The secret world of txokos: the Basque Country’s private gastronomic societies

by Great British Chefs 13 December 2021

Taking place behind closed doors in Spain’s Basque Country, txokos are a kind of private gastronomic club where members meet up regularly to eat and drink together. We find out more about these secretive societies and how they came to be.

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One of the most incredible things about food is its ability to gather people together regardless of culture or cuisine. Every part of the world has its own customs when it comes to dining, whether it’s Italy’s pre-dinner ritual of aperitivo or the traditions in the US surrounding a Thanksgiving dinner. The Basque Country in the north of Spain is renowned for its gastronomy, especially as it’s where you’ll find the highest density of Michelin-starred restaurants in the world. However, hidden away behind closed doors throughout the region there is a whole other side to Basque dining culture which remains a well-kept secret – txokos.

Literally meaning ‘cosy corner’, a txoko (pronounced chock-oh) is a type of private gastronomic society native to northern Spain, where people regularly gather together to enjoy evenings of cooking, eating, drinking and sometimes – probably depending on how much wine has been served – singing. Only open to pre-vetted members, txokos are hidden throughout cities like Bilbao and San Sebastián as well as in more rural areas of the country, often discreetly signposted so they can’t be easily found. Most are invitation-only, meaning meetings often remain relatively intimate and tourist-free; in fact, the societies are often just groups of friends who’ve known each other for years.

The first txoko, called La Fraternal, was set up almost 200 years ago in San Sebastian. Industrialisation led to more people moving into the city, which in turn meant bars started imposing curfews to stop workers from socialising too late into the night. In retaliation, people decided to create their own spaces where they could eat and drink without having to stick to anyone else’s schedule, and the first txokos were born. During the reign of Francisco Franco in the twentieth century, the secretive nature of txokos meant that they were actually one the few places where people were still able to indulge in Basque culture.

Nowadays, there are believed to be over 1,500 txokos in existence ranging from small groups to ones with over 100 members. In most cases the premises are privately owned and the costs shared equally between members, though in some smaller towns txokos are actually subsidised by the council, with a nominated president usually taking charge of ensuring the kitchen is stocked up with groceries and making sure everyone contributes some money towards the food they’ve cooked.

In terms of what actually takes place at a modern-day txoko meet-up, it varies from society to society but typically members will cook together, all helping to prepare different elements of the dinner, before sitting down and tucking into the food alongside plenty of wine. Some societies ban the discussion of politics as txokos are meant to be comprised of people of all beliefs and social classes, leaving any feelings of judgement at the door. This tends to mean that conversations will often end up turning to Basque food and culture. Once everyone has finished eating, people might start singing or play a game of cards or two before retiring home.

Many brilliant ideas have been conceived around the table at txoko meetings and it was at one such gathering in 1973 that a group of friends first dreamt up the idea of Bodegas Beronia. Impressed by their own culinary prowess and enchanted by Basque cuisine, they decided to create a wine that perfectly complemented the amazing food they were preparing together. Almost fifty years on and Beronia is renowned for its Rioja and Rueda wines, which have won multiple awards and are enjoyed across Spain and further afield. To celebrate its origin, in 2016 Beronia launched a txoko club of its own, giving people the chance to learn traditional recipes at events and then pair them with the wine that was originally created with txoko meetings in mind.

There aren’t many parts of today’s society that still have an element of mystery to them but the world of txokos most certainly does – and that’s part of the reason they continue to be such an intrinsic part of Basque culture. Not only do they provide people with the opportunity to experiment with food, learn and connect with others, but they allow people to do so without feeling watched or judged. These societies exist purely for the members’ own enjoyment, and that after all is what cooking, eating and drinking should be all about.

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