I’m utterly mesmerised by the searing white heat of the most enormous outdoor grills I’ve ever seen, cooking more turbot than I can count. I catch the eye of Fergus Henderson, who winks wickedly with evident, greedy glee. I’m at the famed parilla of Elkano in the village of Getaria, just beyond San Sebastián, surrounded by many of London’s top chefs – including Jose Pizarro, Atul Kochhar and Isaac McHale, all of them similarly transfixed and snapping furiously with their phones.
Inside, we feast on sensational acorn-fed Jamon Ibérico Carrasco Guijuelo, grilled kokotxas (the celebrated Basque delicacy of hake throats: gelatinous, with a wisp of smoke from the grill; wobbly, juicy and saline, served with a pil pil, garlic and parsley sauce) and the turbot – served pearlescent and gently charred, obscenely fresh and unadorned. Then, without ceremony, the fish skeletons arrive, and are picked over, with much noisy sucking of cheeks and tails among the chefs. It couldn’t be a better way to celebrate the end of the year’s Gastronomika festival.
Prawns wrapped in spiky kataifi pastry were served on elaborate modernist metal sculptures, while a glass bottle of bitter raspberry puree, corked and infused with melon, was pure Alice in Wonderland
Visiting San Sebastián is like falling headily in love for a dedicated foodie. Of course, it helps that the setting of this coastal jewel of North-eastern Spain is stunning, with its shimmering scallop-shaped bay and sandy beaches. But first and foremost, I’d come to experience pintxos (pronounced “pinchos”), the Basque answer to tapas. I had been seduced by the idea of bars dedicated to anchovies – though visiting the most famous, Txepetxa, out of anchovy season turned out to be rather underwhelming. But I had no idea quite how bewildering, and teeming with bars, the maze of cobbled streets in the vibrant old town would be.
Now, normally, like any sane person, I’d recoil in horror at the thought of a guided bar tour, but city boy turned evangelical San Sebastián devotee Jon Warren, who’s now set up shop in the grand Hotel Maria Cristina running San Sebastián Food – a combination of tours, classes and a discriminatingly stocked gastronomic deli – came so highly recommended that I succumbed. My private two-hour txikiteo (pintxos crawl), led by vivacious San Sebastián local Eli Susperregui, took us to half a dozen house favourites over the evening. Each was totally different; there were absolutely no duds. In contrast, when I popped into a couple of bars with no guidance, I encountered sad, microwaved pintxos and flabby croquetas.
Eli also provided a crash course in pintxos etiquette: never betray yourself as a tourist by treating the spread as a buffet, but ask for the specials chalked up on the board. If you like the food, stay on and order more; otherwise, keep moving – particular bars have their own specialities. And while there are invariably a few seats in each bar, it is considered far cooler to stand and simply drop your used paper napkins on the floor.
A great place to start is long, narrow, bustling Goiz Argi, with its huge, juicy, succulent prawns cooked a la plancha, along with variations on the Basque Gilda (lollipop), traditionally made with anchovy, guindilla pepper and a green olive, and drunk with Txakoli, a gently effervescent local wine from Getaria. (“Gilda” takes its name from the movie of the same name, where Rita Hayworth’s eponymous character is, like the pintxo, spicy, sexy and salty.)
At Ganbara, a multi-generation family business, with father and son in the bar and mother presiding over the kitchen, the pintxos are resolutely seasonal: on my visit, there were huge platters of girolles and ceps, mixed with an intensely yellow soft-poached egg yolk, and an especial Basque delicacy of hake neck goujons in an ethereally light egg batter.
For the most creative, avant-garde pintxos, Zeruko is a must. Order DIY hoguera bacalao (bonfire salted cod), which comes on a wooden peg ready to cook on mini charcoal grills, with a toast of herb cream, parsley pearls and a test tube chaser of “lettuce juice”. Or try an exquisite lobster pintxo that unfurls into a rose under a cloud of smoke at the counter. There are green olives, stuffed with vermouth jelly, served in a quail-egg carton, and calamares crusted in squid ink and stacked like a child’s set of juggling rings.
The next day, I was thrilled to do a cookery course at a Sociedad Gastronómica, a traditional Basque culinary club, that’s usually open only to men, who come together to discuss food and cook communally with fully equipped kitchens and all the essential basic ingredients. San Sebastián Food has unearthed one sociedad where women are allowed. Together with chef Cristina and Eli, I shopped at Bretxa market, where the dexterity of the fishmongers and freshness of the fish is incredible, and enjoyed a messy hands-on demonstration of how to cook squid in black ink sauce (with added apple to thicken the sauce) and marmitako, a tuna and potato stew traditionally prepared at sea by fisherman. There was a terrific, boisterous atmosphere as other sociedad members arrived to cook for their friends too – including a couple of vets, whose dramatic stabbing of their lobster made me wonder about their vocation.
At the other end of the scale is the Serious Restaurant. San Sebastián is almost embarrassingly endowed with more Michelin stars per capita than anywhere else in the world – one star per 12,000 inhabitants, to be precise. I limited myself to two restaurants. Just out of town is the restaurant of Andoni Luis Aduriz – Mugaritz, an ultra-modern farmhouse where chefs pick ingredients from the vegetable garden. I’d sampled Aduriz’s food while he was guest cheffing in London, and it had seemed baffling. In situ, it fell into place: every one of the 22 courses was a delicate, innovative, intense experience, playing with nature, time and emotions. It’s all delivered with plenty of wit: there are crisp “fishbones” with lemon and cayenne, a rich toast of bone marrow with herbs and horseradish ash, an incredible scarlet ice that tasted like sucking the juice from prawn heads, and what appeared to be a crème caramel but was, in fact, outrageously savoury duck juice with wobbly tofu. Best of all for me were the poetic expressions of seasonal Basque ingredients, including red mullet in a butter of its own liver, almonds and bread and a dish entitled “The cow and the grass” – sensational beef with a verdant herb sauce.
Invariably diners get invited for a kitchen tour, and a chat with Aduriz. Be prepared, too, for a mid-meal “game” at the table; the winner (in this case, my son whose prowess with maths and card tricks gave him the solution) receiving a hefty dollop of caviar to accompany the next course. There’s playfulness, too, in desserts, culminating in a tower of wooden vessels, each housing a petit four representing one of the seven deadly sins.
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My expectations of Arzak were even higher. The legendary Juan Mari Arzak is internationally recognised as the culinary guru at the cutting edge of new Basque cuisine, while his charming daughter Elena was voted best female chef in the world 2012. The two retain a truly hands-on role at Arzak, taking orders as well as serving at the pass. They tease the best out of local Basque ingredients and traditions (pintxos bar Ganbara is among their favourites), while Juan Mari makes an important distinction between produce and ingredient, and strives to incorporate more unusual herbs, spices and condiments. Though Arzak is located in an unfashionable suburb of San Sebastián, and unexpectedly modest from outside, the interior, designed by Elena’s architect husband, is ultra-modern, dark and seductive, and the dining room’s polished concrete walls, with their fossil-like imprints of cutlery, are particularly striking.
Prawns wrapped in spiky kataifi pastry were served on elaborate modernist metal sculptures, while a glass bottle of bitter raspberry puree, corked and infused with melon, was pure Alice in Wonderland. Cromlech, manioc and huitlacoche is an extremely clever, highly inventive dish designed to be eaten like an ice-cream cone; a monkfish dish came encased in a spectacular bright green edible “balloon” of reduced fish stock and parsley, which was burst by the waiter at the table.
Desserts are playful too: marbles of chocolate are served with amaranth and oregano, and a huge and ugly ball of chocolate truffle is designed to resemble the other kind of truffle, albeit one of a phenomenal size. Joining us for coffee, Elena Arzak eloquently summed up the Basque approach to food as layered with what she called “mimo”: “It’s more than love. We treat gastronomy as we do our children: it’s at the heart of our culture, it’s all about cherishing and pampering, and we never stop thinking about it.” I nod at my eighteen year-old son across the table. I understand what she means and embrace it absolutely. C