One of the first lessons I learned in Europe is to linger outside of interesting doors—doors that may lead to small-town wineries or craftsmen’s workshops. It's a trick I learned from my travel partner at the time who insisted on lingering. It made me supremely uncomfortable, glimpsing through a window and then waiting around to see what happened. Yet the results were fantastic: we joined a Riesling harvest in Germany and learned to cook goulash afterwards. We were shown things, invited to try things out, and welcomed (sometimes dragged) to tables in private homes. All it took was a little lingering and a smile.
This habit led me, a decade later, to the doorway of a dark building on a narrow cobblestone street in Lekeitio, a coastal village in the Basque Country with a small group of companions. After the pintxos bars of Bilbao and a cooking lesson in a top restaurant kitchen in San Sebastian, I was on a mission to experience another great Basque culinary tradition in this corner of northern Spain: the gastronomic society. I was told they are almost always on the ground floor (check), that the windows are usually shaded so you can’t see inside (check), and that the name of the group is commonly displayed (check).
The heavy door was left open just a crack and inside I could hear a few voices along with the clanking of pots and pans. Among our group, one man was familiar with Lekeitio and spoke Basque. He nudged open the door—“Hello, anyone home?”—and disappeared inside.
My friend poked his head out from behind the door and beckoned us inside. “A few members are preparing dinner,” he said. “They’d be happy to show us around.” There was a long table covered in red-and-white checkered paper and flanked with wooden chairs. Wine was stocked from floor to ceiling along one wall where two guitars were waiting to be played. In the kitchen, the cook for the evening was wearing a white apron and preparing ingredients: fat summer tomatoes, still-wriggling langoustines, and thick ribeyes. We were greeted with enthusiastic words of welcome and invited into the kitchen for a look around. With the pop of a cork, wine bottles were opened and we all raised a glass.
Iñaki Letona is the President of this gastronomic society, Abarketa. It was founded by both men and women (not always common—traditionally the txoko was for men only) and legally registered in 1986. The gastronomic society, “mixes friendship and good food,” Iñaki told me. “We think that when we work in a group, things go better for everyone."
During the fall and winter, there is a dinner in Abarketa every Saturday evening. In the summer season, the txoko sees even more action, and is full of people almost every day. These private clubs are not just places to cook, eat, and drink—they also serve as a sort of community center. “We celebrate our children’s birthdays here,” Iñaki said. It is also a place for cooks to experiment in the kitchen. When a member wants to try something new, they invite other members to join, taste, and evaluate. After a quick couple glasses of wine and a snack—we must eat!—we left our hosts to prepare their Saturday evening meal.
In Bilbao, Gorka Vacas Bengoetxea is a member of a txoko in Casco Viejo, or the old town. Three years ago, the laws of the group were changed to admit women and the club currently has two female members. “Things are changing in the txoko, and more and more they are admitting women,” Gorka says. “But many remain traditional—and are only for men.” A younger generation is also pushing boundaries with the food they prepare, introducing new Asian-inspired or American-inspired dishes. Yet change is slow and many traditions have remained the same: an emphasis on locally sourced food and often on heritage. The fish on the table might be straight from the fishing pole of a member and a valuable membership can be passed from one generation to the next.
Beyond the food and the cooking, the gastronomic society is a place for conversation and maintaining community. “My favorite moment of the night,” Gorka detailed, “is when we arrive, open a bottle of wine, and begin to prepare the meal. While we are cooking, we talk about family, work, government, soccer—all the topics of life.”
A membership (and shared interest) in a gastronomic society brings people together over food and wine—and battles isolation late into the night. Unlike a restaurant, no one has to leave when the bill is dropped. When you run the place, you set your own closing time.
© 2016 AFAR Media