San Sebastian’s Basque Culinary Traditions

San Sebastian Spain
San Sebastian, Spain

Eating Basque in San Sebastian: Three meals, hard cider, and a whole lot of pintxos

By Paul Shoul
Senior Writer

Sunset over San Sebastian. photos by Paul Shoul.
Sunset over San Sebastian. photos by Paul Shoul.

It is a blustery afternoon in April driving through the hills above San Sebastian.

Dappled sunlight peeks through the clouds projecting on to a rolling landscape of scattered homes, perched on hillsides to face the view of the mountain valleys and patches of bright green meadows kept manicured by small herds of sheep.

I have been invited by my Basque friend Jakoba to his family’s annual dinner at his home. He keeps pigs and oxen and horses.

He has an organic vegetable garden, apple trees, and the first part of our day will be spent working in his small vineyard. Gradually the family arrives with offerings for the meal and the legendary Basque culinary skills come into action.

The first order of business for every new arrival is the offering of the first of what will become many glasses of natural hard cider. April is cider season in San Sebastian and Jakoba, who has a weekly call-in radio show on agriculture and all things Basque, is a man on a mission to promote and revive cider’s history. He is well stocked.

The Men and the Grill

The men start to grill. They have brought chorizo, the smoky paprika infused sausage, and thin cuts of bone in pork, beef loin, and thick blood sausages. Other cooks crowd around the stove preparing fried croquet’s of salt cod, roast peppers sautéed with onions and scrambled eggs with cod.

The rest of the family helps with making a platter one of my favorite tapas, the Gilda (lollipop). It is simply a green olive, an anchovy, and a Guindilla (A vinegar-soaked green Chile pepper) on a toothpick.

There is a massive platter of them placed alongside plates of home-cured tuna in olive oil and a mound of thinly sliced Iberico ham and bread. This meal will not end until the last person stops eating and Jakoba’s mother has just dug into another large plate of the intense blood sausage. It goes on for five hours.

Grilling chorizo basque style. photo by Paul Shoul.
Grilling chorizo basque style. photo by Paul Shoul.

Basque Culture Explained

A Valencian friend used himself in comparison to explain the Basque culture to me. Valencia he said is a crossroads, the city thrived on the people passing through. “It is easy for us to love a stranger but we might not remember you in the morning.”

The Basques on the other hand have survived by being a closely-knit group. “It is harder to get in, but when you do they will love you forever.”

Finally, dessert begins. My friend and I produce the huge pastry “milhojas”, (a thousand leaves) we have brought, (the specialty of the local Pasteleria Aguirre,) and start carving it up for the crowd. The ladies look over and nod with approval. Later one of them takes me aside and invites me to her family’s home… I’m in.

Kayaker on the streets of San Sebastian, Spain. photo: Paul Shoul.
Kayaker on the streets of San Sebastian, Spain. photo: Paul Shoul.

My friend and ticket into this family is Professor Jacqueline Urla, an anthropologist working in San Sebastian on historical memory and Basque language preservation.

She told me once that “food in the Basque country and Spain still exist within a cultural dynamic.” As I look around this table I wonder what the differences and or similarities are between their culture and mine.

The food here is the story of their past told through cooking, similar in many ways to the unique dishes at my family’s Passover dinner, except that this is not a religious holiday and although this is a large gathering, in the Basque country this is common fare and an everyday ritual.

These folks like to gather and eat and it’s hard to keep up with them.

European Capital of Culture

San Sebastian is located within the Basque country on the Bay of Biscay in northern Spain. A city of over 180,000, it is a popular summer resort and currently on the short-list in competition for the European Capital of Culture in 2016.

It is easy to see why many consider this one of the great cities in the world. It is sophisticated and cosmopolitan yet completely people and pedestrian-friendly.

Fisherman going out to sea in San Sebastian, Spain. photo by Paul Shoul.
Fisherman going out to sea in San Sebastian, Spain. photo by Paul Shoul.

The city partially encircles a small bay with three beautiful beaches, La Concha, Ondarreta and La Zurriola. The waves are good and surfers abound. La Concha is the most popular, named for its resemblance to a scallop shell. The feeling of community from the family table at my first dinner seems to extend to the whole city.

If the love of food has ever reached a spiritual level, it is here. San Sebastian has more Michelin star restaurants than any other city in Spain and is the Tapas Mecca of the world. The streets are lined with small independent restaurants and Pintxo (Basque for tapas) bars that are gathering places for a parade of the whole community.

A walkway borders and connects all the beaches and every afternoon the city comes out to stroll along the coast. Often you will see whole families pushing their ancient ones along with them in wheelchairs. I stayed next to the Plaza de Gipuzkoa right near to my favorite part of town La Parte Vieja, just a minute from the beach. The old section is a maze of stone-lined streets. My first mission was to hit the Pintxo bars.

There is a tradition called the Tapeo (bar hopping to us) You have one or two Pintxos, a glass of the house wine or a short beer, and say hello to everyone. Based on trust you eat what you want from the platters that cover the bar, and then tell them what you had, move on the next place and repeat. Here are a few of my favorites, all of them are within a 10-minute walking distance from the city center:

Bar Astelena. (near Plaza Construction) very traditional fantastic grilled squid with caramelized onions, two

Pinxtos in San Sebastian, Spain.
Pinxtos in San Sebastian, Spain.

sauces, and roasted red peppers.

A Fuego Negro. (31-de Agosto). Modern and hip the tapas and the atmosphere were great. Although upscale and creative I had a very fine traditional tortilla de papa that was perfect.

La Cuchara de San Telmo, (31 de Agosto 28). This little place is crowded and popular, known for its hearty meats. I had a small chunk of caramelized foie gras in an applesauce reduction to die for, or from.

Restauraunte Cafe Oquendo (Calle Okendo 8, 20004). Very congenial and relaxed, I had the best wine of my stay here, a Ramon Bilbao along with my first of many Gilda’s. They also make a mean gin and tonic.

Bar Gorriti: (C. San Juan 3, Parte Vieja, 20003). Right across the street from the La Brecha Market food stands, it reminded of my hometown workingman hangouts but with a stunning bounty of traditional Pintxos on the bar.

In the center of everything, the bartenders pour the local Taxoli wine from high in the air. Better yet order a glass of local cider from the fridge in the back.

From the Better to the Best.

On the way to my next meal, I had the pleasure of first spending some time in the kitchen of Restaurant Mugaritz. Opened in 1998 and under the direction of Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz since 2006, they just took third place on the list of 2011 San Pellegrino Worlds 50 best restaurants.

I talked with Dani Lasa and Oswaldo Oliva about their ideas on food as they were putting together their new menu.

Chef Oswaldo of Mugaritz.
Chef Oswaldo of Mugaritz.

Mugaritz strives to be a total dining experience. According to Oswaldo, food to them is a language and their Michelin stars and lofty position in the restaurant world have given them a platform to spread the word. They are involved in promoting food sustainability and travel the world teaching and gathering techniques.

Oswaldo apprenticed at El Bulie, under Ferran Adria and Andoni was a full member of the team, but they seemed far less dazzled by techno molecular tricks, focusing on a truly artistic presentation using products at the height of freshness enhanced with skilled combinations and preparation.

Just back from China Oswaldo was quite excited about a large pot of boiling peanuts simmering behind us. The menu is fixed (approx 140 euro) and adjusted daily according to what is in season. What they can’t find from local producers they grow themselves or get from environmentally sustainable sources.

The restaurant is sparse and simple based on a philosophy that “comfort is the lack of things that are in your way” The dishes they were working on were stunningly elegant.

Mugaritz may be climbing to the top of the world’s culinary mountain, but in my opinion, almost any home kitchen in the Basque country is already there. We headed for the town of Arraiotz for lunch, but first made a quick stop in the mountain town of Lesaka at Restaurant Kasino (Plaza Vieja 23), for a glass of wine and smoked sausage pintxos. (About 6 euros). It seems to be a tradition here that you eat before you eat. “That will ruin your appetite” is not in their vocabulary.

Lunch at Xabi and Beatriz Oter's house fresh sardines.
Lunch at Xabi and Beatriz Oter’s house fresh sardines.

Our lunch would be at the gracious invitation to the home of Xabi Otero and his fabulous wife Beatriz. Xabi is a gifted photographer graphic artist and author. Their ancient home is aptly named. Jauregia (The castle).

This was a memorable meal. First, we had freshly filleted sardines in a simple egg wash lightly fried in olive oil with salt. Then a hearty pasta dish with tomato onion chorizo and bacon, and finally a whole Muxarra, a meaty flavorful fish seared in oil, garlic, and steamed in its own juices.

For dessert, goat cheese, and apple paste. In his recent article in Food Arts magazine March 2011 “A Basque Trilogy”, my friend Gerry Dawes expressed my feelings about meals like this better than I could, writing,

“Such dishes, because of their exquisite simplicity and pure flavors, remain etched in memory long after many of the cocina de vanguardia pyrotechnics evaporate like an espuma in the dessert”

The Cider House’s Rule

The Basques are legendary seafarers. They were not only onboard La Gallega, the flagship of Christopher Columbus’s first journey to the Americas, they built the boat. Basques were fishing for cod and whales in Newfoundland long before Columbus ever set foot on the Continent.

Cider house feast.
Cider house feast.

These were long campaigns of over six months at sea to the new world. Sailors were allotted two to three liters of hard cider a day, drunk in preference to water. Multiply that by 80 men per boat and it starts to add up. To this day the region produces some of the finest natural hard cider on the world.

There is a cider renaissance happening now. Producers, growers associations and the Kalitatea Foundation have organized together to launch the new Eusko Basque cider label.

Similar to a DOP (Denominacion de Origen) it is a mark of quality control certifying cider that it is natural and made from local apples.

The Last Supper

My last meal in San Sebastian was with a group of 20 friends who had arranged dinner at a private small production (clandestine) cider house. There are many cider house restaurants (Sagardotegi) that you can visit year-round, but between January and May when the cider from the previous harvest reaches maturity is the time to experience one of the world’s coolest gastronomical traditions right at the source.

Txotx! drinking from the barrel at a Basque cider house. photo by Paul Shoul.
Txotx! drinking from the barrel at a Basque cider house. photo by Paul Shoul.

The meal that goes along with the tasting always includes the Basque basics of salt cod and grilled meat, with nuts and sweet Quince paste for dessert.

A long table was set up near the cider barrels and we commenced to feast. The highlight was the tradition of calling the “Txotx”, the signal for everyone to crowd around the cider barrels with their glasses in hand.

A small spout is opened and fresh cider bursts out of the barrel in a long arch that you must catch with your glass, as the next person waits with their glass just behind yours to catch the stream.

People develop their own style and flair to filling a glass, each new one greeted by cheers and applause.

Cider is best poured in small amounts of a gulp or two. I repeated this over twenty times that night. It was definitely the best time I had on the whole trip. A fitting end to eating San Sebastian.

How to get there

I took an 8 hour overnight flight on Iberia airlines from Boston to Madrid, connecting to a short one hour flight to San Sebastian. From the airport you can grab a cab or a public bus into the city from the stop across the street from the airport.

Xabi otero books

Kalitatea foundation the organization promoting cider in the region.

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