Unmarked doors signal the entrance to one of the Bilbao’s most unique culinary experiences - the txoko. A members-only club of friends who gather and cook together, we visit a range of these gastronomic societies in Bilbao to learn about the origins, changes and what the future holds for the typical and historical Basque kitchen closed-door dining.
Behind Closed Doors
Cook's knives line a magnetic strip on a tiled wall. Stainless steel hobs, ovens, a grill, and shiny counter surfaces announce the importance of the kitchen. A giant earthenware dish of rabbit stew and tray of salt cod cooked in olive oil over a layer of potatoes is ready for lunch. A silver-haired cook smiles in greeting while slicing tomatoes. The guests here are members; some have belonged to this txoko, the secret gastronomic societies formerly men-only clubs of Bilbao and surrounds, similar to San Sebastian's sociedade, for decades.
The earliest txokos date back to the late 1800s and while many are privately run and owned in equal shares by the members, some are subsidized by the city council in smaller towns. Every drink and meal is sold for a song compared to restaurant dining and the txoko uses the honor system - mark what you use in a book or on the computer and you're billed at the end of the month, or you place an envelope into a box at the end of the evening, depending on the txoko's rules. Often a president is elected annually, along with a committee that are in charge of up-keep and maintenance, purchasing grocery items and beverages. If you’re a member, you’re entitled to invite your non-member friends at a pre-booked time.
Meaning a "cozy corner", txoko members gather regularly - once a week in some cases - to commune over a traditional Basque home-cooked meal. Usually, these are groups of friends who've known each other since childhood or camped together at the seaside as teenagers. Because Basque culture places extraordinary importance on family and friendships, they gather together away from the public eye to cook and eat, selecting excellent produce from local producers. In a land of pintxo bars and Michelin-starred restaurants, the txoko makes for a very affordable solution.
A Shared History
Alfredo Velasco (70 years old) is a surgeon who belongs to Los Incomprendidos ("The Misunderstood"), a txoko located opposite the Ribera market in La Vieja, an area considered both gritty and trendy, has been coming here every Thursday evening with his friends. “The members are carpenters, shopkeepers, doctors, many occupations. We all share common interests; some of us are in our 70s and 80s and were friends as kids. We try to keep the atmosphere civil. You can talk about whatever you like, but we don’t get into debates.”
One evening, I'm lucky to get an invite to txoko Bilbotarren Bazkuna in the center of Bilbao's new town, where Luis Astigarraga Aguirrezo, the principal member, is gathering with 12 of his mates to watch the Argentina-Croatia football match over dinner. Xavi, an engineer whom Luis met when they were teenagers surfing, adds: "We have a rule. The meal must cost 20 euros each. We all have different economic standings but we can’t make it difficult for anyone who can't afford it." The members range from carpenters to financial brokers and a childhood friendship that extends into adulthood is the thread that binds them.
Through divorce, the death of parents, career highs and lows, Alfonso de Leca, a former interior designer who’s on cooking duty that night, says the txoko members are a source of support.
Jose Luis Cester, a retired teacher and cinephile, who lives in Ortuella village on the east bank of Bilbao, 20 minutes from city center, belongs to Gure Toki Zaharra where he shares his love of literature and film with his friends. “Most of us are teachers or doctors, so we felt we wanted something more than just eating and drinking,” he explains.
Challenging the Patriarchy
Until 1978, 89-year-old Carlos Palacio's txoko in the medieval town of Elorrio, 35-minutes from Bilbao, accepted no women. Today, there are "mixed" txokos or the old ones are slowly accepting more women as members die and their daughters inherit their memberships. At others yet, women are allowed in but not in the kitchen.
While Alfonso sears aged entrecote at Bilbotarren Bazkuna, he tells me that the Basque consider themselves a matriarchal society historically. "Since medieval times, it was women who would inherit the farms because the sons left to become priests or travel. During the wars, our grandmothers would single-handedly tend to gardens and take care of the family while the men fought," he says. "And during the industrial revolution, men would return home and give the money earned in the mines to their wives to run the show."
Luis interjects: "We all agree women keep our families together; they are indispensable in the family space. So men started gathering within a similar space to a home, but to get some freedom. Today, women are allowed in this txoko but not to cook. These are the club rules.” Alfredo from Los Incomprendidos tells me when I visit that many Basque men learned how to cook at the txoko.
Jose (from Gure Toki Zaharra) suggests a theory about why having a mixed txoko in his former mining town didn’t cause much fuss: “Most of our families were immigrants from Galicia and Extremadura. At the end of the 19th century, many families moved to the industrial regions such as the Basque Country. Maybe the Basque traditions are not so rooted in this area. This is why it was easy to modernize and we didn’t have to fight against old traditions.”
Earlier that day, I visit Luis’ sister Maria Astigarraga Aguirre, who lives 25 minutes away in Laukariz, with my guide Esther Boulandier. Bazkide Zerrenda is a “mixed” txoko painted bright blue. It was purchased by the city council and services around 82 members, consisting of about 30 families. She tells me that her mother was allowed into her father’s txoko just once a year.
“I think more txokos are going to be mixed. In the past, it was for men and that was not very fair, because women didn’t share this option. And restaurants are expensive. Our children go to mixed schools so it makes sense they have friends who are boys and girls,” Maria says. She hopes that her daughters will continue the tradition: “When we were young, we wanted to go to parties but at around 23 or 24, we started going to txokos. I hope they do the same.”