'Txokos' societies

Shanghai Star. 2003-08-07

IT is not often women say they cannot keep their husbands out of the kitchen, but in Spain's food-mad northern Basque region the men often prefer to keep the cooking among themselves.

Renowned in Spain for their love of good food, the Basques' popular temples to their culinary cult are all-male gastronomic societies known as "txokos".

In these simple clubs, whose name in the ancient Basque language means "corner", attendance is by invitation only. There is no menu and the members share the cooking among themselves.

Nestling among a row of restaurants on a bustling pedestrian street in downtown Bilbao, no sign distinguishes the entrance to the txoko Indartzu.

"This is a meeting place for friends. Most of us have known each other since childhood," said Edu, a jolly, ruddy-faced Basque who was our head chef for the day. "Cooking is something which us Basques are born with in our genes."

Inside, long wooden tables line the walls, which are decorated with club notice boards, photos of sportsmen and paintings of the rugged, green Basque countryside.

Groups of smartly-dressed men who come from nearby offices for a mid-week lunch give the txoko a business-like atmosphere.

Pride of place is given to the large kitchen, equipped like that in a professional restaurant with sturdy stainless steel ovens and enormous pots and pans. Behind a door at the back of the kitchen hides an extensive wine cellar stacked with choice Riojas.

"My wife is sick of me coming here. She says I spend more time in the txoko than I do with her," Edu said, standing in the kitchen beside his two apron-wearing "assistants". "But she accepts it as another of her husband's passions."

Matriarchal society

Txokos were established in the late 19th century in the elegant seaside resort of San Sebastian as a means for Basque men to abscond from their female-dominated homes.

Unlike other Spanish regions, Basque society was traditionally matriarchal, with lines of succession going from mother to daughter.

"Women have always been the bosses at home. Here we can play cards and talk about food," said Javi, holding a glass of the light and acidic local white wine, txakoli. "It is better not to allow women. There is no jealously and we argue less."

But traditions are changing slowly amid protest from feminists. Like Indartzu, whose name in Basque means "strength", many txokos now open their doors to women on Fridays, weekends and during holidays.

"When women do come, they are treated like princesses. They are forbidden from cooking or washing up," said Edu, who won a bronze medal in a regional cookery competition for txokos.

His cooking, like the best Basque cuisine, is simple and uses whatever seasonal ingredients are cheap and fresh.

A plate piled with delicately fried, breaded anchovies was followed by a enormous pot of fiery potatoes a la riojana, whose key ingredient was spicy sausage made with red peppers.

Struggling under the weight of an enormous dish, Edu triumphantly presented his piece de resistance - tender white hake with clams in a green sauce.

The meal is washed down with the local firewater pacharan, and afterwards the diners battle it out at mus, a traditional card game, to see who will pick up the tab.

In Basque cuisine, the sea has traditionally been more generous than the land. The staple dish of local cookery is salted cod, popularized by intrepid Basque whaling ships which used the fish on long voyages.

The test of any Basque chef is cod pil-pil, where the fish is cooked in a garlic sauce until an opaque emulsion is formed.

The fame of the Basques for their cookery is rivalled by their reputation for forming close-knit clubs. Indartzu is one of around 20 txokos in Bilbao, the earliest of which was formed some 60 years ago.

"Membership is currently limited to 107. When one member dies, his membership is offered to his son," said Edu. "If a new member wants to join, he has to be approved by the board. We currently have a waiting list of around 10 members."

Many of Bilbao's txokos came into being during the 1939-75 dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, when Basques used the fraternities as a secret forum to discuss nationalist politics.

Times have changed. With the Basque country still troubled by the violence of armed separatist group ETA, the txoko prefers to avoid "difficult" members who discuss politics.

"There are people of all political persuasions here but we try not to talk about politics. This is purely to enjoy the company of friends," Edu said. "We do not want disagreements."

But as so often in the Basque country, political troubles invaded private life. The txoko had to be evacuated before the card game was finished as a bomb scare emptied central Bilbao.

(Agencies via Xinhua)

Copyright by Shanghai Star.