PORT gets a rare glimpse into the secret world of the txokos, the closed Basque dining clubs, as we follow chef Iñigo Zeberio from the markets of San Sebastián to his club, Aitzaki
The closed gastronomic societies of San Sebastián, Spain, are a uniquely Basque phenomenon. Established at the end of the 19th century as a place of refuge for men to socialise and cook away from their ‘domineering’ wives, the Sociedades gastronómicas have come to encapsulate and preserve the culture that they were born out of.
“Unlike the rest of the country, the Basque society is matriarchal,” Gabriella Ranelli, a culinary tour guide and club member, tells me when I ask her why these eating clubs exist only in this autonomous region of northern Spain. “Women ruled the house and there really was no role for the men, domestically, apart from stopping by to hand over their pay.”
Since the first sociedad opened in 1871, food has been at the centre of life in the societies. Simple, classic fare – hake in green sauce with clams, or squid in its own ink – is preferred over complicated haute cuisine that the sophisticated kitchens and skilled cooks could potentially produce.
Most sociedades are constitutionally apolitical – meaning that conversation stays light hearted. Instead, the members discuss recipes, exchange advice on the best sources of local produce and chat about Basque football and horse racing.
“Regardless of differing creeds or social classes, inside the sociedad we are all equals,” explains Iñigo Zeberio, a chef who cooked for PORT at his own club, Aitzaki.
While the clubs are not “hotbeds of nationalistic activity”, as Ranelli tells me, they have played a vital role in preserving the Basque language and historic traditions. Under the dictatorship of General Franco, the societies provided a space to speak Basque and sing without state control, but after his death the clubs declined.
“Spain went through a lot of social change in the 1980s. The sociedades were considered old fashioned for not opening up to women,” says Ranelli. Now, thankfully, many societies do admit women (though often not to the kitchen), and there are long waiting lists for membership. I’m told by members that although the clubs are not secret like a masonry and guests are regularly allowed entry, there are still strict rules for membership.
“You have to be invited in and then, in most cases, you have to be voted in unanimously, because everyone has to trust one another,” Ranelli explains. The Basques are “scrupulously honest” but the societies go to great lengths to ensure that nothing will spoil the food. “I know a case,” Ranelli adds, “where there was a man that everyone liked, he was great fun, but a member had had a conflict with him years before, so he wasn’t admitted.”
San Sebastián’s sociedades have come to play a vital role in developing Basque cuisine – both domestically, as it gives younger members the chance to cook in a large, well-stocked kitchen and learn from older members, and professionally. It is in the sociedades that Juan Mari Arzak, found the perfect place to develop the recipes that would earn him three Michelin stars for his eponymous restaurant, currently 17th on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
Today, San Sebastián is an international capital of fine dining, partly due to these dining societies. The city even boasts the second-highest density of Michelin stars by population, losing out only to Kyoto, Japan.
But for Zeberio, these humble clubs are important for the sense of community and tradition that food can bring. “I am fortunate to be a member,” he tells me. “The sociedades make me feel part of the culture of my city.”
Photography Mariano Herrera
This article is taken from PORT issue 18. Click here to buy single copies or to subscribe.