On a sunny Saturday just before noon, I knocked on an anonymous wooden door in the heart of Bilbao's
bustling old town. It was so low-profile I could have been standing in front of a speakeasy—or a storage closet.
Inside, a handful of men were preparing an enormous Basque meal. Some 30 others drank, snacked, swapped recipes and chatted about Athletic Bilbao, the local soccer team. At Uri-Zarra, a prestigious men's cooking club in the Basque metropolis, soccer is a favorite subject, but it takes a back seat to food and wine.
Within minutes, I was sipping a glass of txakoli, a local white wine that Basques use to wash down seafood or just pass the time, and sampling from plates of appetizers. "This has been boiled in cider," said Eduardo Saez de Lafuente, Uri-Zarra's president. He proudly presented a dish of iridescent sausage, which a club member had just hauled out of a huge cauldron in long strands and snipped into bite-sized pieces with scissors. It was chewy and sweet and tangy and earthy—and unlike any of the chorizo I had eaten on my several previous trips to Spain.
Male gastronomic clubs like Uri-Zarra—called txokos (CHOKE-ohs) in Bilbao and sociedades in San Sebastián—have long been the object of veneration and envy. First started in San Sebastián in the 1870s, they began as regular men's clubs—"a place to play cards or share a bottle of cider," said Gabriella Ranelli, a culinary guide in San Sebastián. Eventually, the simple dishes they made evolved into full-blown, high-flying cooking.
These days, txokos are something between social clubs and cooking schools. Ms. Ranelli said they provide an outpost of masculine autonomy in the Basque Country which, in contrast to the rest of Spain, is "a matriarchal society." In larger towns like San Sebastián and Bilbao, txoko membership is a status symbol. (Uri-Zarra, limited to 68 permanent members, has a $5,000 initiation fee, annual dues of around $250 and a waiting list.)
Members can drop in when they like, but tend to congregate at certain times. The meals can be informal, with small groups spontaneously whipping up a snack, or as elaborate and pre-planned as a wedding feast.
Die-hard foodies may know that these societies exist—but not that they can have access to them. Txokos have a hard-earned reputation for exclusivity, even secrecy, but some are starting to open their doors to the occasional tour group or well-connected private traveler. I found two agencies—one in Bilbao and one in San Sebastián—that offered to score me an invitation. I decided on Bilbao, which is not known for its food tourism, and in the process got an inside look at Basque culinary life.
Txokos have helped to fuel Spain's food revolution by turning cooking into a friendly but competitive sport, and act as culinary laboratories where traditional recipes can be reinvented.
"I learned a lot in the sociedad," said Juan Mari Arzak, a pioneer in the molecular gastronomy movement whose eponymous San Sebastián restaurant boasts three Michelin stars. At Arzak, traditional Basque ingredients are transformed in all but name. Tomato shows up with ham in "carpaccio balls" served in a cloud of mint-infused dry ice. Parsley and basil are made into sorbet that is served alongside viscous chocolate bon-bons. Local red Tolosa beans appear in what Elena Arzak, Mr. Arzak's daughter and the restaurant's co-head chef, calls an "aperitif," an otherworldly broth served in a shot glass.
Mr. Arzak was a mentor to El Bulli chef Ferran Adrià and has a chemist on his restaurant's payroll. But he still likes to try his hand at a local cooking club and insists that the societies, where classic Basque dishes were both invented and refined, were a "part of the evolution" of the acclaimed New Basque cuisine.
At first it seemed impossible to connect Mr. Arzak's menu with my Uri-Zarra meal—which lasted six hours. After the chorizo came blood sausage, piled high on toast and topped with a red pepper called piquillo that had been roasted and peeled. It was perfect but simple, like a BLT. After we finally sat down at the main table at around 3 in the afternoon, we ate a third appetizer of steamed sea snails, prying out their briny flesh using pins distributed and collected on the end of a cork. Then came the soup—and the unmistakable connection between Arzak and Uri-Zarra.
Created by Patxi Zabaleta, a member who worked as a professional cook, the soup was a fine purée of white beans and piquillo peppers—as smooth and surprising and pleasurable as my Arzak aperitif.
As the meal progressed and the wine flowed, members swapped stories about epic meals, peppering their talk with alternate ways of making the food on offer.
There was a swashbuckling quality to the way these men cooked and consumed food. I recalled that Basque men are known for their physical courage, and still compete in a range of archaic sports, like competitive wood chopping, stone throwing and tug-of-war.
Our main course was a classic dish: txipirones en su tinta, or squid stuffed with its tentacles and stewed in its own ink. Cooked the whole previous day by Mr. Lafuente, the dish's inky sauce had been thickened with puréed root vegetables, bringing the heft of peasant cooking to the subtle flavors of haute cuisine.
For dessert, we had another Basque fixture, a French-toast-like bread pudding, which everyone simply called tostadas, or toast. In the hands of Mr. Zabeleta—who was once the head cook at a psychiatric hospital—the bread, eggs and sugar had been turned into cake.
Bilbao is the Basque region's industrial capital, as well as its largest city, and its transformation over the last few decades is an urban planner's version of a miracle. Once a rusting wreck, it boasts a cleaned-up riverfront and a high-tech tramline along its once-derelict railroad tracks. The primary symbol of change, of course, is the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, which opened in 1997. Another is the rise of internationally lauded restaurants like the Michelin-starred Asador Etxebarri, which is a half hour from the center of town and noted for grilling everything from cockles to caviar. A few years older than the Guggenheim, the restaurant appears with regularity on the S. Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants list.
Change has come to the clubs, too. Unlike some other txokos, which border on dumpy, Uri-Zarra recently underwent a renovation and has the stone-and-wood interior of an elegant wine bar. In the last few years, women have been allowed to visit on weekends, when most members are around. But transformation has its limits: They still aren't allowed to join.
For these men, it seems, food is not just part of life—it's the whole of life. As lunch broke up around six, I had the distinct impression that many of Uri-Zarra's members were dreaming of dinner.
THE LOWDOWN: BILBAO, SPAIN
Getting There: The Basque region is a five- or six-hour trip by train or car from Madrid or Barcelona, or a potentially pricey hourlong flight. From the U.S., connect to Bilbao through another European hub like London or Paris.
Where to Stay: Some of the best choices for lodging are close to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. They include the five-star Gran Hotel Domine Bilbao (from about $200 per night, Alameda de Mazarredo, 61; hoteles-silken.com/ gran-hotel-domine-bilbao) and the stylish four-star Hesperia Bilbao (from about $90 per night, Campo Volantín, 28; hesperia.com).
What to Do: Two agencies that can provide visitors access to txokos are Romotur in Bilbao (romotur.com) and Tenedor Tours in San Sebastián (tenedortours.com). A visit to Bilbao's market, Mercado de La Ribera in old town, is a must for food lovers (Ribera, 20). Of course, it's also imperative to check out the titanium-clad swirls of Frank Gehry's Guggenheim (Avenida Abandoibarra, 2; guggenheim-bilbao.es).