(Before I begin, I would like to apologize for the lack of pictures. Along with no women being allowed to enter, photographs are not permitted. I was not about to argue with old wrinkly Basque men) There was barely a sound to be heard in the empty streets of Parte Vieja, just the clip-clopping of my shoes on the cobblestones echoing against four-hundred-year-old buildings. I was drunk, tired, and quite full. In my mind, San Sebastian is the perfect city. It has everything any food lover would ever want, not to mention some of the most gorgeous mermaids in all of Spain. When I say San Sebastian has it all for food lovers, I really mean it. There is an unwavering faith in its own traditions and regional products, a near religious certainty that its got the best cuisine in Spain, a language and culture that go back, literally, to the Stone Age. Did I mention San Sebastian has more Michelin stars per capita than anywhere else in the world?
According to the locals, San Sebastian is not in Spain. It is Basque country, a famously independent area of southwest France and northern Spain, where the street signs are in Basque (lots of names with t's and x's and few vowels). I have been lucky enough to experience a very special, and old, tradition in the city, the exclusive all-male gastronomic societies. When I lived in Spain two years ago, my landlord was the head honcho at one of these societies. I was thrilled when I was invited to join the clubhouse one evening and share a wonderful traditional Basque meal with many old rusty wrinkled Basque men, with hands that resemble sand paper. I was so happy that I made a good enough impression on my landlord that he remembered me two years later, and on top of that, invited me to an exclusive dinner with all of the clubhouse members.
Nervous is not the correct word to use to describe my feelings before this dinner, after all, I had eaten in the society two years ago with my roommates. My anticipatory anxiety was in high gear. I wanted these men to like me. I wanted them to think of me as a qualified chef, heading in the right direction. This time i would be alone. I guess I was more nervous to sing and dance with plump old men than anything else. I was told to meet Jose at six o'clock in front of the society, which happens to be right next to my old apartment. I decided to bring my chef kit, which included my knives and a few other supplies that i like to have with me at all times in a culinary situation. As soon as I entered, I passed a wide, oblong-shaped dining area lined with wooden tables and benches. I then alkyd into a nice-sized, professionally equipped kitchen, crowded with these men in aprons. The men were working very diligently on various individual cooking projects, the stovetops fully occupied with simmering pots and sizzling pans, while a few onlookers drank red wine and hard cider in the dining area. I was out of my element. First, I was at least thirty or forty years younger than anyone there. Second, all these cooks were amateur- as opposed to professional- cooks. These men cooked for love, for the pure pleasure and appreciation of food. Third, was the 'all male' thing, an expression I am not used to. This expression in my experience is most often accompanied by going to a strip club, or watching Sunday football with my buddies. Never have i experienced a dining experience where females are not welcome. When I think of a night out with just the guys, I think of getting wasted, smoking herb, urinating in inappropriate places, and lots of vulgar language
I was handed a white apron, something I am very used to. The funny part was all of the aprons worn by the men were dirty. I have been trained to always keep your apron and side towel perfectly clean, since you are supposed to be a good enough chef where a mess will never occur. This is the mentality in very prestigious restaurants, with michelin stars attached. Not the case at these gastronomic societies. I started to relax, thinking how this is a truly remarkable experience, one I will sure to never forget. It was time to help prepare a typical Basque meal, with a tall glass of hard cider in one hand, a bucket of soaking bacalao (salt cod) in the other. You dry the bacalao on the towel, "like this," said Jose,demonstrating for me exactly how he wanted it done. He blotted a thick filet of cod on both sides, ready to make his move to an open burner on the crowded stovetop.
I was making bacalao al pilpil, about as old-school Basque a dish as you are likely to find. After searing the fish and setting them aside, I covered the half-cooked filets in more hot olive oil. Then, moving over to a countertop and using a thick casserole, I followed Jose's example and carefully swirled in a gentle clockwise motion until the natural albumen in the fish bound with the oil, creating a thick, cloudy emulsion. It was beautiful. At the very end, Jose spooned in some piperade, an all-purpose mixture of tomato, peppers, and onions, which gave the sauce a dark pink flecked finish, and a very inviting spicy aroma.
The next dish I was asked to help prepare was cocoches. I had eaten these many times when i lives in San Sebastian, but I never learned how to prepare them. Cocoches are salt-cured cheeks of hake, soaked in milk, then seasoned, floured, dipped in egg, and fried until crispy and golden brown. Jose walked me through the entire process, making sure I was not making any mistake in preparing such a famous dish. The last thing I wanted to do was prepare a traditional dish incorrectly. That is a death sentence in this part of the world. The wonderful part about this entire experience is everyone is drinking, a lot, all the time. Without even asking, my cider glass would be refilled, while being given another glass filled with txakaoli, a sort of greenish white wine similar to vino verde. Yes, i was expected to double fist while cooking. If I was not nervous enough to be cooking very traditional old recipes for basque men, the added pressure of drinking two different types of alcohol, at the same time, really made the sweat drip quite fast. I was starting to feel that warm buzz, an artificial sense of well-being and inflated self-image very conducive to enjoying a fine meal. In hindsight, the heavy volume of alcohol that was flowing in my body was a great way to relax, and forget about the pressure involved in this wonderful situation. My life at this moment could not be more perfect.
The drinking policy for the gastronomic societies in the city are very interesting: Drink as much as you like-on the honor system. At the end of the night, count up your bottles, fill out a ticket totaling the damage, and leave the money in an envelope sitting at the bar. Jose insisted that I did not spend a single euro in this experience, yet another example of how wonderful of a person he is. A true life long friend. I was bought to the table, since the food was almost ready, and it was time for another verity of alcohol. This time, i was given a glass of patxaram, the lethal local brandy made from berries and anise. With the bottle held about two feet over the glass, he poured a glass for both of us, a true professional. This was followed by a heavy wink, and then gave me the Basque toast of 'Osassuna!' before emptying his glass in one go. I was feeling great. I was wasted and the meal had not even started yet. I needed food in my stomach very soon or I knew I would be reunited with all of he alcohol I had already consumed. The food was incredible. The cheeks were beyond succulent. The pilpil was very sweet and subtly flavored, the piperade/oil emulsion was a nice counter point to the salt cod and much more delicate than I'd expected. All the burly men sat down at different times, however before I knew it, the tables were filled with the animated passionate men, devouring the food that was just prepared while still wearing the food-spattered aprons. There was a constant clatter and roar of conversation punctuated by explanations of 'Osassuna!'
It was very interesting to hear from many different men, at different moments, how important the Basque region is. I was told, probably ten different times how the Basque, not Columbus, had discovered America. I was told that the Basque are fisherman, and always have been, as well as always being a small country. When they found cod, they did not tell anyone about it. I was told the Basque found a lot of cod off America. I simply shook my head from side to side with a large smile, as everything was beginning to spin, clockwise at first. I began to think what everyones reaction would be if I were to puke up all this wonderful food and drink, so I decided to give up the alcohol and move on to some refreshing H2O. Dessert was simple yet perfect. Whole walnuts and quince paste. At first I was worried about making a mess, until i saw everyone throw the shells on the floor. These people know how to enjoy themselves!
I don't really remember getting back to my apartment, but I do remember the headache I had when I awoke the next morning. Nothing a cafe con leche and papas bravas couldnt fix. It was a perfect combination and a perfect breakfast. Golden brown crispy fried potatoes, covered in two sauces. One was a garlic and herb aioli, and the other a spicy chili sauce. I would always ask for a fried egg on top, to make things that much more perfect. This is how I started my morning every day when I lived in San Sebastian, and every morning this past week. One would think I would go to different restaurants to try various renditions of the papas bravas, but this is something that was not possible for me. I am in love with the restaurant I used to live above, Monpas. It is equivalent to cheating on a person if I were to go somewhere else. I was comfortable at Monpas. Everyone would take time to talk to me, to make sure I was happy with everything. The people at Monpas treated me like family. The fact that my fathers cartoons are hanging on the wall makes it that much better. Oh, and I got everyone into The Grateful Dead, which is the primary music played at Monpas. Can you say perfection?