Traversing from one side of Spain to the other was easy thanks to Renfe. We caught the 10.05 am train from Barcelona and arrived in San Sebastián some 5 hours later. Interesting to see the countryside change as we flashed past, and even more interesting to see this country’s commitment to alternative energy – wind farms dot the landscape throughout the journey.
We were blessed by bright sunny skies for our two days in San Sebastián. Everyone told us how lucky we were as apparently rain is more the weather du jour – and the locals certainly make the most of the sunny skies; the beaches were packed. Strolling along the bay was glorious:
Our visit not only coincided with sun but also stars, although we failed to actually spot any – it was the San Sebastián film festival and although I was tempted to drop into one of the cinemas I resisted the impulse.
But the highlight of our brief stay was without doubt the food, which is perhaps not surprising given San Sebastián holds, per capita, the second highest number of Michelin star restaurants in the world. We approached this food capital in two ways – 3 star Michelin and at the opposite end of the scale, Pintxo bars. I strongly suggest you do not proceed with reading this post if you are hungry!
Our high end choice was Arzak, rated the number 5 restaurant in the world. The kitchen is run by Elena Arzak, together with her father, Juan Mari Arzak. Elena, a fourth generation chef, was voted the top female chef in the world in 2012.
Yes it was expensive, but the food was amazing and there was a generosity of spirit about the whole experience – from the maitre d’ suggesting we choose different dishes from the tasting menu so that we could share (and insisting that if we didn’t like anything to say so immediately and they would replace it), adding in extra dishes, to the topping up of the wine, to the visit to the table by Elena herself (and she was at the door to say goodbye when we left). It was truly a wonderful way to officially end my 60th birthday celebrations.
I have to admit to not actually knowing what I was eating a lot of the time, but who cares – it was delicious.
We started with a set of appetisers:
Moringa & prawn gyoza
Beetroot infused apple:
Cromlech, manioc and huitlacoche (whatever they are?!)
Spider Crab ‘rock’
Red space egg
The Big Truffle (which the boys had, too rich for us girls)
Melon and jujube (for the girls)
The next day we had to do lots of walking – both to wear off the previous night’s excess, and to work up an appetite for our Pintxo tour that evening (http://www.sansebastianfood.com/en/food-tours-and-events/daily-tours/pintxo-hunting). We assembled at the San Sebastián Food store at 6.30 pm and met our guide, Vicki, and the other ‘gluttons’ on our tour – another couple from Melbourne, an Israeli couple and a couple from California. Ten in all, we set off for a number of Pintxo bars in the old town.
According to Vicki the done thing is to bar hop, sampling one or two Pintxo in each. In each bar we visited she selected for us what she considered to be the speciality of the house, washed down with a matching glass of wine (she also tried us on the local cider, but to our palate it tasted not too dissimilar to vinegar, so we stuck to wine).
Our first stop was Bar Sport, Calle Fermin Calbeton, where we sampled Txipi Relleno (Squid Stuffed with Spider Crab) and Guindillas de Ibarra (Ibarra Peppers) and Txakoli White Wine, which is a particular speciality of the area around San Sebastián. The wine is poured from a height into the glass ( a bit like pulled tea in Asia); it is light and slightly bubbly.
Next stop was Goiz Argi, Calle Fermin Calbetón for Brocheta de Gamba (Prawn Skewer), and Mari Juli (Green Pepper, Salmon and Anchovy) with a trial of the Sidra (Cider) and a much more palatable glass of Verdejo (White Wine):
Next was Borda Berri, Calle Fermín Calbetón – this bar was somewhat different in that the Pintxo were not on display. Their speciality is grilled and cooked Pintxo, so they are cooked to order. Here we had Pulpo (Octopus with Quince Jelly) Carrilleras (Veal Cheek braised at low temperature) and Rissotto de Idiazábal (Idiazabal Cheese Risotto, which was actually made with risoni ), washed down with a lovely Rioja Red Wine.
On the way to the next bar we passed a txoko, or Gastronomic society, as a gentleman was leaving. Vicki took the opportunity to ask if she could show us inside. A txoko is a members only cooking club that runs like a communal private kitchen or dining hall. The member invites guests for dinner at the club, and makes use of the large commercial kitchen to do the cooking. They were established as a way of keeping the Basque cooking traditions alive, and traditionally only men can be members. Txokos are stocked with dinnertime essentials — olive oil, coffee, wine — and members are entrusted to use the honor system to pay for what they’ve consumed in an evening:
Onwards and upwards (you can imagine that chat between the ten of us is now flowing fast and furious as we become increasingly lubricated) to Sirimiri, Calle Mayo for Secreto Iberico (Pork), and Croquetas de Solomillo (Beef Croquetes), accompanied with another red from the Rioja. We were then treated to a divine dessert tapas, called Torrija (French Toast served with Honey Ice Cream).
Our final stop for the night was La Viña, Calle 31 de Agosto for the BEST Tarta de Queso (Cheesecake) I have ever tasted, washed down with a lip smacking glass of Pedro Ximenez.
It is now 10 pm – we have tasted some terrific food and sampled some great wines. We have made new friends, and learnt much about the Basque culture from our enthusiastic and charming guide, Vicki. Would highly recommend this tour when next you find yourself in San Sebastián.
There is still so much food to explore in this remarkable city, but Bilbao is calling.