It is nearly seven in the evening, the final guests are leaving Azurmendi, the 3 Michelin star restaurant in Larrabetzu and Eneko Atxa and his close collaborators are busy preparing food for the evening. He has invited a group of journalists to his txoko, the Txoko Zelaieta Gane, in Amorebieta-Etxano. It is one of the many closed gastronomic societies that are part and parcel of the Basque culinary culture. He phones his mother and she tells him that she is in the txoko and they are using it this evening.
“But I am coming with a small group of journalists,” he tells her.
He is a bit concerned because he knows his mother is not only an excellent cook but can also be critical like any loving mother can be. Sure enough when he arrives with the food that they have prepared she was not convinced. “Are you sure the journalists will like it. You need to add this and this,” she tells him.
It sounded worse than a Michelin guide inspection, Eneko tells us.
To understand the Basque culinary scene you need to understand the txoko and how important it is for the region. These gastronomic clubs are a place where people meet to cook together. They used to be male only clubs and some still have not changed even if now more and more txokos are allowing women in. When this changed a few years ago, women were not allowed into the kitchen but here things are different and Eneko says that women go every day and can also be partners in the txoko, something that is still not possible in other txokos.
Eneko tells us at table as he sits to eat with us after preparing a very traditional Basque dinner that change is happening slowly here. “We are making small changes but there is a certain resistance,” he said.
There are over 65 members in the txoko where he is a member.
His mother and family welcomed us as we arrived on a chilly night. Eneko was already there making the final preparations even if he has left the Azurmendi after us.
Eneko’s mother is his inspiration. He has named his successful restaurant Azurmendi using her family name. “She has lived all her life giving and not receiving. She is an incredible woman,” he said.
He has one complaint, that she does not want to give him some of her recipes. “She has never given me the clams recipe that she makes so well,” he said.
Eneko today is one of the top chefs in Spain if not the world but he does not know how he ended up cooking. Known for his incredibly bold dishes, it is in the txokos that he looks to learn about food in the region. “They are part of our tradition and it is here that we can learn about the food of our region and translate it into the food we serve in the restaurants,” he said.
The first course he served is an amazing soup that is comfort food at its best. Its made with roasted garlic, dried bread, dried peppers and vegetables and is reduced to a gelatinous texture, We eat it thinking this is a meat soup but Eneko explains that the gelatin comes from the reduction. “This was the food that the poor people used to eat during the civil war when they had nothing to eat,” he said.
It is something that can be made with the most humble of ingredients and which requires just time and preparation.
Next up is cod cheeks that are served with peppers, another very traditional basque dish. Then comes the woodcock that has been perfectly roasted and then cooked in a sauce. The flavour is intense and the meat just melts in your mouth and is simple to pull off the bone.
We can barely move now after the lunch at Azurmendi but there is still time for T-bone steak cooked to perfection. Luckily there is a team of chefs who are hungry.
He has invited his team leaders for the dinner in the txoko. They are a multinational team that come from the four corners of the globe. He tells us how important they are for him adding that nearly all have arrived at the restaurant as trainees.
He is sitting next to us and jokes there is still lamb to be served but luckily we are served the dessert, a rice pudding with milk, a traditional but heavy dish.
We are among the last to leave the txoko, the family had already said their goodbyes. It is nearly 1am. On the way to the hotel, we realise that there was no one to clean the dishes. Eneko was there with Matteo Manzini, his head chef and Iker Arando who accompanied us on our visit. The next day we see him in the morning and apologise for walking without at least offering to help in the cleaning up. “It’s ok,” he says. “It didn’t take too long.”
They had stayed for at least another hour into the night cleaning the dishes. Passion is also made of this.