Discovering San Sebastian’s gastronomic societies

One of my favourite things about spending time with local people when travelling is that you always end up seeing a different side to a place. When I travel as well as seeing the famous sights, I also want to get a feel of what it’s like for people who live in the country, even if it’s just a glimpse of their day to day lives.

During my career break I was lucky to meet some amazing people during my nine months of travel and I ended up having some fantastic experiences as a result. These include going to church in China (a slightly strange experience, which resulted in everyone in the congregation hugging me), staying in a stranger’s house in a village in Burma and gate-crashing a geisha tea party in Japan.

So I have already told you what an amazing guide Maria was on our Urban Adventure tour of San Sebastian. But what I didn’t tell you about in my last post was that we met up with her again a couple of days later in her home town of Zarautz.

Zarautz is just a half hour journey from San Sebastian and is easy to reach by either bus or train. It is famous for its culinary scene and is home to the popular Spanish chef Karlos Arguinano. But what we had gone to see was the sociedads – the gastronomic societies Maria had told us about on our tour. As soon as she mentioned the private members dinner clubs we were intrigued. A place where you can go and cook for a huge group of friends, with an honesty box payment system and someone to do all of your washing up? It sounded like our perfect place!

Maria told us that these clubs are dotted around San Sebastian, but they are sometimes hard to spot if you don’t know what you are looking for. Suddenly the cosy looking restaurants we’d glimpsed through partially closed doors in the town began to make sense. There had been a number of occasions as Mr A and I got lost down one side street or another, that we’d come across a partially open door which seemed to lead into a large dining room, but we couldn’t figure out what they were. Now we knew!

The next question was how could we get into one? Being a journalist I am inherently nosy, especially if I know that there’s something which is off-limits! However this is the bit that isn’t so easy. Members clubs are, funnily enough, only for members or their friends. So this was where the lovely Maria came in. Having bonded over shared love of food, she offered to show us her club.

We took the bus over to Zarautz early and enjoyed a breakfast overlooking the sea.

Then we met Maria and she took us to our first stop of the day. The market in Zarautz is small and definitely local. Everybody know everybody and Maria stopped often along the way to talk to friends. We even spotted Karlos Arguinano being followed around by his admiring fans!

Maria entertained us as we looked around with stories about the various characters. My favourite of whom was the anchovy seller who sat behind the fish counter slumped over her basket, only raising her head every once in a while to shout “an-cho-vy” in her morose way. Maria told us that she was younger she used to walk through the streets with a basket of fish on her head shouting the same thing.

From the market we went to a little square which was filled with tables from the surrounding bars. In front of us was a modern looking shop front, with just the name of the club on it.

San Sebastian's gastronomic societies

Maria invited us in and downstairs explained to us how everything works. In the kitchen a club member was busy preparing dinner for 20 guests and clearly did not want to be disturbed, although he did allow us to take a quick photo. Oh and the best thing about the sociedads? The men do all of the cooking!

Maria showed us the well-stocked fridges and the envelopes that members use to pay for the drinks they have had during the evening and explained to us how the membership worked.

I absolutely love the idea of the sociedads and felt very lucky that we got the chance to have a sneak peek at one. And I must admit, as someone with a very small dining area at home, I did spend most of the way home trying to persuade Mr A that we should set up a UK version!

For a round-up of our mini-moon in San Sebastian, check out this post and you can find out more about our AirBnB experience in the town here.