Monday, May 18, 2009

How Further to Eat in Basque Country

Traditional Basque society was matriarchal. Women ruled the home (including the purse strings), while men worked, often as fisherman. When they got home, however, the wives were in charge. What's a poor fisherman to do? In San Sebastian, they chose, logically enough, to start their own men's clubs, a place where no woman was going to tell them what to do. What might not be so logical, to some, is that the clubs they chose to start were.... cooking clubs.

OK, obviously there's more going on in a Basque gastronomical society, as these clubs are known, than cooking. But, as the name gastronomical society suggests, food truly does play a major role. And if you've read my previous posts about food in this region, this should come as no surprise.

Nowadays, the rules of the clubs have relaxed a bit, and while women are still absolutely not allowed to set foot in the kitchen and cannot be members, some clubs do now invite women in to dine. These are still exclusive places, however. Eating at an txoko (pronounced "cho-ko), the Basque (Euskera) term for the clubs, requires the invitation of a member. And somehow, we've managed to get that elusive invitation for our tour groups. The first night's dinner of the San Sebastian tour takes place in a local txoko, where our tour members are plied with some introductory tapas, followed by a four course meal and a tour of the txoko. It makes for a fabulous start to the tour and introduction to the importance of food in Basque culture.

Today, I continued my culinary exploration of this region when we stopped for lunch in the tiny fishing village of Getaria on our way to Gernika. The guide and I split a fantastic, not to mention enormous, cut of fresh fish desribed on the English version of the menu as "nape of hake". Hmm... think "halibut cheeks", and you would not be too far off. This was one of the specials of the day, where one kilogram portions (enough for two or more) of fresh caught fish (mainly whole fish, although not in the case of the hake) are just waiting to be chosen, at which point they will be grilled to perfection on an outdoor charcoal grill for your eating enjoyment. When choosing one of the whole fish, you will even have the uncooked specimen brought to your table for your approval before grilling.

Well, as stated about, the fish was excellent, possibly the best I have ever tasted. With soft, sweet meat, barely cooked through to the middle, but nicely charred on the edges, this was a fish to win over anyone who has criticized the average filet as being "too fishy". As is typical in Europe, the eyes were still attached, although in this case, since the fish was butterflied to reveal the juicy meat, resting on a pool of olive oil, you had to turn the filet over if you wanted to check them out. Yep, I noted on inspection, it doesn't get much fresher than this.

And now, almost eight hours late, I am still full! But maybe I'll have room for some pintxos in a little while... just a couple. Yeah, just a couple.

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