The legendary Gastronomic societies of Spain’s Basque region date back to the early 1900s and, while rumour had it that they started as a place to escape their wives, it was actually the industrial revolution that spawned them.
It was a time when work on the land was drying up, forcing the male population to seek employment elsewhere. After moving to the cities to look for employment, many men found themselves lonely. Most were used to spending their days labouring in the fields whilst their wives and families cooked.
Soon they discovered they were all in a similar situation and started coming together to cook, drink and socialise. A brotherhood formed and societies, or txokos, started popping up all over the region; a form of social solidarity and
a place where men could legally gather to speak and sing Basque and be free to do their own thing.
A consistent rule across these artisanal guilds turned cooking clubs, is the exclusion of women. The degree of exclusion can vary from club to club, but no woman is allowed in the club on their own, or allowed to cook in the kitchen.
We got a closer look into the world of gastronomic clubs when invited to cook alongside the members of the club in the picturesque seaside town of Mutriku, situated 50 kilometres west of San Sebastian.
With just 125 members, it’s quite exclusive. You can only become a member if introduced by another member and it is okayed by the president. Membership can also be passed on from father to son, which gets priority over aspiring members, but often results in a long waiting list.
Normally members rent a local restaurant to establish their clubhouse but in Mutriku, the council has donated one in recognition of all that they have given to the community. It’s a large room with a well-equipped industrial kitchen, located in a prime location with a waterfront view and decorated in ornaments and memorabilia from the history of fishing in the town; handcrafted hooks from the 1830s, lures made using cornhusks, and old photos of the fishermen.
It can be a hard life for these men. From a young age, many fish for 12-18 hours a day, spending day after day at sea to meet their requirements. For them it has become much more than a job, rather a way of life. As we spoke with them throughout the night their passion for an industry that is slowly becoming extinct shone.
We learnt that fishing for anchovies is the perfect way to attract mackerel, but more importantly the mackerel would attract the true prize; tuna which is best caught later in the season as the fish move closer to the shore and the fat content gets higher, while further out it’s much leaner.
The food cooked was simple and rustic; loads of olive oil with a heavy focus on seafood. Raw anchovies with piquillo peppers and olive to start, followed by preserved tuna belly with vinegar, and a simple salad of tomato, onion, lettuce and boiled tuna.
Large chunks of boiled mackerel with garlic and parsley, some fried mackerel and tuna along side some hake and parsley. Leaving room for the showstopper of Boned out hake head cooked on the la plancha.
While the food plays the basis for these clubs for most it’s more about the community it has created and the friendships that last a life time. Each society has a strong circle of trust. Their ability to maintain their traditions and share recipes based on high quality local ingredients does credit to traditional Basque cuisine.