Txokos or Gastronomic Societies form one of the backbones of the Basque Culinary pantheon. Dining clubs if you like, they are owned by the members who source the produce, be it their own or by fishing, foraging or hunting, or simply bought from the local market, and who then meet to prepare it. Usually very traditional in style, they are found all over Euskadi, from basements of residential blocks to harbour-side wharves and hidden mountain houses. The members rules often stipulate no children or women allowed!
These often unseen and inaccessible ‘clubs’ are usually of the spectrum of things to do for most visitors here, as they just won’t be able to find them and even if they do, getting in will be tricky.
However, over the last couple of weeks we have had some guests from the United States who really fancied joining us in visiting what some may call the Holy Grail of Basque culinary culture.
Collected from the hotel we took our guests for a stroll through the Indautxu area of the city. The late Sunday afternoon and early evening atmosphere in Bilbao is very relaxed; families out strolling, children playing in the park, people walking their dogs, old friends walking arm in arm…. All in all very laid back.
The door bell of the txoko, at above head-height, is up out of reach for children. Our host Jose opens the door, apron on already and welcomes us in. As its an evening meal and he is usually busy with his kids we are only here to dine, and he has already started with our meal.
After the introductions, we sample the Txakoli, cool fresh and sharp, like the coastal vineyards it is grown upon. Stories are swapped our hometowns discussed, and by the second glass we are already making friends! The kitchen is the hub of activity as Jose, wine galss at the ready explains to us the process required for the ‘Bonito encebollado’ a typical Basque dish of Tuna steaks in lightly caramelised onion, which after the salad of local tomatoes and fried green Gernika Peppers, will form our first dish. As we chat, the aromas rise up from the onions cooking slowly and Jose also explains the second dish, ‘Carrilleras’, which are Veal cheeks slowly cooked in red wine. Now this he started earlier as its a dish that needs long and slow cooking.
Full of the rich cooking smells of the kitchen, Jose takes us back to the bodega, where the wine is stored. Here he explains to our guests how the txoko is run, explaining the various responsibilities of the ‘socios’ (the members) and also a few stories about them.
Sitting down together we ‘tuck in’ to the warm green peppers and ‘proper’ tasting tomatoes as our New York friend calls them!! before Jose, attentive as ever, brings us a platter with the Tuna on…. I think our guests like it, as the platter is wiped clean with bread… Believe me it didn’t stand a chance!! We all have good appetites.
Stories are told, anecdotes shared and we discuss the txoko, football (the World Cup is on you know!) New York, Bilbao, fishing, photography, the Basque Country…… etc..etc.. The Monte Real Reserva is open and aired by the time we start on the Veal cheeks, and again, there was only one likely result. Empty plates and smiles all round.
After our gin ‘n’ tonics, Cuban cigars (rare for our U.S. guests!) and coffees we finally get around to helping Jose clear up and its 1:30 before we finally lock the door behind us… Smiles hugs and thanks all round as we stroll back to the hotel as the city sleeps.
Pictures are scarce as we were too busy talking!! Suffice to say that our clients this June have loved their Basque Experiences with us and will be spreading the word back home about their Basque Tours with us.