Article written by Jennifer Manly
‘’“I drink to make other people more interesting.”
It was a very exciting prospect. We had been invited to have Sunday lunch in a gastronomic club in Pamplona, not just in any club but a club in a venerable, elegant, Belle Epoque building on the Plaza Castillo in the centre of this historic city. These clubs have the aura of secret societies – of places guarded by mystic beings and requiring super-secret passwords for entry! A family member had invited us to join her, her Pamplona family, and several international friends for a gastronomic experience in the magic palace of her gastronomic club. We set aside several hours for the event.
Gastronomic clubs exist in several cities, all built on more or less the same principles. Dating back in some cases over a hundred years these clubs were created by men, for men, and for the purpose of preparing and enjoying food, and socializing together. These principles apply pretty much unchanged today although in some clubs women are now welcomed as guests and, in more progressive clubs, women are even allowed to become members. The kitchen space and the process of cooking and creating is still mostly reserved for the men. As far as I could tell Gastronomic Clubs are to be found only in the Basque Country. My husband and I felt very privileged to be invited.
Many gastronomic clubs are housed in what from the outside look like ordinary buildings with unpretentious doorways in unpretentious streets. In our case the club was housed in what at one time had been an elegant casino facing a grand plaza surrounded by shady chestnut trees. We walked along the cool arcades bordering the plaza, past the tourist-magnet of the cafe restaurant made famous by Hemingway’s many hours spent at the bar there, and found the simple door leading to the gastronomic club. An elevator worthy of an expensive attorneys ‘s office lifted us up one story and we then found ourselves in an elegant space of dark paneled walls, huge crystal chandeliers floating overhead like ponderous jellyfish, red velvet chairs and sofas, a silence blurred by softly muttered conversations. The scene and the atmosphere shifted as we entered a small hallway next to the bar and, almost in Alice-in-Wonderland-rabbit-hole style, we descended stairs into a lobby leading to a bright, shiny, efficient working kitchen.
We visitors, of course, were not allowed into the what was once a sacred man-space of the kitchen but as it opened directly into the dining area, rather like a kitchen for cooking demonstrations with the dining room being the audience space, we were not at all cut off from the action. The kitchen was large enough for probably four separate dinners to be prepared simultaneously by four different men cooking on gas ranges or in ovens for their friends and families. The dining area held several tables that could be arranged to meet the required configurations of the groups eating there that day. We were in a group of about 12 at a long table. There were three other families in the club that day so the dining space was full. We visitors were invited to help setting up the table for our group and this involved nothing more complicated than finding table cloths, napkins, cutlery, and glassware from open shelves. That job done we relaxed and watched the men at work in the kitchen. We watched the peeling, the chopping and slicing, the dicing and the deboning. Things were minced and marinated, were seasoned and sautéed, filleted and fried, toasted and tossed. It was like watching Cirque du Soleil perform on a small stage – performers wielding super-sharp knives, spoons and spatulas, all while refreshing themselves with local wines or beers. The chefs were forever open to questions “from the audience “ responding with relevant, interesting, and invariably witty, answers or comments.
We in the audience were also allowed to enjoy pre-dining drinks and the flavors of the local wine and the increasingly heady and intoxicating savory aromas from the kitchen were an excellent prelude to our meal.
Our “chef” had prepared an outsize paella in a flat, shallow, paella pan about 40” in diameter. In addition to the excellent culinary skills strong stirring arms were required to incorporate all the ingredients and move them around as needed. While paella originated in the rice-growing areas on the Mediterranean coast, it is a dish that accommodates itself to local ingredients and tastes throughout the country, often using up the excess of local products season by season. Our paella was heavily flavoured with onion, succulent tomatoes, and garlic, which created the sauce for chicken and sea food (mussels, prawns, chunks of cod) all bathed in a tang of saffron. We had watched the creative process layer by layer as ingredients were added, the mix was sampled for taste, adjusted, and then finalized. Other chefs cooking for their families prepared other dishes – some with meat, some with fish, some with chicken. Salads were tossed, cheeses were laid out on platters, crunchy-crusted breads were sliced and piled into baskets.
Slowly the kitchen genii finished their work, delivered food to their tables, and joined their guests. There was an initial silence as people tasted the scrumptious foods but soon sounds of mirth, jollity, and general well-being filled the air and, in true Basque style, laughter resounded around the room.
The gastronomic clubs require payment of membership fees and at the end of each meal the members pay for whatever basic ingredients and wine they used from the club’s stores as well as a basic fee for the room and table wares. It all runs on an efficient honour system.
After three hours of delicious food and wine, shared companionship, we felt even more privileged to have been allowed to participate in a gastronomic club experience.
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