Insight into the cooking societies of el País Vasco

Without a doubt, Basque culture and food are inextricable, and today we were given the opportunity to get a rare insider’s look into the sociedades (cooking societies) that dot the Basque Country. At these cooking societies, one can prepare delicious meals, eat with friends and families, and enjoy the pleasures of life in the Basque country.

We visited a special type of sociedad – una “confradia”. Like a normal society, they cook and eat together, but they have a special focus on the preservation and continued survival of basque food and tradition. To join one of these societies, you have to already know the members inside, and they have to invite you – you can’t just join any society you want, so good luck getting in as a tourist!

When we first arrived, we were given a tour through the building. Set in an old military building, the stone walls and old wooden beams contribute to the warm ambience of the many, many dining areas in the sociedad. 

Next, we saw their library, full of books in Spanish, French, and even Basque, with a gastronomic focus. It’s named after Alexandre Dumas – a prolific writer with a particular love of cooking and eating.

Then onto the kitchen! Though you might not expect it, given the old building and demure exterior, there was a fully modern, well-equipped kitchen, supported by a wide assortment of ingredients.

For out meal, we prepared a variety of dishes, starting with some typical pintxos. 

Widely cited as the original pintxo, we made “gilda”. Though you might struggle to match the ingredient quality, this one’s easy to make at home:

-Start with a skewer of some sort. (In fact, pintxo – pronounced pin-cho – comes from the Spanish word pinchar, meaning to pierce or skewer.)

Onto it, add:

-Three pickled peppers 

-An anchovy

-An olive

And that’s it! There you have the most classic pintxo. 

There’s much more than that, though, as we also had:

-Jamón iberico over half a hard-boiled egg on bread.

-Chistorra – the equivalent of elevated “pigs in a blanket” – light puff pastry surrounding a delicious fresh chorizo.

-Stuffed peppers with a mix of tuna and mayonnaise.

Then, for our main course, we had fish cooked in olive oil with onions and roasted peppers. To preserve the flavor of the fish, the guiding chef cooked it just a bit. As he said, just half a centimeter of white in the meat – totally raw in the center. 

For the vegetarians among us, there were two special dishes. First, a mushroom scramble, from fresh eggs, diced mushrooms, garlic, and olive oil! Second, boiled artichokes. 

You’ll notice that for each of these dishes – the ingredient list is so short! Three for the gilda, four for the mushroom scramble, and still under ten even for our almond-crusted cake. Because the basque country has access to such excellent, high-quality, fresh ingredients, there’s no need to cake them in spices, or drown them in processed additives. The basques know that between just a few ingredients, you can make a truly harmonious dish – be it a heaping plate or just a couple bites in the form of a pintxo.

Finally, our dessert course. When we first arrived, we rolled out dough, made a lemon, vanilla, and cream filling, and then filled the pastry with it. Then, after painting it with eggwash, we put mountains of almonds and then put it in the oven. If you try to recreate it at home – be sure not to open the oven within the first half hour! You wouldn’t want the dough to fall.

I’m sure you won’t want to hear just my perspective, though, so here’s some reviews of the various dishes from my classmates:

“The gilda was a unique mix of flavors, and the pepper and anchovy come together to make a surprisingly delicious bite.”

“That tomato and onion salad hit different.”

About the tuna, one classmate said, “He managed to pull out an exquisite depth of flavor with only the freshest, simplest ingredients of olive oil and salt.”

“That stuffed pepper was absolutely DELICIOUS!”

Even the bread was given glowing reviews! Baked fresh that day, pulled out of a bag full of artisan loaves, it really was delicious. Of course, bread plays a pivotal role, serving as the canvas upon which other ingredients are layered, and they come together to make culinary works of art.

That said, not every review was so positive. One dissenter said about the cake:

“I didn’t like the desert. I don’t like almonds.”

Overall, the class was informative, the meal was great, and it was – as always – a pleasure to break bread and relax with my classmates. 

If you ever get the opportunity, I recommend you try these dishes at home. Though the quality of ingredients will never match that of this cooking society in the heart of the Basque country, it is undoubtedly worth opening your mouth and mind to the food and culture of the Basque region. Enjoy!