In­side the pri­vate kitchens of so­ciedades gas­tronómi­cas, San Se­bastián’s mem­bers-only eat­ing clubs


In­side San Se­bastián’s pri­vate eat­ing clubs

You are hun­gry, wan­der­ing the streets of the old city. Some­thing about the stone build­ing draws you in. There’s an iron sign with a lot of k’s and z’s. The an­tique oak door is slightly ajar, and when you peek in­side from the side­walk, things ap­pear promis­ing: The ta­bles are full of jolly-look­ing peo­ple speak­ing in Euskara, the an­ces­tral Basque lan­guage, while in the open kitchen at the back, two cooks in white aprons are hoist­ing ex­tra-large txan­gur­ros, or spi­der crabs, into a pot.

You no­tice that many (or most) of the din­ers are past re­tire­ment age and that most (or all) of them are men, but you’re in­trigued and move in closer. Did the six guys at a far ta­ble just burst into a folk song while re­fill­ing one an­other’s glasses with tx­akoli, the lo­cal white wine? They did.

You poke your head in and ask, hope­fully, for a ta­ble for four. It’s an easy blun­der to make if you’re not from around here.

“Dis­culpa, privado,” says a man seated at a ta­ble near the en­trance. “Sorry, pri­vate.” There’s no ta­ble for you here—not tonight or any night. Privado.

The bois­ter­ous Basque res­tau­rant of your dreams isn’t a res­tau­rant at all, but one of San Se­bastián’s fa­bled so­ciedades

gas­tronómi­cas, mem­bers-only so­cial clubs whose ex­is­tence re­volves en­tirely around food. In a town where cook­ing and eat­ing seem to be the raisons d’être for just about ev­ery­thing, from the three-star restau­rants to the nap­kins-on-the-floor

pin­txo joints, these culi­nary clubs, which have been around for about 150 years, still har­bor some of the most in­ter­est­ing kitchens of all.

“The so­ciedades are ba­si­cally un­known to foreigners, but they’re so cen­tral to Basque cul­ture and cui­sine,” says Fer­nando Barcena, the long­time right hand of Juan Mari Arzak, chef-pa­tron of his cel­e­brated Arzak res­tau­rant. “Al­most all of the fa­mous Basque chefs be­long to so­ciedades, and lots of the reg­u­lar mem­bers are great chefs them­selves—they just don’t work in restau­rants.”

For out­siders, the chal­lenge is get­ting into these places, since you can en­ter them only with a mem­ber. For­tu­nately I once spent a year in San Se­bastián and still re­mem­ber very long meals at two so­ciedades, where I was se­duced by their unique brand of homey, epi­curean Basque­ness. So when I re­turned re­cently with the goal of hang­ing out in a few more of them—this time with a note­book and cam­era in hand—there were some peo­ple I could call. Which is not to say the in­vi­ta­tions came eas­ily: Mul­ti­ple What­sapp mes­sages

had to be ex­changed, in­tro­duc­tions had to be made in the café up­stairs from the fish mar­ket, the word privado was re­peated a few more times. Fi­nally, on a Wed­nes­day at 7 p.m., I walked unim­peded through the door of La Unión Arte­sana, San Se­bastián’s old­est so­ciedad, to meet An­gel Soret, who joined back in 1963, when he was 17 years old. Soret, a bald-headed for­mer ham sales­man with a crooked smile, brings to mind Dick Cheney’s wise­crack­ing Basque cousin. At the club he’s known for his mer­luza en salsa verde, a traditional dish of hake with clams in a pars­ley-based green sauce, which he’ll be mak­ing tonight for me and five oth­ers.

As Soret se­lects uten­sils and pans from the steel shelves in the kitchen, which looks like one you’d find in a small­ish mod­ern res­tau­rant (eight burn­ers, lots of good knives), he ex­plains how things work at La Unión Arte­sana. Each of the club’s 270 mem­bers pays an ini­ti­a­tion fee of around 3,000 eu­ros, plus yearly dues, which gets him a key to the front door. (And it is usu­ally a him, though the tra­di­tion­ally all-male clubs have been grad­u­ally go­ing coed.) Mem­bers can come at any time of day and cook with as many guests as they want; they bring their own meat and fish and veg­eta­bles but can use the olive oil, eggs, sugar, and other ba­sics stocked in the com­mu­nal pantry. There are also un­locked cab­i­nets from which every­one can help them­selves to wine or cider or mini bot­tles of ev­ery imag­in­able kind of liquor, be­fore leav­ing cash for it at the end of the night.

Mirac­u­lously, no­body cheats. “When I in­vite friends here from other places, even from other parts of Spain, they can’t be­lieve that we op­er­ate on the honor sys­tem,” says David Vega, an­other club mem­ber who has joined us for the meal. “They say, ‘If we tried this in Madrid, the cab­i­nets would be emp­tied on the first night—we would just grab all the bot­tles and run home.’ ” This leads me to won­der whether Basque peo­ple are more trust­wor­thy than other peo­ple. It’s less a ques­tion of hon­esty than one of cul­ture and tra­di­tion, Soret says. “Mem­bers see this place as their home, and you don’t steal from your own home.”

While chopped gar­lic and pars­ley are sim­mer­ing in olive oil in­side a ron­deau pan, Soret un­wraps about a pound of raw kokotxas that he bought with the hake at the cen­tral La Bretxa fish mar­ket. Shiny and wig­gly and heart-shaped, kokotxas are fish jowls, in this case hake, cut from un­der the mouth; a Basque del­i­cacy, they looked good to Soret at the mar­ket so he’s adding them to the dish. With the fas­tid­i­ous­ness of a bon­sai gar­dener, he trims each one us­ing shears, then sets them aside and places the fil­lets in the pan. For him it’s sac­ri­lege to use even a pinch of flour to thicken the salsa verde, though many restau­rants and home cooks stir it in by the spoon­ful. Soret prefers to pe­ri­od­i­cally re­move the pan from the flame and spend sev­eral min­utes shak­ing it gently in a tight cir­cu­lar motion, so that the gelatin from the hake fil­lets slowly seeps into the sauce. Adding the pars­ley to the pot at the very be­gin­ning is an­other trick of his, which requires more care but makes the sauce a deeper color (“It’s called green sauce, so it’s nice when it’s ac­tu­ally green,” he ex­plains). While Soret cooks, the rest of us do a lit­tle chop­ping and slic­ing when asked, but we mostly stand around drink­ing cider as he makes a stream of un­print­able jokes about soc­cer, Don­ald Trump, and all the young su­per­mod­els that he sus­pects will flock to the Basque Coun­try to meet him af­ter see­ing his pic­ture in this mag­a­zine.

If you pay at­ten­tion in the kitchen of a so­ciedad, you’ll see plenty of ev­i­dence of the well­known hall­marks of Basque cui­sine. There’s the em­pha­sis on the best and fresh­est prod­ucts: Soret bought ev­ery­thing a few hours ear­lier from his two trusted mer­chants in the neigh­bor­hood, Sara the fish­mon­ger and Zouhair the fruit ven­dor. There’s the deft mix­ing of tra­di­tion and moder­nity: Soret’s recipe is loosely based on his fa­ther’s, but his metic­u­lous pan-shak­ing tech­nique and other cru­cial tweaks are his own. And there’s the ten­dency of the cook to show off, just a bit, while not hes­i­tat­ing to share his knowl­edge with oth­ers. A guy named Iñaki who’s next to us at the stove, boil­ing three txan­gur­ros for his own group of six, keeps eye­ing Soret’s tech­nique, and Soret clearly en­joys the at­ten­tion—now he’s cook­ing the kokotxa trim­mings sep­a­rately over a low flame, mak­ing a kind of gelatin booster sauce that he’ll add to our salsa verde. When he re­al­izes he’s got more of it than he needs, he tells Iñaki, “It’s all yours,” and Iñaki takes a few spoon­fuls to thicken the gar­lic-based pil-pil sauce that his friends are preparing for their main course of cod. One im­por­tant thing that every­one men­tions about the so­ciedades: They are demo­cratic places where a per­son’s wealth and sta­tus in the out­side world are pretty much ir­rel­e­vant. It’s said that if a bil­lion­aire ar­rives at a club with his chauf­feur, once they cross the thresh­old, they’re equals. In fact, if the chauf­feur makes an im­pres­sive mar­mi­tako (tuna soup), he’s the real boss for the night. The per­son at the ta­ble who gets the most re­spect, al­ways, is the one who’s the best cook. Tonight that would be Soret. We all agree that mer­luza en salsa

verde should al­ways taste like this, since the fish has that ideal firm-but-not-chewy tex­ture and the del­i­cate kokotxas al­most bleed into the rich, silky sauce. Along with the hake we have a sim­ple tomato salad, a plat­ter of lo­cal an­chovies, four bot­tles

of cider and a few more of wine, fol­lowed by a round of gin and ton­ics. The bill comes to 30 eu­ros per per­son, about $35. Vega col­lects the cash and puts it in an en­ve­lope, along with a check­list of ev­ery­thing we con­sumed, and slips it through a slot in the of­fice door.

To un­der­stand the so­ciedades, it helps to un­der­stand a few things about the Basque peo­ple, who pop­u­late this re­gion of emer­ald hills and craggy cliffs on both sides of the Frenchspan­ish bor­der. Over the cen­turies here on the Span­ish side, the Basques have op­er­ated with vary­ing de­grees of au­ton­omy from the na­tional gov­ern­ment in Madrid; there have been pe­ri­ods of re­pres­sion and also re­bel­lion, in­clud­ing one decades-long stretch when the armed sep­a­ratist group ETA car­ried out fre­quent at­tacks. But all along, or­di­nary Basques have con­tin­ued do­ing their own thing. It’s not just that they eat Basque foods and drink Basque wines and speak a lan­guage that has no trace­able links to French or Span­ish or any other tongue. (Foreigners who at­tempt to learn Euskara, with its com­pli­cated syn­tax and con­so­nant-heavy, throat-clog­ging words, usu­ally give up quickly.) The Basques also play Basque sports—hand­ball, jai alai, tug-ofwar—and give their chil­dren Basque names. Spend a week here and you’ll likely meet sev­eral Aran­txas and Enekos and Iñi­gos, and prob­a­bly a Gaizka or two. And there are plenty of tra­di­tions that sur­vive against all odds, in­clud­ing fes­ti­vals with scream­ing con­tests where peo­ple erupt in an ir­rintzi—a high-pitched pri­mal yell that sounds like a cross be­tween a Ber­ber ul­u­la­tion and a slasher-film shriek. Cen­turies ago, farm­ers and shep­herds used ir­rintzi to com­mu­ni­cate be­tween far-flung pas­tures. “It’s the Basque SMS,” a man named Patxi quipped to me.

Peo­ple from other parts of Spain will tell you that the Basques are some of the most de­cent and lik­able peo­ple you could meet, and also the most clan­nish and mys­te­ri­ous. All of this is true. If you move to San Se­bastián from some­where else, you’ll prob­a­bly never be part of a cuadrilla—the lo­cal term for your gang of child­hood friends, who re­main your clos­est friends un­til death— which means you will never be truly in­te­grated into Basque life. Cuadrillas, of course, love to hang out in so­ciedades, of­ten the same ones their par­ents loved to hang out in.

One af­ter­noon a friend of a friend in­tro­duces me to Luis Moko­roa, the pres­i­dent of La Cofradía Vasca de Gas­tronomía, a club high on a hill over­look­ing San Se­bastián’s old town. Moko­roa, whose mut­ton­chop side­burns are wor­thy of a Civil War gen­eral, un­corks a bot­tle of fizzy lo­cal tx­akoli and starts to show me around. This club is ac­tu­ally both a so­ciedad and a cofradía—an as­so­ci­a­tion founded in 1961 to protect and pro­mote Basque cui­sine, with its own culi­nary li­brary and sched­ule of events open to the pub­lic. But as at many of the older so­ciedades, the at­mos­phere is part Elks Lodge, part rus­tic Pyre­nees tav­ern, with beamed ceil­ings and pan­eled walls adorned with ev­ery man­ner of cook­ing award and faded group photo, plus a framed list of renowned honorary mem­bers (Elena Arzak, Fer­ran Adrià, Martín Berasategui). Point­ing to a glass dis­play case of an­tique mil­i­tary uni­forms, Moko­roa ex­plains how it came to be that ev­ery year on Jan­uary 20, all of the lo­cal so­ciedades send out squadrons of marchers for the traditional Tam­bor­rada drum pa­rade, the city’s big­gest and prob­a­bly strangest hol­i­day. Dat­ing back to the days of the French oc­cu­pa­tion, when much of the city was de­stroyed in a fire, it’s now a 24-hour reen­act­ment bac­cha­nal where some groups wear Napoleonic army out­fits, oth­ers dress in chef’s whites, and all walk through the streets bang­ing drums or bar­rels strapped around their necks. (On this day, so­ciedades open their doors to every­one.)

Since Moko­roa has friends at prac­ti­cally ev­ery so­ciedad, he of­fers to walk me around to a few whose doors are open. Just down the hill is the ven­er­ated Gaztelu­bide, where a mixed group of 40 or so is get­ting ready for a lunch of ba­calao a la viz­caina, a clas­sic cod dish made with lo­cal choricero

pep­pers. Vin­tage photos on the walls of the long, nar­row room show some of the rau­cous Tam­bor­rada cel­e­bra­tions of the past. One night in the 1950s, when this place was still an all-male strong­hold, famed Ital­ian so­prano Mafalda Favero dis­guised her­self as a man to make it past the door, thus be­com­ing the first woman ever to have din­ner at Gaztelu­bide.

And what’s up with the for-men-only thing in 2017? When it comes to gen­der issues, once again the Basques have their own set of norms. For cen­turies there was a strong ma­tri­ar­chal tra­di­tion here, partly be­cause women ran the house­holds while their hus­bands spent long pe­ri­ods away on the ocean or in the fields, fish­ing or herd­ing an­i­mals. The all-male so­ciedades be­gan form­ing around 1870—no one is sure ex­actly why, but it prob­a­bly had to do with the se­vere restric­tions on tav­ern open­ing hours in San Se­bastián at the time—and it’s said that women not only tol­er­ated the clubs but en­cour­aged them. “Some think it was a way for them to con­trol us,” says Barcena. “They knew ex­actly where we were, who we were with. And that what we were do­ing was rel­a­tively harm­less.”

In the past few decades many of San Se­bastián’s ap­prox­i­mately 120 so­ciedades be­gan open­ing their doors to women—first only as guests, then as full-fledged mem­bers. The evo­lu­tion hap­pened slowly, and it’s still hap­pen­ing. A few of the old­est clubs re­main all-male, and even in some where women can en­ter freely as guests, there’s an un­writ­ten rule that they can’t en­ter the kitchen. “It’s com­pli­cated,” Vega tells me. “A lot of older mem­bers want to main­tain the tra­di­tions, while some guys in their 20s and 30s won’t join if they can’t bring their wives or girl­friends.” Sev­eral young, pro­gres­sive-minded Basque women tell me they have no prob­lems with so­ciedades that don’t al­low them to be mem­bers or to cook. “We grew up with it, and it’s a nice role re­ver­sal,” says so­cial worker Amaia Añua. “When you eat there, you’re sit­ting at the ta­ble en­joy­ing your­self, and the men are the ones serv­ing you and do­ing all the work—and they’re ac­tu­ally happy do­ing it.” Other women con­sider the male-dom­i­nated so­ciedades ab­surdly an­ti­quated,

so they avoid them in fa­vor of the fully coed clubs.

While mak­ing the rounds with Moko­roa, I met a San Se­bastián na­tive named Gorka Ar­baizagoitia, who in­vited me to join him the next day at one of San Se­bastián’s most old-school so­ciedades, Gaztelupe. In the din­ing room, medieval-style iron chan­de­liers cast a dim glow over a cen­tury’s worth of an­tique ban­ners and coats of arms, while the kitchen is a bright zone of sparkling steel ap­pli­ances, stacks of roast­ing pans, and a re­cy­cling bin la­beled pa­per and card­board. For lunch Gorka broils a top-notch chuleta— one of those di­nosaur-size Basque rib steaks that shows the magic that can hap­pen when good beef meets high heat and noth­ing else but rock salt. In clas­sic fashion the out­side is crisply charred and the cen­ter is a deep crim­son, just barely warm.

Many so­ciedades in­clud­ing Gaztelupe have long wait­ing lists for mem­ber­ship. And even though sev­eral peo­ple ad­mit to me that the clubs have been a bit slow to adapt to the times, most put their chances of dis­ap­pear­ing at ap­prox­i­mately zero. One night at 9 p.m., thanks to a re­fer­ral from famed Span­ish chef José An­drés, I show up at a base­ment-level club called Artza­ko­rtzeok, where Iñaki Uranga, who runs the place, is ex­pect­ing me. From the street I can smell the sig­na­ture so­ciedad aroma of cig­a­rette smoke and siz­zling chuleta fat. In­side, at a sin­gle long ta­ble, about two dozen peo­ple, most in their 30s, are cel­e­brat­ing af­ter a box­ing match. The rau­cous group in­cludes both box­ers, one of their moms, a vis­it­ing Qatari, and two women from Madrid. As one guy opens a bot­tle of Petritegi—the cloudy, funky lo­cal cider—he ex­plains why every­one pours it while hold­ing the bot­tle over­head, five feet above the glass. “Be­cause it aer­ates the cider and adds bub­bles,” he says. “And be­cause it’s fun.” One of the women inches up to the kitchen and pokes her toe over the line, jok­ing that there’s prob­a­bly an in­vis­i­ble elec­tric fence to keep her out (there isn’t).

At an­other ta­ble, fin­ish­ing their steaks, are 82-year-old Pe­dro Amaima and 86-year-old Javier Deran, both from the neigh­bor­hood. How long have they been com­ing to Artzak-ortzeok? “For about 50 years, ev­ery Satur­day night,” Pe­dro tells me. “In the old days our group was much big­ger, but at a cer­tain point peo­ple started to, you know, dis­ap­pear.” Af­ter they clear their plates and light cigars and open mini bot­tles of brandy, it’s time for a few rounds of domi­noes and a card game called tx­in­txon.

Some nights, in­stead of steak, Pe­dro and Javier might pre­pare an­other dish, like a ba­calao al pil-pil. What doesn’t change, Pe­dro tells me, is the joy they get from their rit­ual of cook­ing and eat­ing and drink­ing and play­ing tx­in­txon at their so­ciedad. The rou­tine was the same last week, he says, and will be the same next week, and the week af­ter that.

Left: A fam­ily birth­day lunch at the so­ciedad Aitzaki. Below: A vin­tage photo of par­tic­i­pants in a past Tam­bor­rada drum pa­rade. Op­po­site: An­gel Soret pre­paresmer­luza en salsa verde at La Unión Arte­sana.

Two mem­bers en­joy af­ter­noon beers and cigars at Artzak-ortzeok, a base­ment-level club in a res­i­den­tial part of San Se­bastián.

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