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At Basque Cooking Clubs, Food And Fraternity Mix Heartily

Spring crops like asparagus and sorrel are poking up all over the hemisphere. And in the autonomous region of Northern Spain known as Basque Country, people are taking that spring harvest to a txoko.

Txokos are usually translated as "gastronomic societies;" they're distinctly Basque members-only kitchens and dining halls, where people cook with their friends (often well into the night), keeping Basque recipes, language and culture alive. There are roughly two million people in the Basque Country and over 1,000 txokos, pronounced "cho-kos."

From the outside, the txoko I visited on a recent trip to San Sebastian, called Amaikak Bat, looked like an ordinary, stone-walled European restaurant. But inside, it was a bustling food-centered social club, somewhere between a dinner party and a fraternal lodge.

At Amaikak Bat, I was given bowls of rich seafood soup, white asparagus with homemade aioli, and briny shrimp the size of a thumbnail. Txakoli, the region's sparkling white wine, was poured freely from dramatic heights, and a few members sipped the sloe-infused apertif patxaran before moaning over plates of local ham.

The earliest txokos were founded well over a hundred years ago in San Sebastian, initially only for men, who'd recently migrated from small villages. "The txoko will allow them to live some of the good aspects of communal life ... in the city," says Andreas Hess, a sociologist at University College Dublin who studies Basque society. Since then, the clubs have spread outward from the cities back into the villages.

Amaikak Bat was founded in 1907, which makes it part of the old guard. Most txokos are now co-ed, but some are still transitioning: Women can come as guests to Amaikak Bat, but aren't permitted to be full members.

Under Francisco Franco's reign, txokos were among the few semi-public places where Basque language and culture could flourish. These days, members set dinner dates, or just show up, knowing that someone from their circle will be there.

Txokos are stocked with dinnertime essentials — olive oil, coffee, wine — and members are entrusted to use the honor system to pay for what they've consumed in an evening. At the end of the meal, they may turn to song (which, if Amaikak Bat is any indication, can be a little blue).

Basques often point to txokos as the roots of their renowned cuisine and wealth of Michelin-starred restaurants like Arzak and Mugaritz. Those restaurants are known for their seasonal, improvisational meals, and some chefs, like Martín Berasategui whose restaurant outside San Sebastian bears his name, still occasionally return to cook with their friends at txokos.

But while the meals are delicious and often fresh from the farm and sea, the cameraderie is what makes the txoko experience truly unique. "There are, of course, the legendary evenings where you start eating at 10:30, or 11 in the evening, and the next time you look on your watch and it's 5 in the morning and you're smoking a Cuban cigar," Hess says with a laugh. "And I'm a non-smoker."

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