‘Liberacion’ tagged across abandoned buildings. The local wine has an acquired, earthy taste, but it is not the only drink that is consumed here. The Basques have been making cider for so long that no one is really sure when they started. What we do know is that the arrival of the Romans saw a dramatic change in production techniques and capacity. As they introduced the first apple presses, cider was suddenly elevated from a local beverage to a valuable commodity. Cutting down an apple tree could see you being banished and destroying a cider barrel carried a death sentence.
Though famed for their love of wine, the French still find the capacity to consume 15 million litres a year of cider and much of that emanates from the Basque country. Any Basque will tell you that this is the best cider in the world and I certainly was not about to argue. From January onwards the big buyers start visiting the cideries (cider houses) and tasting the previous year’s production. It is when the first cuckoo is heard in early spring that things get really interesting though. Producers will always hold back their last barrel for the Kukuaren Kupela which loosely translates to cuckoo barrel. Locals from miles away gather for a huge party as the barrel is pierced. The celebration goes on late into the night, accompanied by traditional music and a meal. Don’t expect the delicate haute cuisine you would normally find in other French regions. Instead, it is steak, fiercely braised over a fire and accompanied by a local chorizo like sausage, along with copious amounts of cider.
At some stage the cider master will yell out the word Txotx (pronounced chocs) and the guests will line up in front of a large wooden barrel with their glasses at the ready. The host will then hammer out a plug and the cider will shoot out. Experienced cider connoisseurs can catch the stream from about eight feet away, and are even able to make their glasses ring musically as the golden liquid spurts into it. As the glass fills the first person in the queue steps away and the next person offers up their glass to the cider stream, supposedly without a drop being spilt in the process. This trick becomes a little more erratic as the evening progresses and more cider is consumed.
Dominic Lagadec, the cider maker I was talking to, was as proudly Basque as any of his fellow countrymen. “Basques are savages,” he told me fiercely. “They live for walking in the mountains, playing pelote and drinking Segarno (strong cider).”
Pelote is a game in which a hard ball is hurled across a court by players dressed in white with traditional red Basque scarves. The ball is caught and hurled with the aid of a basket like glove which projects it with the force of a cannonball. It is hugely popular in the region and the games are a tourist attraction in their own right. The coastal city of Bayonne is the largest city in the Pays Basque and Biarritz is another large coastal town well worth a visit. From there, access to the cideries or local pelote tournaments is easily arranged. The Kukuaren Kupela takes place well before the tourist season gets underway. This makes it a very authentic and local event and if you can plan a trip around that time you are unlikely to regret it.