Gastronomic societies of San Sebastián

09/03/2016 11:51

Written by Murray Stewart

A slightly haunted-looking face stares out from a poster on the wall. I expect to see the words ‘Wanted: $5,000 reward’ written above the man’s head, but he is no criminal, and this is no police station. I am in Tolosa, in one the town’s best txokos, the renowned, private gastronomic societies that still stitch together the tight Basque social fabric south of the Pyrenees. The man on the poster, Antxon, is applying to join this txoko, and the poster is the existing members’ opportunity to agree or otherwise to his joining. 

Pintxos San Sebastian Spain Basque Country by Hamman Dreamstime© Hamman, Dreamstime

One single thumbs-down, and his application will fail. Perhaps that explains the trepidation etched on his face. Or perhaps he’s afraid of the hefty joining fee (€2,500). Txokos date back to the 19th century, but their exact origins are unclear. San Sebastián is undoubtedly where they started, but the ‘how?’ and ‘why?’ provoke diff erent answers. Some believe that the menfolk invented the txoko in order to avoid the restricted opening hours of bars. Others credit fishermen with their invention, claiming that weeks of isolation at sea, followed by shore-time with their womenfolk was too big a contrast to handle, leading to the search for some private, male-only space ashore. For others, however, the txoko was a response to the city’s overcrowding: a pleasant evening could hardly be spent in cramped little houses, nor in public bars and cider-houses full of occupying soldiers. Basement space was available however, an ideal subterranean opportunity for male get-togethers. And although some concessions have been made in recent years, somewhat grudgingly, towards letting in the ladies, in most cases they are still merely guests, not members. Txokos are a last bastion of maleness. 

Here in Tolosa, the open-plan txoko kitchen is beautifully fitted with professional-standard equipment. Four middle-aged to elderly men are busy creating artistic pintxos. At the serving-hatch, I am presented with a tower of perretxico mushrooms, neatly skewered with a cocktail stick and nestling on Idiazabal cheese shavings. Members take great pride in cooking in full view of everyone and serving up the results of their labour to their own cuadrilla, their group of friends. 

Common to all of these societies is the trust between the members, each of whom has his own key. Ingredients used are recorded (as are any dents made in the wine stock) and paid for each time the member cooks.

For decades, some have predicted the demise of these societies. In a time of economic hardship, convincing new members to join can be diffi cult, while the gender imbalance of the membership was at odds with 20th-century thinking, never mind 21st. But with an estimated 1,000 societies still in existence, it seems that they are a bastion of Basqueness.

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