Basque Country: A Culinary Expedition
A recent trip my fiancé and I took to the Basque country was supposed to be devoted to surfing—immersing ourselves the ocean, not in sightseeing or dining, was the goal of the journey. But after a few dips in the icy and surprisingly calm Atlantic, surfing didn’t seem like such a good idea, so we packed and left our little oceanside village to indulge in what the region is famous for: its cuisine.
The Basque country is situated on the northern coast of Spain, an area of lush, rolling green hills with the vivid blue sea almost always in the background. Crumbling castles, patches of dark forest, and secluded cottages create a stunning panorama for someone driving through its mountain roads.
The origin of the Basque people remains somewhat mysterious, as does that of their language, Euskadi, which has no relationship to Spanish. But Basques and Spaniards have several things in common, among them a strong, almost fervid, passion for food.
With a Michelin Guide in hand we started our tour in the old quarter of San Sebastian (Basque: “Donostia”), seeking out a dozen highly recommended spots. First on our list was Bar Martinez. We arrived late at night, but the place was still crowded with patrons dining on platters of beautiful pinxtos. Pinxtos—known as “tapas” in Spain—are small dishes. We started with safe choices: some calamari, a piece of bread with lightly marinated anchovies and olive oil, and they were excellent. But the real treat began when we asked the owner what the nuns next to us were eating—fried artichoke hearts stuffed with jamon Serrano (Spanish ham). We ordered four.
Hooked by the unique flavor of the artichoke heart, we started our hunt through the narrow cobblestone streets that date from the middle ages. Hundreds of pinxtos bars, each with their own specialty, beckoned from the winding alleys. There is nothing better to accompany those dishes then the local Txacoli, a crisp, fresh and zesty white wine that resembles a “vinho verde” or “muscadet”.
The next morning we awoke to the sound of rain. Fortunately, a place an elegant elderly lady and some of her friends had highly recommended was just steps away. Bar Raxtmundo offered the most impeccably prepared dishes I think I’ve ever seen. They are served in small portions to encourage experimentation—so I tried six. Even better, they were all affordable, costing about 3 euros each. Cod in an almond and fresh mushroom sauce was among the best pintxos the place offered. The cod was light and dense, and the nutty mushrooms complemented the taste of the sea perfectly. Next we tried a caramelized chicken breast with apple filling. It was mouthwatering: crisp on the outside, tender on the inside, and with a fruity, zesty flavor.
I have a propensity for regional specialties, so I dragged my fiancé to the local market in the town center. Next to a wide array of local cheeses we stumbled upon something curious, a slimy, red mass of…well, it was unlike anything I’d ever seen. It looked horrible, but I still wanted to know what it was. It turned out to be a local specialty—nugget size pieces from the jaw of the hake, known as Kokotxas. A culinary delight, and scrumptious when prepared with garlic sauce and parsley. Believe me, it tasted better then it looked!
After days of culinary indulgence, we felt as if we should walk off some calories (since they weren’t going to be surfed off). On a day with a cloudless blue sky, we hiked up Monte Urgull, a hill situated just at the end of the old quarter of San Sebastian. An old fortress, “Castillo de Santa Cruz,” sits atop the hill and offers an amazing view of the town and its sandy beaches.
In the early evening, we walked the beach promenade, contemplating the line of cream-colored, art-nouveau hotels and buildings. Old ladies with impeccable dresses and make-up, young families, couples in love, and loud teens all take a “paseo” around that time to meet friends, and of course to “see and be seen.”
I have no doubt we will be back to indulge in more pintxos and take more paseos. At the end of a trip to San Sebastian, you can only hope it won’t be your last. It’s that kind of place.
Basque Country Guide
Where to stay:
C/ Peña y Goñi, 2-1º dcha.
20002 Donostia-San Sebastian
Telf: 00 34 943 292 666
Fax: 00 34 943 297 536
Right next to the beach in a small street you will find hospitality and a clean colorful room with everything you need relatively inexpensively.
20001 Donostia-San Sebastian
Tel: 00 34 943 327 800
Fax: 00 34 943 326 707
Pension Aida is located near the train station, the New City Courthouse, the Conference Hall and the Kursaal Auditorium just a few minutes walk from the Old Quarter and the beaches.
Almda.Boulevard, 16-2º – 20003 – DONOSTIA-SAN SEBASTIÁN – Tel: 943 426449 – Fax: 943 433015 [email protected]
Where to eat:
Patio de Ramuntxo
Peña y Goñi Kalea 10 Donostia-San Sebastián
phone: +34 943 321 661
31 de Agosto, 13 – Donostia
T. 943 42 49 65
San Jerónimo, 21 – Donostia
C/ General Artetxe 8 – Donostia
the restaurant spin off of Martin Beresategui offers excellent prepared dishes with innovative touches and only local ingredients. Check out their lunchtime menu for 12-14 Euros
Gourmet Restaurants (very expensive – but worth for the ultimate splurge)
Alto de Miracruz, 21. (Donostia-San Sebastian)
Tel: 943 278 465- 943 285 593
Chef Juan Maria Arzak and Elena Arzak
Loidi Kalea, 4. (Lasarte) 6 Kms from Donostia-San Sebastián. Tel: 943 366 471
Things to Do:
Donostia-San Sebastián is the home city of the football (soccer) club Real Sociedad, who have recently been demoted to the La Liga Second División after 40 years in the Spanish top flight. The city’s Anoeta Stadium also hosts rugby union matches featuring Biarritz Olympique. Each summer the city is host to the well known bicycle race, the one-day Clásica de San Sebastián.
San Sebastián International Film Festival
The most important Spanish international film festival and one of the most important film festivals in Europe is held in this city, the San Sebastian International Film Festival.