I’m no philistine, but I have yet another reason for paying a visit to the city; and that’s the food. Sixteen Michelin stars –shared among nine restaurants – twinkle enticingly above the city of 186 000. What that means is that in relation to its size, and surpassed only by Kyoto, San Sebastián has the second-highest density of culinary stars in the world. So the question that needs addressing in the obvious way is this: Is the food in San Sebastián really as good as its reputation?
On a first reconnoiter, this would appear to be so. Even regular bars have champagne bottles reclining in their coolers alongside chunks of delicately marbled beef loin and lavishly garnished oyster platters. Fresh goose liver is so commonplace here that it is served fried on baguette, and rare goose barnacles and bellota ham, both sold at La Bretxa Market for over 100 euros a kilogram, are soon snapped up by eager buyers. In the evening, crowds of people gather outside the bars on the narrow streets in the city’s quaint old town, a glass of Basque txakoli wine in one hand and – in the other, a small plate of pintxos de Donostia (pinchos = skewers) – the bite-size Basque variation on Spanish tapas in the other. I suddenly feel the urge to keep wandering from place to place, but I’m here because I have people to meet.
“Salud!” Gabriella Ranelli hands glasses of vermouth and soda around, a classic Spanish aperitif that is currently experiencing a massive revival. Ranelli raises her glass to us. We, a motley crew consisting of two Belgians, one American, a Scot, four Spaniards and two Germans, are sitting at the table – beautifully decked out in white – on the second floor of an unremarkable residential building in the old town. To show the world what San Sebastián’s chefs are capable of, the 52-year-old organizes culinary tours of and cooking courses in the city. She also recently began hosting dinner parties on the premises of her agency, Tenedor, at which local cooks have the opportunity to demonstrate their skill. Everyone is welcome – you just have to find out the details on Ranelli’s Facebook page and secure one of the highly coveted places. At the stove today is 32-year-old Iñigo Zeberio, a graduate of the famous Basque Culinary Center. His best teacher, he says, was his grandmother. As a child, he would watch her at work in the kitchen, and when she died, he inherited her cookbooks.
But what is so special about the salsa verde Zeberio is preparing on the stove? It’s a fish stock that he has boiled up from the bones, skin and heads of fish, with a little flour blended in and some chopped parsley. I could do that, I think to myself. Later, he cooks hake fillets and sautéed potatoes in the sauce. It’s a simple recipe, typical of the Basque Country, where local produce is served in as natural a state as possible. And the result tastes truly delicious, light and fresh, like the ocean and a ray of sunshine. I couldn’t have done that! Laughter wafts in through the open window of the kitchen-cum-living room, accompanied by snatches of conversation from the bars below. Zeberio serves the next course: a colorful blossom salad with mushrooms and berries, iberico pork with piperrada, a stew made from bell peppers and tomatoes, rounded off by a dessert of delicate chocolate mousse with lemon sorbet. Things can only get worse after this. San Sebastián’s love affair with good food does not begin at the table, as I discover the following morning – and not at the stove, either. It begins at first contact with the ingredients.
I am standing on board the Oribay, the fishing boat belonging to Iñaki Alberdi, 39, who takes it out onto the sea every day, fishing with a rod and line instead of a net. “Slow fishing,” that’s Alberdi’s philosophy. He’s not interested in catching fish en masse, but in sourcing seasonal specialties like sardines in April or mackerel in May. In the winter, Alberdi pulls in mainly squid, which he either sells to restaurants, or stews slowly at home in their own ink with onions, garlic and white wine.
There is absolutely no need to haul certain kinds of fish out of the ocean by the ton, he says. And you can transform unpopular species into wonderful dishes, too. “We need to take care of nature. Fish need time to reproduce.” In an effort to spread the word about sustainable fishing – and as a business sideline – Alberdi invites paying guests to join him on his fishing trips. On board, he explains to them his style of fishing, at the same time pointing out the glorious view of his beautiful city from the water.
But why are the people of San Sebastián so crazy about good food? I ask myself and others this question when we are back on dry land. “No one has the answer, not even the anthropologists, who have tried in vain to explain our outstanding culinary culture,” Elena Arzak tells me. The 46-year-old is one of the world’s few female three-star chefs, and she shares ownership and the running of the Arzak restaurant with her father, Juan Mari. “It’s simply a fact that you’ll find excellent food all over San Sebastián, even in ordinary restaurants and people’s homes,” she says. “Food is important to the Basques, and even people with an average income eat here regularly.”
Was it the large, affluent families from Madrid, who came here to enjoy the pleasures of the Atlantic coast in the 19th century? Did the sophisticated lifestyle they brought with them to San Sebastián include high culinary expectations? Or has the sheer wealth of excellent ingredients from the mountains and the ocean inspired Basque mothers to pamper their children with elaborate treats since time immemorial? Perhaps the expectations of its epicurean citizens and its chefs’ ambitions interacted to send standards soaring ever higher? At any rate, Arzak’s great-grandparents opened their first restaurant in 1897 as a simple tavern. Almost one hundred years later, Elena’s father, Juan Mari, who is generally regarded as the inventor of nueva cocina vasca, became only the second Spanish chef ever to cook his way to three Michelin stars.
Standards are high not only at star-studded restaurants, but also at comparatively ordinary eateries, like the A Fuego Negro, a little place with bare brick walls, a DJ and black tablecloths. “We wanted the kind of place we ourselves would go to,” says Amaia Garcia de Albizu, who set up A Fuego Negro with her brother Edorta Lamo, 36, “and where the food is simply fun.” The result is a blend of bar and restaurant, a laid-back atmosphere and excellent fare, traditional pinchos and modern Basque cuisine. I pop an olive filled with bittersweet vermouth jelly into my mouth – delicious! Thanks very much, I’ve got no more questions.
My final appointment is another private dinner, this time at 27-year-old Cristina Castellanos’ place. She signed up to the EatWith online network and now receives a visit at least once a week from different gourmets she has never met before. Like salsa verde virtuoso Zeberio, she is a graduate of the Basque Culinary Center; and like him, she focuses on Basque culinary traditions. With the aperitif, she serves the classic among pinchos: gildas, tiny skewers, each with an olive, a rolled-up anchovy filet and a few pale-green peppers. Truly delicious – salty, spicy and sour, a very moreish combination. And they are really easy to prepare. “True,” says Castellanos, “but you need good-quality ingredients!” and that means: manzanilla olives, guindilla peppers and anchovies caught in the Bay of Biscay.
Here in San Sebastián, these fantastic ingredients can all be purchased at any grocery store. I am going to take some of them home and serve them as Basque specialties. But I won’t be able to take with me the salty ocean air that blows into the city across the sweep of the bay, the mild climate or the laughter of the people gathered outside the bars. Those things I’ll miss.