Men’s clubs originated as early as the 1700s in London. Traditionally popular among businessmen and politicians in major cities like London, New York, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco, they’re a place where successful men can fraternize among peers in a comfortable and exclusive environment.
In the Basque region of Northern Spain, private men’s clubs are prevalent – but their focus is on cooking. Named Txokos, the Basque word for “welcoming corner”, there are more than 1500 men’s clubs in the region, with approximately 150 in the culinary capital of San Sebastián and 120 in Bilbao. Traditional men’s clubs are a rarity these days but Basque country Txokos are thriving.
Visit San Sebastian and you’re bound to discover Basque men’s cooking clubs in each neighborhood.
The Basque country is a matriarchal society where properties and assets are passed from mother to daughter. Women rule the household. Basque men founded (and still join) private cooking clubs as a way to socialize freely with their fellow male counterparts.
Basque men’s cooking clubs are unique compared to the majority of British and American men’s clubs, because they’re centered around gastronomy. Txokos are referred to in Spanish as “Sociedades Gastronomicas” or gastronomic societies. They exist as a combination of traditional men’s club and unruly commercial kitchen, where the finest eating, drinking, betting and irreverent banter all go hand in hand.
world class cooking behind private doors
These private Basque men’s cooking clubs are the incubator for great chefs. San Sebastián has the highest concentration of Michelin Stars per square meter in the world, outranking Paris, New York and Tokyo. And the majority of the award-winning chefs in San Sebastián are members of a local gastro-society.
Juan Mari Arzak, the legendary chef at San Sebastián’s three-star Michelin rated restaurant Arzak, is known as the “father of Spanish contemporary cuisine”. His influence stretches well beyond the Basque Country – he’s also a long-time mentor to chef Ferran Adrià, founder of the world’s best restaurant, the now-defunct El Bulli. Juan Mari finds that Txokos are an essential part of the Basque identity.
Juan Mari enjoys cooking at the local Sociedades, where he can experiment with the simplest, quality ingredients for a captive tasting audience of fellow fraternal foodies. He recognizes the importance of these men’s cooking societies and finds they are partially responsible for bringing about the refinement and evolution of the world-famous Basque cuisine.
history of the txoko
The oldest and one of the most prestigious men’s cooking club is Union Artesana in San Sebastián. I met with Txuno Extaniz, Union Artesana’s Director, at the clubhouse on a Saturday afternoon. Txuno is a cookbook author, respected Professor of Cuisine at the Basque Culinary Institute and founder of the successful catering company, Hiru Chef.
“Union emerged from a Freemason men’s society of the time, called La Fraternal,” says Txuno. ”The Union Artesana original logo of hands shaking has Freemason undertones.”
“La Fraternal” or The Fraternity, was a Freemason organization operating during the mid 19th century, in “Parte Vieja”, the historic neighborhood of San Sebastián. When “La Fraternal’s” masonic lodge burnt down, 76 Freemasons convened to regroup and establish the first men’s gastronomic society, named Union Artesana, on May 14, 1870. Several years later, the remaining Freemasons of La Fraternal merged with the burgeoning Union Artesana.
During the long, difficult and oppressive Franco dictatorship era of the late 1930s through the mid-1970s, the Basque Txoko gained in popularity. The Franco regime adopted a “hands-off” policy towards the private men’s cooking clubs of the region. The clubs were the only place where men could get together, drink and speak freely in their native and forbidden Basque language.
Clubs are registered with the city and ruled by a ratified constitution. Many do not allow women members but are slowly modernizing to allow women and children as guests on special occasions. To encourage fraternity and avoid quarrels, one of the many rules of membership forbids talk of controversial topics like politics and religion.
Txuno elaborates this best, “The ‘Sociedad’ is a place where members can eat, drink and be merry with fellow members from all walks of life. The mayor may be singing and drinking with a plumber, the right-wingers with the left, all without any problems.”
basque men’s cooking clubs and membership
Membership to a “Sociedad Gastronomica” is an exclusive affair. A prospect must be invited to join by two current members. Placed on a wait-list, which is currently years long at Union Artesana, the prospects are evaluated by the annual assembly general if there is an opening. The committee debates whether the candidate is of good reputation and character in the community.
The membership fees of each Txoko vary. Approved and ratified Union Artesana members pay a membership fee of more than $5000, plus the monthly fees for the building’s upkeep and maintenance. This is unique to Union Artesana because they own their building. Each member not only joins the fraternity but also becomes a deeded co-owner of the building.
The Union Artesana men’s clubhouse has two levels, with a kitchen on each floor. Almost 100 guests per floor can dine at the long tables. Each floor also a lounge area and a small library archiving many diplomas, awards, certificates and old leather-bound books of historical significance.
“Due to the paperwork involved to incorporate members into the property deed, our ‘Sociedad’ is capped at 215 members. It is written into our constitution. Openings are only available as other members pass away,” states long-time member Javier Llorca Valdivielso.
how memberships at the sociedades work
Imagine having 24-hour access to the finest restaurant kitchen in the world.
Members receive a key and can access the club at any time. The well-appointed commercial kitchen and pantries are always stocked with the best, locally sourced seasonal products. The wine cellars rival those of the finest restaurants. Members can cook, lounge and drink at the club freely. Leave the washing up and replacement of fresh linens to the cleaning staff.
Trust and honor are a vital component of why the Basque gastronomic society works. As members use supplies from the pantry, they enter quantities of what they use into a touch-screen computer. For example, a member will report the use of several ounces of olive oil, two bottles of wine and four cups of rice by entering it into the touch screen, much like in a restaurant. The items are totaled, the member places the payment in an envelope and deposits it into a drawer.
Although Union Artesana is the oldest club, state-of-the-art technology shares space with historical artifacts. Member’s keys are personalized digital smart keys. The room is programmed to turn lights on or control other programmable functions when the key is used. The billing station, where a member tallies the pantry items used, is the latest in touch screen technology and software. The commercial kitchens are stocked with every gadget a cooking enthusiast may desire.
Members are elected, based on their expertise, to handle the daily operations like treasury, pantry restocking, keeping the wine cellar stocked and the kitchen running with the best restaurant quality equipment.
It’s not always do-it-yourself at these societies. Large and more formal special events at the clubs bring in well-respected guest chefs, ready to cook for more than 200 members and guests, as well as wait staff to cater to everyone’s needs.
my visit to union artesana
On the day of my visit, the members were busy preparing a meal to enjoy at nearby Constitution Plaza, after a local event. Members from many of the societies city-wide were cooking that day at their clubs, to serve and celebrate at the Plaza. The menu of the day for Union Artesana members was fresh cod, large grilled ribs and herbed potatoes.
I sampled the cod, which was sublime. Delicate and fresh from the morning boat, the cod was prepared in a simple olive oil, with sautéed onion, green pepper and boiled eggs. The simple, hearty dish was accompanied by fresh local bread, best for soaking up the oil, and a bottle of the latest harvest of Union Artesana’s signature cidra (sparkling cider) with the club’s logo elegantly stamped in gold on each bottle.
basque men’s cooking clubs traditions
The society was formed with the directive of being “charitable, cultural, artistic, recreational and gastronomic”. The members are actively involved in many community events. The most important event of the year for all the societies is “La Tamborrada”, or “the drumming” in English.
“La Tamborrada” is an event dating back to the early 18th-century occupation of San Sebastián by French, English, Spanish and Portuguese troops, simultaneously. Irritated by the daily marches and military fanfare through the streets, chefs, bakers and locals soon began to follow the military processions, banging on pots and pans to mock the soldiers.
Today this event is recreated every year at midnight on January 19 and runs for 24 hours, rain or shine. It begins at the historic Constitution Plaza, where the Mayor of San Sebastián raises the city flag. The high decibel celebration is non-stop through the city’s neighborhoods.
Costumed troops of approximately 50, from each society, march in shifts through designated city quadrants, playing music composed in the 1850s by notable Union Artesana member, Raimundo Sarriegui. The troops bang rhythmically on pots, pans and barrels through the streets day and night, waving oversized spoons, forks and knives while dressed as cooks or Napoleonic troops.
The members of Union Artesana are known in town as the “Babes of Boisterousness” or “Bebes de la Bulla” in Spanish. They are honored with lowering the mayor’s ceremonial San Sebastián flag when the “Tamborrada” event is over.
the new generation of Txoko members
Many of the members at Union have been members between 30 and 60 years. A new wave of younger-generation chefs, artists and professionals add to the mix. “The new generation of young members are fantastic! They are really involved in the kitchen and bring a new point of view to our cooking,” says a fellow member.
“Cooking is in a state of constant evolution,” says Txuno.
cooking with fresh and local ingredients
Regardless of the latest cooking methodologies, high quality, locally sourced product trumps trends. The Basque are lovers of seafood and local meat. Their refined taste buds do not appreciate imported or flash-frozen, thawed seafood that’s common today.
There is an elegance and quality to the Basque way of transforming the most ordinary seasonal ingredients like sardines or potatoes into something sublime.
Cod is a year-round staple, but there is a calendar of excellent seafood coming and going from Txokos and Michelin-rated restaurant menus. Txuno notes that, “Currently, anchovies are in season for the next 2 months.” These are not ordinary canned anchovies. They are of a fine, delicate texture. Soaked in premium, extra virgin olive oil and a splash of vinegar, they are a beloved delicacy. “We are excited to be sampling the latest of the catch. Anchovies are followed by bonito in May and June, and tuna season arrives in late summer.”
the social side of cooking
Cooking and dining with fellow friends, business colleagues and community members is a special, intimate experience. The Basque Sociedad Gastronomica is not just about cooking. The fine wines and cuisine prepared are the backdrop to an opportunity to connect and have a good time with fellow members.
Although Txoko club access is limited to members and guests, a custom gastro- society tour can be arranged. It includes a visit with a member chef to the fresh markets for the selection of the best ingredients, followed by a behind the scenes cooking session and meal at one of the clubhouses, where one can meet, cook, drink and dine with the members.
Be ready to roll your sleeves up and participate in the food preparation. Everyone contributes to the meal. On my visit that day, the oldest member (53 years in the club) was peeling potatoes for 100 people. He tried pulling the seniority card to get out of it, much to the laughter of his fellow peers. He was cajoled into peeling with some good, old- fashioned taunting and an excellent glass of wine.