Getting A “Taste” of an Exclusive Basque Society

To the regular tourist, the seemingly ordinary set of stairs we walked down looked as though they led to the kitchen of a restaurant. When walking by, many tourists do not know that they are passing by one of the third oldest gastronomical societies in San Sebastián, Spain. This specific gastronomical society was called Ur- Zaleak, and it was established in 1926. Upon entering the underground society, we were greeted by two men, one a volunteer in the society, and the other known as “the president.”  A gastronomical society consists of a group of members who come together to cook, socialize, eat, and drink.  

Staircase down to the gastronomical society

Historically, the Basque culture is extremely matriarchal, and women run the household, doing the majority of the cooking and cleaning.  A few hundred years ago, Basque men began to grow frustrated that their homes weren’t necessarily their spaces, because the women had the final say. Therefore, Basque men created these gastronomical societies, known in Spain as “sociedades.” Initially, women were not even allowed to enter the societies, let alone become a member. These societies were the escape places for men, because they were able to have time away from their wives and families and be able to share good food and drink that they proudly made.  To this day, women are still not allowed to become members, however they are allowed to come and eat the food that men prepare, and children are allowed to come as well.  Women are still not allowed to cook or clean the dishes, they just solely come to eat, drink, and socialize. 

In order to be allowed inside a gastronomical society if you are a non-member, you have to be invited in, so it was pretty amazing that our group was allowed to take part in this experience. In order to become a member, there are a few rules. First and foremost: women are not allowed. Secondly, if either your father or grandfather was previously in the society, you are allowed to become a member. If neither your father nor grandfather was apart of the society, then a person who wants to join has to know two people in the society, and those two people have to sign papers verifying the character of the person applying to the society. Once a person becomes a member, they are given an electronic key to the club, which grants them access to the club 24 hours a day, every single day of the year, and the club is always stocked with loads of food and drink. If a person who joined the club stole all of the food and drink one night, the two people who signed on that person’s behalf would have to pay the club back for their losses. This is a way to ensure that only people who truly want to be in the society and can be trusted are allowed in.  The two men from the society who led our cooking class explained to us that in all of the years this society has been running, not a single person has stolen anything. 

Currently there are 144 members of the society that we visited. The members of the club purchase the food and drink from the city, and bring it to the club where they prepare all the meals. At the society, members are charged for drinks, more than the price they are purchased for, as a way for the club to make money.  What I found extremely interesting was the fact that the members do not keep any of the money they make, as they are an official non-profit company.  Every cent of their profit either goes back to the club to help purchase ingredients, or it goes back into the community.  Members volunteer their time in the community, and organize charity events. The founders of the club did not want the society to turn into a business. Therefore, in the society’s laws, it states that if the members want to sell the building, all of the money that is made in the transaction is to go to charity, not to the members, as a way to preserve the society.  

Going into the event, I was worried that some members were going to be arrogant since they are apart of an elite society, but all of the members were so relaxed, kind, and inclusive and we shared so many laughs. I was expecting the society to have a very modern kitchen, as they cook such complex dishes. However, the kitchen looks as though it hasn’t been updated too much since it’s creation in 1926, and I really liked that aspect of the society, which preserves the past. There truly is no need for a glamorous kitchen, when the purpose of the society is just to share good food, socialize with great people, and give back to the community. 

After introducing ourselves to the two members who led our cooking class, we all dove right in. We put our aprons on and immediately began cooking. We started by preparing the three pintxos (small appetizers). The first pintxo we made consisted of tuna, onions, and homemade mayonnaise. The second consisted of mushrooms stuffed with ham, garlic, and cheese. And the third pintxo we made, which was the first pintxo ever created, consisted of an anchovy, a Basque pepper, and two olives. (All of which we’re extremely delicious!) We ate these pintxos while we were preparing the main dish, which was a tuna and potato soup.  For the main dish, we set the table and all gathered around to share a hearty meal. The dish was centered around fish, as the Basques are known for being fishermen. After dinner, we made dessert, which was similar to French toast, and it was called tarrija. 

Tuna Pintxo
First pintxo ever created (anchovies, olives, and peppers)
Mushroom Pintxo
Main dish: tuna soup!
Desert (tarrija)…. yum!

During the evening, it was so great to see everyone laughing, cooking a meal that we would share together, sharing good food and drink, and learning about the Basque traditions. Food is very much a part of the Basque culture, so it was truly an honor to be allowed in the kitchen to learn how to prepare these dishes. 

The entire night our whole group was socializing with each other and the members, and having a pretty amazing time. Personally, this was my favorite excursion of the trip so far, because it was something we all played a role in completing and upon seeing the finished products, we were pretty amazed at what we had created.  We not only created many wonderful dishes, but some life-long memories as well. Being able to say that we stepped foot in and cooked in such an elite society is something we will never forget!

The Txakoli Wine Mixer

Up and around the windy road we drove with breathtaking views of the beautiful coastal town Zarautz. We spent the 30 minute drive ooolah-ling while snapping several pictures. The view of the ocean on one side and a view of perfectly green hills on the other, there was just so much to see. But the best view of them all was visible at the top of the mountain at our excursion spot for the day, the Txakolina winery. The hundreds of grape vines running through the green hills resembled an image you would see on the label of a fancy wine bottle selling for a pretty penny. This place was incredible. 

Behind the wooden castle like doors of the winery, we met our tour guide for the day. The women was so passionate about what her family has been producing here for years. The tour offered my classmates and I to get an inside look at how this family of several generations managed to produce these beautiful wines literally in their back yard. The view the winery offered was amazing but every hidden detail behind the process in making each and every bottle was so unique. From the vine to the flower to the fruit to the wine, every inch of production happened right here at the winery. There were different rooms in the winery were the different steps of the process took place. First there was a machine that separated the grapes to get the perfect pieces for the wine. In the next room over, the process continued. Here the wine sat in enormous barrels while it was carbonated. The process shocked us all and it was truly amazing.

The women explained that June was the most important month in the whole wine process, if the weather isn’t exactly right, the year could be a terrible one. When we asked what the best year was for her family’s winery, she couldn’t recall but she could sure remember the worst, 2013. After the Summer months in late September the grapes would be picked and the wine process would begin. In just three short months, the wine would already be in the bottle. The unique process this family used, allowed for the wine to be drank immediately after being put into the bottle. The tour taught us so much and we were all very excited to give the wines a taste! 

Up the spiral wooden stairs we went to a dinning like area where our tasting would take place. On the table was a beautiful spread. There sat two bottles of wine, one white and one rosè next to twelve delicate wine glasses, one for each member of our group. Next to the wine was a cheese platter with a delicious chorizo meat. Both the wines and the spread were amazing, most of the class enjoyed the white wine the best. As we enjoyed the wine and snacks, many of us purchased the wine to bring back home as gifts to their family, to share our the once in a life time experience with the ones back home.

After enjoying the small snacks and wine, as a group, we spent the majority of the rest of the time admiring the scenic view. The view at the winery was unlike any i’ve ever seen before, despite the rain, the pictures we took were unreal. We took several photos of one another, some solo and some with friends. Before arriving, Julian told us that this would be the perfect spot to take a new profile picture for our social media pages and boy was he right. The scenery was picture perfect and the memories and photos taken here will last us all a life time. 

But the winery was so much more then just delicious wines and small snacks with beautiful views, the winery immersed us into the basque culture even more. Being in the hills located in the center of the basque region with a women who was so proud of what her family has accomplished, was quite inspiring. All their dedication put into the wine, has paid off. Their small basque family winery is expanding and are now sending their wine to the States to California!

Thus far, I think the winery was one of the most beautiful locations we visited on our trip and yet we still have two more weeks to soak in so many more! Anyways, cheers to the remainder of our trip in San Sebastián! Adios Amigos!

The Fastest Ball Sport in the World

In an attempt to be independent and adventurous, I decided to travel to the Spanish city of Bilbao for one night a day ahead of the study abroad program in San Sebastián. It was mostly to save money on flights, but additionally I was looking forward to learning more about myself as I travelled solo. While it was a good time, it was also lonely, and I was looking forward to meeting up with the group once everyone arrived in Spain. I could not wait to experience all of the excursions planned for us, and being a sports fan, I was especially excited for the Jai Alai match we would be attending the first week. It was one of the activities that most interested me from the start, and the match turned out to be a great way to experience culture and bond with the other members of our group.

As a group, we travelled to the small coastal town of Hondarribia to watch the Jai Alai match, a sport that is unlike any other. The town has amazing architecture with clear French influences that reminds you of your proximity to France, which is just on the other side of a nearby river. Being in the city takes you back in time, a century other than our own. All of the buildings seem to have a purpose in the landscape, making the city picturesque and timeless. Visiting encourages you to think about the past and about all those who have come before. What really drew me in is how old everything is, and how it all still looks beautiful. The United States has incredible history, but nothing compares to the examples of ancient history that exist here in Spain and all over Europe. A building in Hondarribia is still standing from the year 958, a fact that displays the intelligence of humans then. Exploring the town, even for a short amount of time, was a window into the past that will stay with me forever.

The gorgeous Basque region has many incredible things to offer, but the one that has most surprised me so far has been the sport of Jai Alai, the fastest ball sport in the world. Because of how fast the ball moves, it requires great athleticism, skill and bravery to be an accomplished player. The athletes are working extremely hard and it is easy to see how difficult the sport is. Watching the game is an event, one that entertains and excites, and any viewer can see the amount of perseverance that it takes to become talented in the sport. Even though we went in without any knowledge of the rules or the way the game is played, we were able to catch on and enjoy alongside diehard fans.

The energy of the match is incredible. The fans are passionate, which creates an environment that is fun to be a part of. It is obvious that Jai Alai is an integral part of the culture. It is unique to the Basque people, just one of the many ways they continue to celebrate their history today and continue their cultural traditions into the future. I feel truly lucky to have gone to the match alongside so many excited Basque fans who seem to find a good time anywhere. Their energy is infectious, and I hope that I can bring it home to experience life joyfully.

Being able to enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime experience was unforgettable. I not only loved the cultural experience, but also being around the new friends that I never would have met had it not been for this trip. It was a great way to be immersed into another aspect of Basque culture and to get involved in an event that so many people love. Seeing the fans enjoy the sport was a peek into what Basque life is like, and it was a demonstration of a life lived for happiness. Being social and present in the moment are two things that are valued here in the Basque Country, and I am learning to not always look ahead to what is happening next, but to live in the now. Being surrounded by Basques reminded me to appreciate the little things in life and not to get too caught up in the stress and uncertainty. There is a lot to be learned from the Basques, and I am so glad I am able to be their student, even if it is just for three weeks. 

The city of Hondarribia

Parte Vieja Pintxo Tasting Tour

Our class embarked on a cultural journey through San Sebastián. I learned that in the Basque culture, food might possibly be the most essential aspect which connects everyone. Visiting all the pintxo bars opened my eyes to a whole other aspect of the Basque country just by simply observing people conversing with extraordinary food. Pintxo’s are a respectable way of socializing in San Sebastián for locals and tourists at any age and anytime. 

In America, we typically serve large portions and a full plate of food at each meal. I feel like this resembles the American mindset of “living large” and it’s what we are accustomed to. Being in the basque country I’ve had much time to appreciate the little aspects of life and I say this quite literally because pintxo’s are little cuisines. However, the term “little” should not be taken lightly. It allows us to explore flavor, simplicity, and deliciousness all in one bite with the satisfaction of feeling full. Pintxo’s are made up of any number of food combinations that would not necessarily be found in America. That being said, even though it might be a strange combination to Americans, it’s part of life for the Basques and it’s recommended to give everything a try. The best aspect of pintxo’s, in my opinion, are the smallest ingredients that can easily go unidentified but add much more flavor. There were many I tried that I couldn’t tell one ingredient from another but it was still delicious. It’s important to keep an open mind when trying these delicate finger foods because it can be difficult to know exactly what has gone into it. 

Each time we went to a new pintxo bar, I was amazed with the food over and over again. There was no single pintxo that tasted or resembled the one before it. Even though there are many kinds with different ingredients, there wasn’t a single one that I didn’t enjoy. Every pintxo was unique and had a story behind its creation. While hoping from pintxo bar to pintxo bar, it’s easy to get lost or just get absorbed in the everyday life of San Sebastián because this phenomenon of food is embedded in their culture. I noticed that each bar we visited had different characteristics but they were all beautiful in their own way no matter how busy or loud they were.

At the bars, Professor Zabalbeascoa would order our pintxo’s for us and typically pay when we were finished but once in a while it’s required to pay beforehand. We would all gather around a table or anywhere we could find space to try these delicious foods. Then we would discuss what we tried and how we liked it. Some of the dishes were classics such as the gilda or something unique to that one bar. It’s amazing how fast news can spread through word of mouth around the locals because if one bar doesn’t live up to Basque expectations, it will be completely empty. One tradition of the pintxo bars is napkin throwing on the floor to show that it serves great food and has a welcoming atmosphere. So on your next visit to San Sebastián, be sure to stop at the bars with the most napkins on the floor!

While walking through the streets of Parte Vieja, it occurred to me that even though there were thousands of people “bar hopping”, it still didn’t feel like a city. It felt like a culinary hub shared by people with a similar appreciation for the food of their culture. If this were to occur in Boston, it would feel congested and rambunctious which is just another reason why San Sebastián should take pride in their special traditions. It’s incredibly inspiring how embedded the Basque people are in their culture. I admire their willpower to stick to their ways even throughout all of the change our world endures. Although times are changing, pintxo’s will hopefully always stay true to their originality and flavor. 

At the end of this pintxo experience I found that all of us were fascinated with such delicious food. As a group we plan on continuing to learn about and enjoy more pintxo’s especially during pintxo pote which is a great time traveling from bar to bar on specific days for cheap prices to encourage socialization among tourists and locals. It not only promotes the bar and allows them to recruit new customers, but it encourages us to participate in another culture and practice our Spanish. During the rest of our time here I’m sure we will be consuming many more pintxo’s and experiencing all the local flavor of San Sebastián!

Serendipities in San Sebastián

It would be an understatement to say that I was a nervous wreck in the days leading up to arriving in San Sebastián. Traveling with a group of people I barely knew to another country while equipped with minimal Spanish seemed like a recipe for disaster. As I was boarding my plane on Saturday, each step I took was bringing me further and further from my comfort zone, and I was absolutely terrified. Just five days later, I can already feel myself changing. I’ve discovered new foods and doing things I never would have considered doing before. I’ve always accepted the fact that I’m a Type A kind of person – I like to have a plan and stick to that plan. However, bit by bit San Sebastián is teaching me how to relax and go with the flow. The culture here allows people to lead a totally different lifestyle from the way most people in the Northeast live. People are friendlier, and they’re not afraid to take the time to stop and smell the roses. Perhaps that’s what makes us Americans stick out so much before we even open our mouths – we like to move at a fast pace and are more likely to keep to ourselves (though perhaps that’s generalizing). 

Since July 25th is the Feast of Saint James, most schools and a lot of businesses in the Basque Country are closed, which means we had the day off from our Spanish classes. Myself and a couple other students had planned to go surfing on our day off, so we headed to Zurriola Beach. Upon arriving at the surf shop, we learned that they didn’t have any openings for a lesson for a group of our size that day. This minor inconvenience turned out to be a blessing in disguise because we decided to walk across San Sebastián and go paddle boarding at Playa de Ondarretta instead.

While walking through Parte Vieja towards the beach, we saw people young and old playing music in the streets, and tourists and locals alike enjoying the holiday- there was an energy in the air that was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, and it was incredible. We walked past La Concha, admiring the architecture of all the old buildings and local art along the coast, and taking in all of the beauty San Sebastián has to offer. 

We rented paddle boards from a local stand located on Ondarreta Beach called Lo Kayak, and within minutes I found myself yet again pushing myself outside my comfort zone. Before I would have never considered paddling across a bay to an island, I would have been too scared – and yet there I was paddling to Santa Clara Island. It was so peaceful out on the water, and being out in the bay allowed me to see San Sebastián from a different angle that was truly breathtaking. We got to the island and tied our boards to a buoy, deciding to swim to Ghost beach (aptly named due to its disappearance and reappearance depending on the tide). As I floated in the water, it was hard to not acknowledge the fact that it was quite serendipitous that we had ended up having such a fun time paddle boarding when we were originally supposed to go surfing.

Later that day, we were supposed to hike up Mount Urgull and discuss Fernando Aramburu’s novel Homeland as a class. Unfortunately, the weather had different plans in mind. We had made it no further than the first lookout when the heavens opened up and it began to downpour. Luckily, we had had some time to take pictures before the rain became too heavy, but unluckily we were unable to have our original conversation about Homeland because we couldn’t find a quiet place indoors to talk. This turn of events ended up being serendipitous as well though. We were able to have an impromptu tour of Parte Vieja, learning about different pintxo bars, trying battered prawns, and some of us even had the chance to try the world’s best tortilla – you have to sign up on a list to get a piece of the tortilla and they only make two a day!

From there, the group ended up going to Pintxo Pote in Gros, and we were able to try several different kinds of pintxos and drinks from restaurants throughout the neighborhood for only €2.50 a pop! It was fun to experience the local culture, and push myself outside of my comfort zone by trying to order only in Spanish.

More than any prior experiences I’ve ever had, San Sebastián has taught me about going with the flow and enjoying the ride while it lasts. I am grateful to be able to immerse myself in such a unique and colorful culture. As Lois McCaster Bujold once said, “It’s a bizarre but wonderful feeling, to arrive dead center of a target you didn’t even know you were aiming for,” and there is no better way to describe the feeling that every experience I’ve had in San Sebastián so far has given me.

Learning Through Flavor

While studying historic events and languages is a great way to learn about various cultures, my favorite would be exploring the cuisine that a culture produce. Food can tell as much of a story about the area as a tour. San Sebastian (or “Donostia” in Basque) is in no shortage of traditional and creative dishes which present the incredible ingredients of the city. The Basque Country is known for their high quality foods. With much of the land along the Atlantic coast, incredibly fresh seafood, such as cod, octopus, and shrimp, is often the star of the dish. Jamón, a cured Spanish ham, is also very popular. Whole pork legs (foot included) can be found in almost every bar hanging from the ceiling. Pintxos are one of the best ways to experience the food here. Made on small plates and in bite-sized portions, they offer an affordable way to experience a true work of culinary art.


Led by our professor, we strolled around the neighborhood of Gros to experience the excitement of pintxos for ourselves. Going into the tour I was preparing myself to try food I have never tasted before. I knew it was almost a guarentee everything would be delicious but regardless of that, I was still a bit nervous to step out of my comfort zone.


Our first stop, Gure Txoko, was where we were presented with a skewer containing a pepper, olive, and anchovy. The thought of all these ingredients was so unappealing to me that I was beginning to regret my previously adventurous attitude. Despite these thoughts, I decided to eat the whole pintxo (all the ingredients are meant to be eaten in one bite) and actually enjoyed it. With the skewer, we each had a glass of Txakoli, a white Basque wine. The bartender dramatically poured the pale liquid very high above the glasses. The drink itself is a dry acidic wine that is very young, ideally consumed within a year of being made. Something I found interesting was the levels of natural carbonation the wines have depending on where it was made. The region our wine was from had the greatest amount of bubbles Txakoli is able to have. The second bite we had was a slider style sandwich with an entire soft- shelled crab in it, which I loved. Afterwards we were instructed to throw our used paper napkins on the ground. The best pintxos bars are known for their floors littered with napkin piles, a sign that their dishes have attracted many customers. These little traditions make going out to eat especially fun.

Soft-shelled crab slider




Something very noticeable was the approach to going out to eat and to service. Getting a meal in San Sebastián is something that one should take their time with, and even when you finish you shouldn’t rush out. It is more of a social experience that service staff respects by leaving customers to sit and enjoy their time. I think this method could teach Americans to stop and take time to appreciate their food and company.  The process of buying pintxos was something very unusual. While not all major tourist restaurants follow this rule, many bars serving pintxos will ask the customer to tell them what they had eaten rather than keeping a list of the foods they ordered. Relying solely on the honor system is rarely seen and shows how much both restaurants and customers respect the process of going out for pintxos.


Our second stop was to try one of the best tortilla de patatas, an omelet dish with potato and onion. This was one of my favorites and can be found across Spain. The best tortillas are a little gooey inside. I would absolutely recommend this dish to introduce anyone to Spanish and Basque cooking. 


The most traditional Basque food on our trip was found at Casa Senra, where we were served a huge spread of oxtail, whole shrimps, salted cod, fried peppers, and cow cheek. Like before, these were not foods I would have ever ordered at home, but were absolutely delicious. The cow cheek in particular was the most flavorful and tender beef I ever had—which I would not know if I did not allow myself to experience something outside of my norm. 


Because I put myself in uncomfortable situations, I was able to take advantage of the spectacular food that is not available in the U.S. and really enjoy my culinary tour. So much of travelling includes pushing past your comfort zone to allow growth. By eating pintxos, I was able to connect to the Basque culture through something they are most proud of (their food) and gain an authentic experience I will always remember. 


Tortilla de patatas


Cow cheek

How a City Can Change You in 2 Days : For Dummies!

So picture this: you arrive to a new city, in a country you’ve never been to before, on a continent that you could only ever dream of visiting. This was me. Just a good ole American girl suddenly living her dream of traveling to Europe. Now picture the most beautiful city you’ve ever seen. Now multiply that by 10 and add one of the world’s most highly rated beaches to it and – BOOM! – you’ve got San Sebastián. The things I’ve learned or noticed in the last two days will stick with me for the rest of my life.

Day 1: We arrived to Bilbao after a few crazy nights in Madrid running on only 3 hours of sleep. That taught me my first lesson: don’t stay up until 5 a.m. when you have to go to the airport at 8, especially in a foreign country when you’re jetlagged more than ever. The drive to San Sebastián was quick and beautiful. Montse, or as we now like to call her La Reina Montse, couldn’t meet us at the bus stop because she’s a hard working nurse. Once we arrived to her apartment I learned my second lesson: work hard and you’ll own a penthouse suite overlooking the city of San Sebastián in no time. I don’t know what property prices are around here but this apartment is a real gem.

After getting settled in we decided to explore the city with our fellow American classmates. We all met up and decided we wanted to get something to eat before our families made us dinner. Walking around the city made me realize two things: I need to move out of New York ASAP, and beauty doesn’t have to be new and modern. San Sebastián is a very old city, but it has more charm than any other place I have travelled to. Old doesn’t mean ugly!

The people in San Sebastián somehow knew that we were American just by looking at us. I’m still not sure how, but I’m thinking it has something to do with the astonished look on our faces as we strolled around the city. Many of them tried to communicate with us using their Spanglish. This brings me to the third lesson: push yourself until you feel uncomfortable and then go farther. I never thought that I would be able to communicate with anyone using my 4 years of high school Spanish knowledge, but once I really tried I could have full conversations with almost everyone. Staying in your comfort zone just because you feel foreign will make your experience less authentic. It taught me that I can do so much more than I think I can, not only speaking Spanish but also with other things in my life.

Most of the first day was spent walking around the city and enjoying its charm. To learn more about the history of the city, we had a tour guide take us around and tell us about the buildings and landmarks in San Sebastián in great detail. I thought this was going to bore me to death, but it was actually incredibly interesting. Here comes the fourth lesson. A city is so much more than buildings and beaches; a city has a history that made it the way it is in present day. Every city came from something completely different. Learning about the past wars and events that occurred in San Sebastián, like those that put holes in the side of a 5-Star hotel or the bull ring that has now been converted into apartments, bring the city to life. I no longer looked at it as buildings and beaches, I read it as a story of the past. It inspired me to look up the history of my own town which is dramatically less exciting than the history of the Basque Country, but history nonetheless. The farmlands of Cicero, New York, showed me why I am able to work at such a successful farm in 2019.

Although it has only been two days, this city has already opened my eyes to so many things. Whether it be food, culture or lifestyle, San Sebastian has shown me that different isn’t always bad. If three days can teach me this much I can not wait to see what three weeks can get me. Oh, and lesson 5: eat EVERYTHING. It’s all amazing (especially the brownie gelado).

¡Adios Amigos! I ❤️ Pinxtos! (Still haven’t learned any Basque but I’m sure I’ll be fluent by the end)

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