The Economist Intelligent Life Magazine (summer issue, 2006)
The Best in the West? By Bruce Palling
Culinary trends change and evolve like any other fashion. Until recently, the pilgrimage destinations for dedicated foodies were Paris, Lyons, San Francisco, Sydney, Bangkok, London….. with the slightly ahead of the curve people regaling us about obscure clubs and kitchens in Shanghai or Bologna. But from virtually nowhere, the new Mecca is now San Sebastián …. Basque San Sebastián? Well, the meals speak for themselves – the highest proportion of Michelin stars per capita anywhere (15 for less than 200,000 people at last count) and a local population that care more about cuisine than sport ... in fact, it IS their all-consuming passion. The biggest local festival – the Tamborrada in January – consists of members of Gastronomic Societies dressing up as chefs and parading around the town for 24 hours banging makeshift drums or carrying oversized knives or forks. Even taxi-drivers know who is up or down and which pintxos bar (Basque for tapas) has won the most recent award for culinary excellence.
What adds to this gastronomic Klondike is that the food quality permeates the entire range of restaurants, from the very top establishments (Arzak, Martin Berasategui, Mugaritz and Akelare) right down to the cramped pintxos bars that dot the old quarter of town. And not only that, Three star Michelin holders Martin Berasategui and Juan Mari Arzak actually hand out their own lists of favourite Pintxos places. As a consequence, there is a constant flow of news and intelligence about what everyone is either doing or culinary doors they are trying to open. The world is gradually catching up – the annual international gastronomy congress in San Sebastian, Lo Mejor de la Gastronomia, attracts all the super star chefs, from Ducasse to Trotter.
Even the grandest wine makers in Bordeaux admit that when it comes to their most refined vintages, it is all to do with the dirt – and in the case of San Sebastián’s awesome food, the produce is where it all begins. The central market, with its subterranean fish stalls, are a work of art. Where else can you observe glisteningly fresh fish laid on out their backs with oval shaped windows cut to display their guts, thus conclusively indicating which type of Turbot it is? And needless to say, the majority of fish here are line-caught. Fishmongers politely ask what your intended recipe is so they can recommend which fish you should purchase. The sea-faring traditions of the Basques are also honoured by the myriad ways they salt Cod, with the particular delicacy being the flesh from the cheeks. Cheese too, does not escape this passion with shops boasting of hard cheeses from specific valleys. (There are also strange prejudices –Basques adore eggs in all meals but consider cucumber to be strangely spicy. Neither do they ever use pepper.)
The leading foreign observer of these culinary developments is Gabriella Ranelli de Aguirre, an American-born resident who runs specialist arts and food tours. “I find San Sebastián cuisine has an amazing lack of artifice – they have taken the essence of every ingredient and to its optimum without the need of herbs and spices. People do not hold things to their chests. It’s like magicians spending time together and exchanging tricks.”
Curiously, the one Spanish chef that most people have heard of – Ferrán Adrià of Ell Bulli – does not really have an impact on Basque cuisine. His frenzied style of dozens of experiments in a single meal does not sit easily in such a tradition-bound place as San Sebastián. His nearest equivalent in terms of experimentation is Martín Berasategui, whose squid soup with its ink-filled croutons is extraordinary. But this is no wild eyed alchemist – his mantra is that one must always be true to ones traditions - “respect your ingredients, be humble and work hard” One of the most engaging conjurers is a thirtysomething radical who helps run La Cuchara de San Telmo, (“Not a pintxos place but a stand up restaurant”). The menu competes with chalked up cartoons and denunciations of BU$H. But the food doesn’t speak in slogans. An amazing confit of rabbit with fig sauce was worth the entire journey. He is also experimenting with confits of wild mushrooms and foie gras while Alex, his business colleague, was off in Ecuador doing something or other to spread social justice. They will not be standing still though “My back is beginning to hurt – we are ready to move on and reinvent ourselves”. The whole pintxos tradition means that friends will congregate in one particular one for its Serrano ham and then move to another to try its brochette of prawns – or specially cured octopus– all washed down with a harsh but addictive dry white wine called Txakoli.
This dogged belief in traditions and the region is personified by Restaurante Arzak, a nondescript shop house in an obscure outer suburb of San Sebastián. This unlikely venue is the powerhouse of Euskal Sukaldaritza Berria or New Basque Cooking. Juan Mari Arzak, the acknowledged father of modern Spanish cuisine, along with his charming daughter Elena, refuses to move to grander premises as this is where his parents and grandparents also ran a restaurant. Consequently, the restaurant feels more like a family kitchen than a Three Star Michelin establishment, though any inspection of the temperature controlled wine cellar extension or a room lined with 1500 herbs and spices from around the globe belies this. The food is subtle with touches of humour but no attempts at sensory trickery. The rust-coloured line of paste next to the truffle infused poached egg tastes more like a sausage than the real thing.
This effortless approach to food is actually the end product of thousands of hours of dogged experiments, often involving informal groups of friends who give their honest opinions before any dish is presented to the public at large. There might be an idea taken from Vietnamese rice but it will be painstakingly adapted to local tastes and preferences.
While Arzak is ruthlessly honest to his cuisine, he happily acknowledges that his real inspiration came from time spent with Paul Bocuse in the Seventies – “He opened a new world to me because he basically taught me that you can do anything you want to. Bocuse also empowered chefs by his self importance and the founding of nouvelle cuisine.”
The real reason that San Sebastián cuisine is alive and kicking is the way this devotion filters throughout the entire society. The latest chef to have an impact is Gorka Arzelus of Agorregi, a neat contemporary restaurant perched in what looks like an industrial estate. Arzelus cooks extraordinarily delicate food at astonishing prices (A sumptuous meal for three with ample wine for less than E150). Black pudding with foie gras or simple roast pigeon show that he is in line for a star quite soon. And yet, he has never been to El Bulli or even Paris.
Because of the profusion of extraordinary produce and seafood, it is rare to eat in a restaurant without having what amounts to a tasting menu. Berasategui believes that the reasoning behind this is that it is the best way to let people know the variety available. “It is possible to give out much more information this way.” Despite this devotion to constant refinement and truth in cuisine, Arzak remains convinced that this is not the whole picture. “There have been many changes here in the past 15 years but the most important element for cooking is emotion not technique – sheer effort is not enough.” Gabriella Ranelli describes it as the “mimo effect” – the name for parental love for babies – a combination of cooing, pampering and adoring. “Essentially, that is how Basques relate to food.”