A foodies guide to Europe’s culinary capital: San Sebastián
San Sebastián in northern Spain (Basque country to be precise), is by no way new to foodie or travel bucket lists.
I’d first really heard about this beachside city around 15 years ago when a good friend of mine travelled through that part of the country. I remember her saying it was, “really cool with lots of bars”. Back then, my palate wasn’t yet mature and my travel tastes weren’t nearly developed enough to know that San Sebastián is so much more than that.This is Spain’s – if not, the world’s – culinary capital. Only second to Kyoto in Japan, it boasts more Michelin star restaurants per square metre than Paris! Yet it’s a city of dining contrasts, dinner (as it was for me) could be at a classy 3 Michelin star establishment, or at a pintxos bar where you eat standing and it’s totally acceptable for napkins and even food scraps to be thrown on the bar floor.
Pintxos, in case you’re wondering, are this part of Spain’s equivalent to tapas. Bite-sized and designed to be eaten on your feet or on the run – no drawn out restaurant theatre here. But it’s theatre of another kind. Most pintxos bars operate on a ‘faith’ payment system. Individual morsels of snack are usually spread out along bar tops. Most feature toothpicks (pintxos in Spanish). You eat and then take your toothpicks to the bar staff and pay. You won’t have any trouble finding one of these bars in this part of the world – there are over 200 of them in the city!San Sebastián doesn’t really know bad food. With an abundance of fresh seafood from the Cantabrian sea and meat, fruit and vegetables from the surrounding terrain found in market stands and specialty food stores, people around here pride themselves on quality food, they expect it all the time and cook it with ease and skill. With Michelin star restaurants practically forming an industry here, young locals who aspire to work in food and hospitality have some of the best examples in the world. San Sebastián has put its stamp on food and is a culinary centre and is a dream destination for foodies the world over.
So, while I was in town, you guessed it – I ate!
My tips cover the pintxos and Michelin Guide scene, modern dining and a treat for those of you with a sweet tooth.
TAKE A FOOD TOUR
San Sebastián Food
Our friendly basque guide, Ane started off our foodie walk by explaining the difference between tapas and pintxos. She said, “Pintxos are different to tapas because they’re much much better.” And so with this, she had us laughing and talking from take off. We wound through the streets of the old town on a crawl like no other. We made six stops but tasted what seemed, an endless number of pintxos and small bites. From jamon and cheese to a mini slider burger to the classic prawn on bread to squid ink donuts. I could go on! All the way learning about Basque food culture and wine. Yes there was wine – lots of it and the very good quality local drop. The highlight was the sweet and final stop at La Vina. They make hundreds of their famous burnt cheesecake daily and you get a slice on tour! As the name would suggest, it’s a bit crisp and brown on the edges, but the inside is light and almost soufflé like. I had to go back for more the next night! Tours and classes run every day and start from around €100. More information at www.sansebastianfood.com.MODERN CUISINE
After reading all the reviews on Narru, I decided fairly quickly that ‘not’ dining here was not really an option. So we booked in for lunch and we weren’t disappointed. They take express 3 course lunch to a new level, with the whole meal done in under an hour. The precision in service is about as clean and sharp as the Scandinavian-esque style fit out. And I can say the same about the food. This is creative, contemporary Basque dining at its best and for under €50 you can have the lunch menu including water and a bottle of wine. The poached egg and cod was a delicious starter, but my main course was the highlight. The “Secret Iberico” is slow roasted and spiced pork – crispy on the outside and melt in your mouth on the inside. Located in the basement of Hotel Niza right on La Conca promenade, make sure you book!MICHELIN STAR DINING
Dining at a Michelin star restaurant around here is just about as common as a tourist hopping on a gondola in Venice. Of the 7 restaurants in Spain with the coveted 3 stars, San Sebastián is home to three of them (Arzak and Martin Berasategui are the other two). Located in the hills of city’s outskirts, the view and ambience here just about rivals the food. Our 9 course degustation, “The Classics of Akellare” was one of three tasting menus available and was orchestrated perfection from the lobster salad through to the whole-grain red mullet with “sauce fusilli” – homemade stuffed pasta shapes (like with basil oil). Oh and dessert was a decadent apple tart covered with branded edible paper. Need I say more! Our meal cost approx €250 inc wine.
OLD TOWN SWEETS
The smell of cocoa and sugar dragged me into this gourmet chocolate store before I even processed the display. Handmade daily, put simply, the chocolate in here is to die for. All varieties, white, milk and dark and a large selection of pralines – covering everything from nuts to spices to fruit. The Casa Armendia signature item is a paper cone filled with crunchy bits of chocolate covered nuts (I loved, loved the white choc covered hazelnut crush). Signing off from Trastevere,
Acknowledgements: I was a guest of San Sebastián Food for their Pintxos Food Tour. All thoughts expressed are my own – nobody tells me what to write.0