By Ross Urken, Bloomberg
ON A spring day, I was led through an unmarked door to an underground club in San Sebastián. My guide was a local named Cristina Ibañez. The place, Peña Hipica Donostiarra, was outfitted with a long communal table, an honors system liquor cabinet, and an open kitchen. Together, we prepared a lunch of white asparagus, eel-shaped hag fish, boquerones (sardines), and pantxineta (a custard-cream filled Basque puff-pastry cake), all washed down with crisp local Albariño.
Some five years ago, this meal would have been inconceivable. A traveler such as me wouldn’t have been allowed into the private club. And such women as Ibañez would have been a rarity, invariably prohibited from cooking.
For almost 150 years, San Sebastián’s private sociedades gastronómicas or txokos (“cozy corner” in Basque) have been the almost exclusive provenance of men, a place where they could drink, smoke, cook, curse, and tell jokes. Over the decades, txokos have come to represent some of the most authentic places to eat in the city, as socios, or members, competed with each other for the best versions of homey standbys such as morcilla de Burgos (spicy blood sausage). Each member has a key to the txoko and can come by to cook for friends or combine forces with other members for a family-style meal. The ambience is warm, the cider- and wine-soaked conversation chummy and often jocular. Some members may come weekly, while others may attend only a couple of times a year when reserving the club for special occasions. It’s an alcove whose members are committed to enjoying life — and the region’s famed cuisine — with those dear to them.
Txokos began appearing in the Basque region in the 1870s, when the maritime industry was key to the region’s economy, and men were often away at sea. In their absence, women ran households and big chunks of the economy. When the men returned, they staged an unofficial rebellion against the local matriarchal society by forming clubs.
“The Basque country never had the Spanish macho culture,” said Andreas Hess, a professor at the University of Dublin’s School of Sociology who focuses on the region’s culture and economy. “Basque women were seen as bossy,” adds Eli Susperregui, a culinary guide manager at San Sebastián-based Mimo Food, which offers food tours that include txoko experiences.
It wasn’t until around 20 years ago that the all-male sociedades, committed to being fraternal dens of refuge, began accepting women. The government played a hand; sociedades gastronómicas are private, but because they receive some government assistance, excluding women was increasingly considered inappropriate.
In 1999, the sociedades were issued an ultimatum: They couldn’t have public-facing honors such as raising a flag at the Tamborrada, a blowout festival in which drum regiments from various sociadades march through town, unless they relaxed their “no women” policies and let women participate outside — and inside — the clubs. Still, some sociedades won’t let women sit down at the table.
Even after two decades, only about a third of San Sebastián’s 115-odd sociedades accept female members and allow them to cook. That’s an improvement but also a clear indication that progress is slow-moving.
Economic forces have helped push change at the sociedades. As women joined the work force in the Basque region in greater numbers — the 2018 employment rate for women was greater than 60%, compared to 43.1% in 2000 — and men have increasingly engaged in domestic roles, it’s become socially unacceptable for them to retreat to a private club, especially one that excludes women.
Likewise, working women can afford txokos’ initiation fees which often exceed €1,000 ($1,121), along with annual membership dues that start at €250.
The changing fortunes of txokos have also benefited visitors of both genders. As older members die, the societies have searched for new sources of income to stay solvent. They’ve turned to the region’s rampant tourism industry.
Travelers can more easily visit co-ed txokos, as I did at Peña Hipica Donostiarra, where they have a front-row seat to the newfound progressive bent in Basque culture that has emerged since the post-Franco thaw. It’s one in which female chefs wield knives and serve as ambassadors to carry forward the rich traditions of the region’s past.
ASCENDANT FEMALE CHEFS
There’s hope that the slowly integrating sociedades will also encourage a new crop of female chefs. Though men continue to dominate fine dining, Spain has a number of women running top restaurants. Since New Basque Cuisine emerged, such chefs as Eva Arguiñano at Sant Pau and Jessica Lorigo of Topa Sukalderia have been taking over notable kitchens. Most prominent is Elena Arzak, one of the world’s few women in charge of a three-starred Michelin kitchen, her family’s eponymous restaurant in San Sebastián. As part of the integrating txokos movement, she’s an honorary member of a co-ed sociedad called Cofradía Vasca de Gastronomía and uses the place to stay in touch with the on-the-ground food scene.
“The txokos take care with local products; they remind you of what exists,” she says. “It’s a refreshing of traditions but also keeping them up to date.”
Arzak is heartened to see women joining sociedades and helping to carry on culinary customs. At Arzak, 75% of the staff are women, and the chef believes more female talent will emerge in Basque cooking as a result of the experience gained in the txoko trenches, where serving a broader audience of opinionated eaters in an enclave from which they were previously excluded can be a confidence booster.
“Being a star chef is difficult,” she says. “You need passion. You have to be strong and very intense.” As a result of cooking at the clubs, she says, “young women are coming on who are prepared.”
Ibañez, with whom I cooked at Peña Hipica Donostiarra, agrees that the increased inclusion of women at the societies is a step toward bigger culinary stages, even if she is content to enjoy her time there in a less ambitious capacity.
“I don’t have my own restaurant and don’t want one,” she says. “But little by little, we women are gaining more power and are going to accomplish many things, including becoming the next generation of star chefs.”
ESCAPE FROM OVERTOURISM
The democratic change at txokos also benefits culinary tourists. San Sebastián has become one of the world’s highest-profile victims of overtourism. In the past five years, the number of visitors annually has doubled to 2 million, almost 10 times the year-round population. The problem has become especially bad since the city’s selection as a 2016 European Capital of Culture, which caused major protests such as that which disrupted the 2018 advisory council meeting for the World Tourism Organization.
The city owes at least part of its popularity to its high culinary profile. San Sebastián, with 16 Michelin stars, has the world’s most stars per capita — an average of one for every 11,666 residents. (That’s even ahead of Paris, with a star per 15,184 residents, and Tokyo, with one star for every 29,531.) As the famed restaurants and pintxos bars get ever more crowded, visitors can now escape at a handful of the once private txokos.
GUIDE TO TXOKOS TOURS IN SAN SEBASTIÁN
It’s almost impossible to gain access to a txoko unless you know a member. The best way for tourists to get an authentic experience at a sociedad gastronómica is through a tour operator. These experiences last about four-and-a-half hours; it’s best to book at least 15 days ahead. Operators such as Mimo Food, which I used, take visitors to Peña Hipica Donostiarra, a favorite with horseracing aficionados. Eat San Sebastián takes travelers to the Ondar Gain society, and Discover San Sebastián allows access to Amaikak-Bat, where the emphasis is on soccer. Select members will act as chefs for the tour groups and recount stories about txokos.
Eat San Sebastián
Txoko: Ondar Gain
Cost: €265 per person
Details: Visit to La Bretxa food market and Ondar Gain, hands-on cooking class, and multicourse lunch.
Discover San Sebastián
Cost: €195 per person
Details: Visit to La Bretxa food market, tour of Amaikak-Bat (but no meal), and pinxto tasting at bars in San Sebastián.
Txoko: Peña Hipica Donostiarra
Cost: €120 per person
Details: Visit to La Bretxa food market, opportunity to cook with a member at Peña Hipica Donostiarra, and multicourse meal.