One tradition that sets the Basque Country, Navarra and La Rioja apart from the rest of Spain is the men’s eating club. These clubs, called ‘sociedades gastronómicas’ in Spanish used to be totally off limits to women, perhaps to give men a breather from what they perceived as the strictures of the matriarchal society in the Basque country in which their wives ran the household and administered the family budget. Times have changed of course and women are sometimes invited to eat there but are never allowed in the kitchen. Ever.
A poster/poem warning wives that they can’t go to the kitchen
Last week I was invited to have lunch at one of these clubs, La Rondalosa, in Logroño. This club is more than just a place for its members to cook, eat, drink and sing. It’s also a ‘sociedad recreativa’ (recreation club) and as such, actively participates in the wine festival of San Mateo, with the members parading behind their banner with a band. My friends who attend the Sanfermines in Pamplona will recognize it as a ‘peña’.
The lunch I attended was particularly interesting because we ate the season’s first fresh white asparagus and enjoyed the wines from Bodegas Pastor Domeco, whose owner José Pastor is an old buddy.
If your only experience with white asparagus is the tinned variety, you’re missing a real treat. This vegetable is grown along the Ebro Valley in La Rioja, Navarra and Aragon with the first harvest in April and the last in June. Wisely, the producers have decided to market their asparagus as ‘Espárragos de Navarra’ rather than several independent appellations. The best asparagus is harvested in April. In fact there’s a saying about it:
“En abril para mí, en mayo para el amo y en junio para ninguno”
(In April for me, in May for my boss and in June for no one”)
The asparagus stalks are dug out of the ground when the tip just pokes through. They’re peeled by hand (you have to wear gloves because your hands will turn black) and boiled until tender. They’re served warm with mayonnaise, vinaigrette sauce or by themselves and are a real delicacy. They are a world apart from green asparagus.
A lot of tinned white asparagus comes from South America and labeled as local produce but the fresh ones are indisputably local and are snatched up at local markets in April and May. If you happen to be in Spain at this time, don’t pass up the chance to try them.
Normal operating procedure at an eating club is to have an aperitif and a few glasses of wine to stimulate your appetite. Our aperitif last week could be considered a meal in itself, with seven or eight big plates of tapas.
Afterwards, we tucked into a three course lunch: a fava bean and cuttlefish stew (habas con sepia), hake cheeks with smoked spicy peppers (kokotxas de merluza con pimientos) and fruit cocktail steeped in all kinds of liqueurs. Then, coffee and either a shot of dry anisette or a gin and tonic.
Hake cheeks and red peppers
The meal ended with the chefs tallying up the cost of the meal and dividing the cost among the people present.
a lobster from the Bay of Biscay
Several hours later, satiated, we made our way home for a short nap to prepare for a tapas crawl around Logroño’s Old Town. For me it was the perfect way to start the weekend!