There's always something exciting happening in San Sebastián/Donostia. Last week alone, a surfing festival ended, a jazz festival began, beaches were full of sunbathers, streets were (briefly) full of rioters and police...a typical summertime week in this beautiful, slightly crazy city.
On my next to last day there, I had the good fortune to lunch at one of the famous Basque gastronomic societies. My host was Germán Arrien, director of both the local convivium, or branch, of Slow Food, and of one of the largest gastronomic societies, Cofradía Vasca de Gastronomía (roughly translated as the Basque Brotherhood of Gastronomy).
Gastronomic societies are an institution unique to the Basque country, and particularly to San Sebastián. In existence for the last century or so, they are a place where men--until very recently, they were exclusively the domain of men--go to gather to cook, eat, drink and discuss cooking, eating, drinking...oh, and occasionally politics. Germán told me that, typically, even outside of the clubs, Basques spend about half of a conversation discussing epicurean topics, such as where to get the best pintxos or a good recipe for marmitako (a traditional fisherman's stew). If this all sounds too good to you, don't pack up and sell your house just yet--the typical gastronomic society, like the one we visited, has a long waiting list, with spaces only becoming available when a member passes away.
Being male institutions, the gastronomic societies naturally also hold competitions throughout the year to determine the best cook of various traditional dishes. The societies are especially active during the city's grandest festival, the Tamborrada, held on January the 19th, the day of the patron saint after whom the city is named. On this day, the members of the clubs prepare grand feasts for all the inhabitants of the city, march through the streets beating drums and, generally behave (or misbehave) wildly nonstop, from midnight to midnight.
According to Germán, in a city of about 170,000 inhabitants, there are more than 300 gastronomic societies. Nearly half of the Donistarrian men belong to at least one such place--many, like Germán, belong to several (presumably to the dismay of their wives, but you never know).
By these standards, our lunch at the Cofradía Vasca de Gastronomía was a low key affair. We met in the Parte Vieja, the Old Quarter, to start the day with a few pintxos and some txakoli (you'll notice in the picture that txakoli is traditionally poured from high above to aerate the slightly fizzy wine) at Goiz Argi before heading to the club. Not unlike the typical Donostarrian, our conversation while we ate our pintxos continually returned to matters of the table. Even when we discussed politics (the second favorite topic of Basque men), we focused on the devastating recent conversion of what was formerly one of Spain's grandest markets, La Bretxa, into a modern shopping mall and movieplex (that shamefully even includes a McDonalds). The few remaining fishmongers, butchers and greengrocers were literally driven underground, now peddling their wares (still of the highest quality) in the basement of the building.
The building that houses the Cofradía is unassuming on the outside, similar to all the other stone buildings seen throughout the quarter. Once you pass through the door, however, it's like stepping onto the set of Monty Python's "In Search of the Holy Grail," (or should I say "Spamalot"). The heart of the building is the cavernous dining hall, a grand stone expanse of enough long wooden tables to presumably seat the 350 members of the Cofradía and, on occasion, their families. Roughly hewn wooden beams, some decorated with carved maidens, support the high arched ceiling and the rustic chandeliers that light the festivities. The walls, stained with decades of cigar smoke, are sparsely decorated with the occasional tapestry or head of a wild boar.
Being summer, Germán and I ate upstairs on the terrace. We started with some rare artisanal jamón and salsichon from Pello Urdapilleta, one of a handful of ranchers who somewhat quixotically cure hams in the rain-soaked Basque country. Slow Food honored Mr. Urdapilleta for preserving this dying tradition and for raising and utilizing a heritage breed of pigs found only in the region.
Next, because summer is tuna season, we had two tuna dishes. First, we had Axoa, a rich stew of tuna and peppers prepared the night before (remember, stews are always better the second day) by one of what Germán labeled "the promising younger cooks" of the Cofradía, a rising star. After that, we enjoyed a simply prepared tuna steak in a garlicky tomato sauce. Afterwards, we finished off our bottle of txakoli with some aged idiazabal, a local sheep's milk cheese, served wirh membrillo (quince paste) and seasonal fruit. All in all, a delightful, simple summer meal. Next time I visit, I'll arrange to eat on a weekend night, when the hall is crowded with members and the revelry is substantially more raucous.