“I think that curiosity happened on these reviews where I was just a guest of the reviewer, because it introduced me to new cuisines and to the idea of cooking as a mechanism for studying other cultures and understanding other parts of the world.”
– Ted Allen
What is usually characterised – the world over – by strip shows, gambling, social class affirmations and fellowships to specific political parties and major business players, perhaps even bankers and brokers… is in the Basque Country defined by a love for food and a passion for cooking. You see, in the Basque Country, Gentlemen’s Clubs are cooking clubs, they refer to as Gastronomic Societies, where men get together to cook for each other, some delectable and highly sophisticated meals as a means to unwind and have a good time. They cook, eat, drink, talk life and watch football or play cards! You can’t help but notice how the Basque have not been stamped by the collective consciousness of Capitalism. These people have stayed true to their roots, to the ancient ways of celebrating the simplicity and joy of the ordinary, of the everyday, the non-adrenaline-packed life. And I tell you, it is great fun.
I have managed to visit two Gastronomic Societies, both of which are the same in essence but have completely different styles. The one in Parte Vieja, was a bit more sophisticated, and a bit more touristy, but nonetheless with members equally as passionate about food and cooking. Then I visited the Willow Gastronomic Society with Imanol Jaka from my previous post, which is more authentic local, more intimate and without the extensive library, antique wine cellar and elaborate property. I had enjoyed both societies, and had found tremendous and different insights in each one. However, through both societies I was able to view and experience a passion for cooking manifesting itself beyond just a gathering but more of a connection and a support system. I have seen locals cook, gather up on the table to eat, and have very heated chats about food, and cooking mechanisms!
If visiting San Sebastian, you have got to try cooking at a Gastronomic Society, it is a unique experience and a huge insight into the very interesting life of the locals. (get in touch with A Taste of Spain who can help arrange a visit for you)
In this post I will be focusing on the Parte Vieja Gastronomic Society, because I have met with Chef Ilker Uranga Ormazabal there, a professional Chef, who’s worked in many professional kitchens, with many famous establishments and hotels around Spain. Having worked for many years around Spain, he finally decided to return to San Sebastian, and work there with the Gastronomic Society. He loves the passion for cooking in Basque Country and believes that its added value to his work-life as a Chef. He cooks for the Society’s Banquets and events. He demonstrates Basque cooking to tourists and guests, where he gives them a chance to sample some of Basque cuisine’s most delectable concoctions. When we got together, we cooked, and talked Basque Cuisine, Basque Flavours, Basque cooking in a nutshell. We even went the length of discussing the best advice for upcoming chefs, who are serious about their careers and want to achieve the highest levels of accomplishment. Here are bits of those conversations:
Chef Ilker’s Description of Basque Cuisine
Basque cuisine is one that is all about good seasonal produce. The base of Basque cuisine is to make sure to use the best produce possible, as produce is the star of the show. The cuisine is rich in the sense that the Basque country is rich in produce. “We have the sea, from which we get a lot of food, from fish, to shellfish, to even Barnacles. Then we have the land, which provides us with all kinds of meats and their milks and cheeses. Also not to under-emphasise the vegetable produce, the olive oil, the wines…etc.” He said.
The beauty of this cuisine is that it can be deployed for cooking rich, elaborate and expensive foods, as well as carried out by the poor man in the same measure of deliciousness and richness. He explains: “This is a characteristic of any cuisine that relies on good seasonal produce. Our beans for example – what we call a poor man’s meal – are delicious, and grown everywhere. They are easy to store and preserve if necessary, which makes them accessible to everyone in any circumstance. On the other hand, our country also produces the ‘tear-drop peas’, which are very small and really buttery. These peas are very expensive and usually cooked for elaborate banquets with Artichokes and cabbages. In this way, our cuisine is very rich and diversified.”
How Basque Cuisine is reflective of Basque Culture
Basque people are simple and joyous people, who are deep rooted with their past and living their present in full understanding of their cultur
e and who they are. The Basque are very adamant about preserving their culture and heritage. All these qualities are very evident in their cuisine. They still use ancient techniques in their cooking and food preparation which have been passed down through the generations. The Basque insist that the quality of food is derived from the quality of the produce, and the simplicity of the preparation. Mind you, simplicity here, does not refer to a non-challenging approach, rather to non over-crowding of any concoction with too many flavours. Whatever produce is used in any concoction, then that produce will be predominantly the flavour of that dish. They do not believe in over handling, over cooking or over interfering. They like to think of cooking as facilitating the best scenario for the produce to shine. Kind of like easing the produce into its best role.
The basque are joyous and passionate people, and that is reflected in their food tremendously. The food is rich, and reflective of the cook’s patience and passion. Their tables are spread with many varieties of food, which they take pride of producing, and showcase as if a spread of tinted oil strokes on a white canvas. When in the presence of the Basque and their food, this is an impression that is hard to miss. Basque countrymen are proud fishermen, farmers, food producers, merchants, cooks or are in someway or another food related. To them food is social, and therefore they cook for each other, gather around food, and even have a third of their day dedicate to food – the pintxos crawl.
The main ingredients of Basque Cuisine
The base ingredients of Basque cuisine which are used all the time are: Green Capsicum, Parsley, Onion, Garlic and Olive oil. They hardly ever use any spice other than paprika and black pepper. Then of course comes all the rest of the produce – hardly ever stored and most likely seasonal – that is then added to the base in a way or another. The cuisine is more reliant on fish and vegetables, a little less on meats, but least or almost none on poultry and game. They also cook a lot of wine-based sauces, use Béchamel quite often and frequently use marination in their cooking. Always remember whatever it is you are using, you never use too much of it to overwhelm the flavour or disguise the original flavour of the star produce. Everything is used in moderation to create a marriage, the compatible type lol
Nueva Cocina Vasca (Modern Basque Cuisine) in relation to the Old and Traditional Basque Cuisine
The modern Basque cuisine is rooted and based on the old and traditional Basque cooking. The respect of ingredients is of utmost importance. You can always find the old cuisine in the new concoctions and it’s therefore the same cuisine. The presentation, and techniques have varied as the new cuisine had taken the approach of the experimental cuisine otherwise known as molecular gastronomy. Where the preparation of food is done using state of the art culinary technology and findings of new cooking techniques and applications. The ingredients are the same, the flavours are the same, the main difference is in presentation and at times in textures, as experimental cuisine is known to produce several different textures of the same ingredients.
The Basque are very passionate about food and cooking, that they welcome the evolution of their cuisine. They are in fact very much involved and the whole society is geared towards finding out the culinary secrets of the experimental Nueva Cocina. However, they also believe that their traditional cuisine must also remain alive and deep rooted in their daily lives.
On the International perception of Basque Cuisine
It is a cuisine that is respected the world over. It is actually used as a showcase in the teaching of culinary arts. The cuisine is immensely studied and used for inspiration by many other cuisines.
Chef Ilker’s Advice For Serious Cooks & Professional Chefs
The Serious Cook – ‘Those who are serious about cooking must first learn to respect the ingredient. Once you know an ingredient and what to do with it, your cooking will automatically improve. A respect for ingredients is knowing how to handle that ingredient, how to bring the best out of it, and how to combine it with flavours without disguising it. Experiment all the time, don’t be afraid of trying out new flavours and combinations. How else will you know if a concept works or not. With time, and much experimentation, you will have already learnt what works and what doesn’t, therefore your food will always be better. If you treat cooking with love and joy, you are already producing better foods.’
The Professional Chef – ‘Those who aspire to make it big in the food industry, must start with a cooking degree from a cooking school. That is the first step as there you learn the techniques, the ingredients and methods of cooking, which will save you time and effort. Once the knowledge is there, and once you have started working, you must realise that as a junior cook you must be more focused on learning and acquiring experience before focusing on making money. You must never run away, or give up, regardless the pressure or frustration, it is all part of the journey and part of the experience. Have faith that you will eventually get there, and always know that things come to those who work. Finally you must always have a readiness and openness to learn from everyone with humbleness. You will be surprised who can teach you something, and no one knows everything. This is, in my opinion the formula for success in this industry.’
As the day was coming to an end, and while the food was gently simmering to the perfect doneness, before it can be devoured by our hungry palates that have been teased all day with smells and preview tasters; Chef Ilker took us on a tour around the society premises which houses some culinary treasures unlike any I have ever seen before! The Society is home to an extensive culinary library, which holds a priceless collection of cookery and gastronomy books. Some of these books are rare prints of really old books like Dumas’ ‘Grande Dictionnaire du Cuisine’, one of the earliest books to define cooking terminologies and techniques with drawn illustrations. There are all sorts of other books exploring cheese making, cheese types, wines, cuisines and cookery encyclopedias…etc. Also in the collection of books are those written by the great chefs behind the New Basque Cuisine, where they share their secrets and techniques in preparing these highly innovative concoctions.
Hung on the walls of the library are rare prints of old French paintings, which are amongst the first paintings ever to be drawn in celebration of gastronomy, cooking and lifestyle. It is truly a dedicated food and gastronomy haven; a place where I felt I want to live at or if I may ‘nerd at’ for a few years. I had to drag myself out of there. But before I left I had to ask if the library was accessible to everyone. I was told that it is accessible to members of the Gastronomic society only, and special permissions need to be made as to make sure to preserve the old books which are extremely hard to recover in case of damage or loss…
Right outside of the Library is a small display area of old day cooking utensils, pits, rifles from old wars, and old age soldiers’ uniforms. Beautiful stuff usually found in Museums. As if a preview to what was to come next, as Chef Ilker said “Let’s go see the wine cellar”…
Hung on the walls of the Gastronomic Society is this Rare print of the original Painting “The Peasant Wedding , 1568” by Pieter Bruegel. (see middle picture above). The Original Painting is currently displayed at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna
We were instructed to watch our heads as we descended down some old age stairs into what appeared to be another time zone. It was kind of like transporting back a couple of centuries ago that you can smell the rusticity in the damp and heavy air of the most antique wine cellar I have ever been to. Even the stairs were no longer tiled, rather like blocks of white and gray from an ancient earth. There is dampness in the air, and a chill, and a deafening silence the sort that is loud, in that if you really stopped breathing, you will start hearing the life of the past and reliving the age of knights and communal feasts… The age of the wine can be told by the amount of dust on those bottles, and the age of the space can be told by the feel of distance you instantly experience once inside the arch and into the passageway. It seems that one cannot but whisper in the presence of the past as if in humbleness to its vastness and charisma! Neither one of the four of us was able to articulate in the usual manner. We all whispered along tiny pieces of conversation as if in an effort not to disturb the past. Through those soft communications we learnt that most locals are unaware of the fact that these walls are actually the authentic walls of a castle that once upon a history stood tall on this mountain top. That these are the original Antique walls that separated the Nuns from the priests of the church that neighboured the ancient castle. We were also told that the corridor in the picture above is known to be of a dodgy history as it seems to have been the after hours rendezvous point for those priests and nuns. I looked around and all I could see was my very new and present-day body, surrounded by a past so far away that it should have felt alien. But no, there was an embrace an enlightenment and a feeling of connection to a bigger collectiveness from which we all stem. This is the beauty of being around ruins or preserves of the past. A grounding that we should all learn as nothing is too big, and nothing is too good, and nothing is forever. We tend to live only to then be told. I found the experience to be totally inspiring as to the choice of how we want to be told. We are the makers of our stories, and we are the lessons to come, so we might as well be a lesson worth learning. In this respect, the Basque Gastronomic Societies, were a pleasure to experience, and a life lesson beyond food but one that is facilitated by food.
We then came back to the more familiar, less intense present day, and went to savour the food we had been cooking all morning. We sat on a huge banquet table that looks like it has seen some good celebrations. The society was filling up with people all gathered up around the tables, eating, chatting, celebrating and being merry. We ate the fabulous food we cooked, and wrapped the day with good memories, new friends, and yet another extraordinary experience brought about by my endless search for the perfect eating experience.
“We live in a world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.”
- Culinary Road Trip – North of Spain (the prep)
- Culinary Destination – North of Spain (the run down)
- Basque Country’s King of Meats
- Check out the photos from this trip on these links ( Vol 1: Culinary Destination North of Spain | Vol 2: Catalonia & Madrid | Vol 3: Michelin Stars )
- 5-day Trip Planner To Mauritius
I go on my Culinary Trips on my own behalf, self-funded and do not earn any income for recommending any accommodation, restaurant, activity…etc. I share my experience with you to hopefully inspire you to try the locations and activities which I have personally found outstanding. The views expressed in this blog are my own.