San Sebastian!

The highlight of the visit from Sara and Jim and family was a trip to San Sebastian, which we planned not just because it’s an awesome city with a crazy food and booze culture, but also because Sara had secured an impossible beyond crazy reservation at Asador Etxebarri! Yes, more of that later.

But first we had to catch a flight to San Sebastian, just an hour away. Obligatory airport beer selfie …

We landed, dropped our stuff at our awesome apartment rental and jumped head first into pintxo land!

A quick bite (though not a small amount!) later we crashed into bed and woke to a fantastic view from the apartment we rented …

Always good to do a little exercise while enjoying the gastronomic riches of a place like San Sebastian, but we’re an efficient group so we multi-tasked and did some exploration of the local Txakolina wine. We call these “Wall Txakies” …

But enough of the hard exercise! It was time to go meet our friends Sara and Rafael for the fantastic day they had planned for us.

A brief aside, one of a couple in this post. One of the fantastic things we have experienced here in our adventure in Spain has been the lovely friendliness and hospitality of the Spanish people we have met. Sara and Rafa epitomize that experience we have had. We met them while they were on vacation in San Francisco and had rented the apartment above our garage. I saw the Spanish name on the reservation, did a little to confirm they were from Spain, and since we had just decided to move to Barcelona, invited them over for a glass of wine at our house while they were visiting SF. From that one brief time together (where I must say we just peppered them with a million questions about Spain!) they invited us to see them in San Sebastian once we had moved. Well, we didn’t just go out for a drink with them. They had a huge multi-day experience planned for us and hosted by them! Two of the most hospitable people we have ever met, two people we are so happy to now call friends!

So what did Rafa have planned for us that first day? Well, Rafa is a member of a Txoko, a Basque gastronomic society. I’ve never heard of clubs like this outside of Basque country, and have always wanted to experience one. Rafa is a member of one of most famous ones – Gaztelubide.

Another brief aside. Txokos are gastronomic societies. They’re places with professional kitchens where members prepare meals for a smallish (i.e. 2-20) group of invited guests, often just a crowd of other members. But they could also be cooking for friends and family. They don’t mess around – these are serious meals, multi-course, prepared by serious non-professional cooks, with the absolute best ingredients. Take a look at this plating, which was de rigeur for what we saw that day …

But it’s also important to note that Txokos are “mens clubs”, and in the past women weren’t even allowed in the door.

Now most clubs allow women to be guests, though women are still not allowed in the kitchens. At Gaztelubide, women were allowed as guests, though not Monday through Thursday at dinner time.  Rafa told us that he sees progress towards equality continuing and feels eventually all Txokos will have equal standing for both sexes, both as diners and as cooks. In time.

We’ve been fortunate to have two strong feminist teenagers in our house (in addition to us “grown-up” feminists!), and, um, they took some exception to this exclusion! Emma broke down and cried after not being allowed in the kitchen. Alexis was a bit more stoic in her disapproval. We didn’t have the heart to tell them that we are heading to parts of the Middle East at Christmas where they may be obligated to cover their hair!

But back to the experience of the day.

We met Rafa at a very cool locals pintxos place called Antonio Bar …

… had a beer and a quick bite from their beautiful selection of mouth-watering pintxos …

… then it was time to start shopping for food for lunch, starting with some local cheeses ….

… then onto the local fish monger …

… where amongst the treats was some barnacles! I’ve always wanted to try these. Turns out they are outrageously good!

Then after a quick stop at the market for some vegetables …

… it was on to the Txoko to start cooking! The kitchens are serious profession set-ups, filled with men passionate about cooking.

Rafa got me going on the technically difficult, and labor intensive, preparation of the pil-pil, this one made with the jowls from hake.

But it wasn’t “labor” really, as the first action was to open some Txakoli! We had a good time cooking, don’t you worry!

Here’s how lovely the hake pil pil turned out. Near perfect emulsion …

And here’s a shot of Rafa portioning up the heavenly monkfish (pun intended). I love how the picture has Sara pointing her instructions – women may not be allowed in the kitchen, but they can still make their opinion heard!

A truly fantastic meal, a unforgettable lifetime-dream experience to eat in a Txoko, and made especially great with two such great hosts.

But that wasn’t the end of the activities for the day they had planned for us!

After a quick visit to the merry-go-round so the kids could let loose a bit …

… we let the kids head home, and Rafa took for a pintxos-crawl!

After stopping by Antonio Bar again for a couple warm-ups…

… then we headed over to Bar La Espiga …

Where we kicked it up a notch with some GinTonics …

… before finishing the gastronomic day off well with some tripas …

… and some veal brains …

Melinda had a small bite of the brains, and I replied with “Viente años, vaca loco!” Might as well go down with mad-cow together!

An incredible day, one I’ll never forget! Thanks so much to the hospitality of Spanish, of the Basque, and in particular of Sara and Rafa!

(But their hospitality was not complete! More to come!)

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