Basque in glory

San Sebastian boasts more Michelin-starred chefs than anywhere else in the world. Sally Webb and Simon Thomsen took a culinary tour around Spain’s food mecca.

Two small white envelopes on the table at Mugaritz offer a choice. On one “150 min… rebel!” is typed; on the other “150 min… submit!” Inside “rebel”, a card says: “150 minutes to feel embarrassed, flustered, fed up…” It sums up our mood on arrival at this gracious restaurant, supposedly 20 minute’s drive from San Sebastian, after getting horribly lost despite ringing twice for directions. Ninety minutes late, we eventually pull up at a stone farmhouse surrounded by fields full of haystacks shaped the way Monet loved to paint them. As a result of our tardiness, our meal in the spacious and slightly rustic dining room is a truncated version of Mugaritz’s usual 11-dish parade, but we choose to submit and let the humour and cleverness of this remarkable restaurant lift our spirits.

The two words – submit and rebel – sum up the Basque spirit: fiercely independent and free-spirited, yet practical and politically savvy. Basques would opt for both. The region, which straddles the French and Spanish borders, has been seminal in shaping Europe’s worldview and the world itself. Indeed it was a Basque navigator, Juan Sebastian Elcano from Getaria, a fishing village west of San Sebastian, who fulfilled explorer Ferdinand Magellan’s vision to circumnavigate the globe.

San Sebastian, the capital of the Spanish Basque region – Pais Vasco in Spanish, or Euskadi in Basque – has been a thriving seaside resort since the 19th century when Queen Isabel II made sea bathing fashionable here. It is still immensely popular as a summer playground – Playa De La Concha is one of the world’s most beautiful city beaches ­– and as host to an annual international film festival whose 57th edition takes place in September. Known officially as Donostia-San Sebastian (Donostia is its Basque name), this city of 200,000 people is also regarded as the culinary capital of the world, boasting more Michelin stars per capita than anywhere else in the world. On this trip our sightseeing is of the gastronomic kind ­– we have come to eat and eat and eat some more – and Michelin star-gazing is top of the list.

But a bowl of warm stones? The first offering at the two-star Mugaritz is a witty conjurer’s trick that sets the tone for an astonishing meal. We bite into the softer pebbles, avoiding the marble ones they sit beside, and the crisp shell, made of a special clay that is said to aid digestion, reveals a creamy potato core. Chef Andoni Aduriz blends tradition and symbolism with the latest culinary techniques for a meal of surprise and delight. Aduriz, 37, was an apprentice to Ferran Adrià of El Bulli, regarded as Spain’s – and the world’s – best restaurant, however his food lacks the soul of his mentor’s intellect. The next course, “vegetable” carpaccio, is also an illusion. It mimics the Italian raw meat dish, but is actually watermelon – not that you know from the indeterminate taste – with a scattering of pine nuts, baby leaves and shaved Idiazabal, a local sheep’s milk cheese. Our meal wends its way from roast baby pig on nutty quinoa (a high-protein seed) with fermented leaves to three desserts, including chocolate cake beside a cocoa bubble bath. When what looks like a mint appears, we try to eat it before the waiter can arrive to pour hot tea over it. The lozenge expands, metamorphosing into a hand towel to conclude the meal. We won’t rebel again.

The genesis of San Sebastian’s golden culinary age can be traced back to the time of dictator Francisco Franco’s death in 1975. The Basques opposed fascism before the rest of the world understood its grim meaning. They paid a heavy price with the 1937 bombing of Guernica. For the next four decades, Franco suppressed Basque culture as well as Euskera, the Z, K and X-laced native language that makes the region bilingual and defines its people. Through its struggle to survive, the Basque country has thrived.

In his compelling book, The Basque History of the World, Mark Kurlansky attempts to understand the region’s mindset, describing Basques as mythical, with an ancient culture, yet unflinchingly progressive. They lay claim to pioneering everything from democracy to free trade, workers co-operatives and salt cod. Then there are the bragging rights to one of the world’s greatest buildings, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum at Bilbao, a previously listless industrial port transforming into a thriving cultural centre. Creativity and regeneration underpin Euskadi.

In 1975, 12 apostles of modern Basque cooking gathered to reassert their cultural identity through food. They included Juan Mari Arzak, Pedro Subijana (of the three-star Akelare restaurant) and Luis Irizar, the movement’s patriarch, whose cooking school, now run by his daughter Visi, continues to train both amateurs and professionals alike. Inspired by France’s nouvelle cuisine, the group met monthly for special dinners that gave a contemporary energy to traditional recipes. Modern Spanish cuisine was forged in passionate debates over these tables. The master of nueva cocina, Ferran Adrià, is a descendant of this time.

Juan Mari Arzak’s culinary heritage is remarkable. His grandparents opened a taberna in San Sebastian in 1897. His daughter, Elena Arzak Espina, is the fourth generation to ply the family trade on this site. For 20 years, their eponymous restaurant, on a road climbing through the suburbs, has held three Michelin stars. It ranks in the world’s top 10. Dad’s imagination continues to fire in Arzak’s test kitchen, where a library of 1500 ingredients is re-invented in new forms. Elena, 39, is his collaborator and heir apparent. Desiccation is a current infatuation.

In a crisply masculine space of black walls, we’re seated upstairs, where the sommelier marches past like a testosterone-laden toreador. Arzak’s waitresses, dressed in designer pinafores, bear the warmth. We opt for the degustation with enigmatically poetic dishes such as “meat on frost”, “fade away” and “lunar sweet”. It begins with a series of clever amuse bouche, including a vegetable “fossil”, lotus root sandwich with fish mousse and a black alabaster plinth of golden nuggets of mushroom and rice that explode in the mouth like pop rocks. Five infinitely clever, visually striking savoury dishes follow including a black plate of lobster claw on a white olive oil powder with a saffron sauce; sole with edible clay; and pigeon breast with Chinese wolfberries, plus tomato and potato, reshaped into puzzle pieces. The theatrical highlight is a dessert of baked pineapple with a volcano of ‘bubbling rum’. Pina colada is poured into a tall glass of dry ice creating a 45-second eruption across the plate. Elena Arzak is a gracious host and visits her diners for an amiable chat, explaining the intricacies of her food to anyone interested and championing her father’s legacy. It’s been an intelligent, fascinating and impressive meal, yet we feel strangely unmoved. Perhaps it’s just too clever.

Back on our first night in San Sebastian, we sought tradition at Saltxipi restaurant, a short walk from our plush boutique hotel, Villa Soro. Chef Ana Mari Añorga is the second generation of her family to cook there, while her son is on the floor. The food is straightforward, delicious and peppered with classics such as lightly fried Gernika chillies – more sweet than hot, but watch out for the occasional surprise – salt cod tortilla, gelatinous kokotxas (hake cheeks) with white parsley sauce and baked clams in wet, lemony rice. Saltxipi’s specialty is txangurro (spider crab); the sweet, splintered flesh is woven into salads, fried in croquettes or simply boiled. It’s an honest, well-priced meal. Our young children, dining out at 9pm, eat everything and are so well-behaved you’d swear they’re Basque at heart.

Our days begin to take on a particular rhythm: mornings exploring the city and region, lunch in a smart restaurant, a siesta, a stroll along the waterfront promenades at La Concha and Ondarreta beach, where a fine children’s playground is set in the beach sand. Then in the late evenings we trawl the downtown tapas bars.
For lunch one day we weave through a latticework of streets on the city’s suburban outskirts seeking Martin Berasategui’s eponymous restaurant. The chef has kindly marked the way with his distinctive logo of a toqued chef’s profile inset with a ladle.
The buildings stop suddenly to unfurl a splendid rural setting. Berasategui’s royal-blue flagship restaurant is awash with black-clad waiters and the trappings of fine dining: padded stands for handbags and toothbrushes in the bathroom. The menu lists the date for each creation and is filled with molecular wizardry – gels, foams, dehydration, Miro-like squiggles of sauce and puree – amid some heavenly combinations. Every dish is petite, so even dining à la carte is a mini-degustation. The “Great” degustation is 13 courses, starting with a vibrant peach gazpacho with cockles and txakoli, a quirky, spritzy Basque white wine. Roast red mullet with crisp fish scales is an extraordinary new dish, with a saffron-scented fish broth and what appears to be an olive but is a liquid gel filled with concentrated olive flavour. Celery ice-cream with a smear of beetroot, celery sprouts, mango and an eau de vie granita initially confounds then intrigues. His menu declares “I propose that you allow me to seduce you”. The chef appears to say hello to all his guests. He seems shy, moving on quickly, yet the memory of his cooking lingers.

Pintxos is the Basque word for tapas, although the locals claim they were first on that front too. Every evening, San Sebastian’s Parte Vieja (old quarter), the waterfront neck leading to Monte Urgull, between the river and La Concha, comes alive with revellers moving from bar to bar, grazing on small morsels. Across the river is the Gros quarter, where pintxos take on a more modern hue. There, the likes of Alona Berri add nueva cocina razzle dazzle to its nibbles, such as brandada – potato and salt cod – in a clam-like pastry shell.
Tonight our guide is Gabriella Ranelli de Aguirre, an expat New Yorker who fell in love with the region and a Basque man a decade earlier and now runs cultural and culinary tours. She counts San Sebastian’s galaxy of star chefs among her friends. The legendary must visit is Txepetxa, where vinegar-cured anchovies star in a kaleidoscope of combinations. There’s soccer on the corner TV. You can pick the locals by the hands on heads and over faces as Madrid and Barcelona battle it out. The wall is covered in media clippings; the crowd is international. The check-shirted barmen, slightly insouciant, shout orders to kitchen through a microphone like a ship’s captain bellowing orders to the engine room. Anchovies with olive purée appear, crab on bread and skewers of anchovy with pickled chillies. The barman theatrically pours txakoli from a great height. It’s fresh, acidic and lightly fizzy. It’s all fast, furious and fun.

At Casa Tiburcio we tuck into pig's ear, pig's trotter and beef cheek with apple sauce, before moving onto La Vina. It’s not the Parte Vieja’s best-looking bar, but the boys standing under the foil-capped jamons have quick smiles and a twinkle in their eyes. The chorizo a la sidra (in cider) and still-warm tortilla are delicious, but it’s the torta de queso (cheesecake), wantonly rich with an oozing creamy centre that is like a siren song. Our final stop is Bar Txurrut in Plaza de la Constitución for a nightcap of patxaran, a crimson Basque liqueur made from wild sloe berries and anise, served in a brandy balloon on ice. The square was historically used for bullfighting. The numbers on each balcony are a reminder that no matter who resides there, the traditional family owners retain the rights to the view the action from those balconies. You can almost hear the ghosts, but it could be the patxaran speaking.
By day, Parte Vieja is full of small joys to discover: La Koxkera, the salt cod shop; San Jeronimo, where you can watch la senora hand-make potato crisps, then buy a bag; the delicatessen Zapore Jai, with its vast range of Bellota (acorn fed) hams, lomo (cured pork sausages), cheeses and wines. You can even find a txapela, the beret many regard as French, which is truly Basque.

The next day from our rustic agroturismo at Monte Igeldo high on the coastal cliffs overlooking the lapis-lazuli-coloured sea than can transform to slate-grey as the weather changes its mood, we set off towards Bilbao, looking for Asador Extebarri. It has no Michelin stars, but last year made the World’s 50 Best Restaurants and counts Neil Perry among its fans. As we climb into the mist-covered hills and the dramatic, saw-toothed mountains of the Basque countryside, the graffiti proclaims it as ETA country. The once-feared, violent independence organisation called a ceasefire in 2006, but their patriotism continues raw and unabated.

Etxaberria means "new house''. It’s a wry joke that also plays on the Basque notion of the house as family identity. Chef Victor Arginzoniz, a man as painfully shy as he is brilliant, restored this 18th-century stone building in the village square 20 years ago. Jagged limestone peaks encase the setting. His octogenarian father grows most of the vegetables, while his wife, Patricia, runs front-of-house. His sous chef, Lennox Hastie, is a Brisbane boy, passing through, who stayed.

Arginzoniz ‘s food is simple and straightforward, yet carries its own drama as it lets great produce prosecute its merits. Everything is exquisitely perfumed with smoke from la brasa, the charcoal grill, or wood-fired oven. We start with a wedge of pungent, hand-churned sheep’s milk butter, covered in sulphurous volcanic salt. The sublime parade includes wild mushrooms, a single prawn – pulled live from a tank, just before cooking – smoky from oak wood, and an elegant take on txipirones, the Basque classic of baby squid and onion, before the most exquisite dish. A bowl of earthy, baked purple congo potato with smoky, creamy egg yolk, is capped with shaved white Alba truffle. It is prince and pauper in one. Then comes steak on the bone, wonderfully charred and flavoursome, from a 20-year-old grass-fed dairy cow, Hastie explains later. After apple tarte tatin with smoked sheep’s milk ice-cream, we understand why he couldn’t leave. Asador Extebarri is a rare gem.

For our final lunch, we head to Getaria via the slow, winding backroads that twist and cling to the river valleys, through industrial villages once famed for worker’s co-operatives, but now, like the rest of the world, grappling for relevance in a skittish global economy. The vibrantly painted fishing fleet plies its trade daily from Getaria’s small harbour. Fittingly, the village restaurants all feature outdoor wood-fired grills for cooking fish. Beside the 14th-century Gothic church where Juan Sebastian Elcano was baptised is Iribar, a small restaurant and hotel. The cheesy nautical décor doesn’t look like it’s been updated since the local hero went a-roaming. We order whole lupia (sea bass),which disappears outside to the grill returning (with the fishhook still in its mouth) wonderfully smoky, with crisply charred skin. In between, we’ve been entertained by txipirones in its own ink and roast octopus with paprika and honey as shafts of sunlight rake slowly across the church.

Amid such history, and such pleasure, there is no choice but to submit.

Where to stay

Villa Soro Avda de Ategorrieta, 61, San Sebastian 200013; +34 943 297 970;; doubles from €165, breakfast included.

Agroturismo Maddiola Rustic farmstay with amazing ocean views. Aita Orkolaga, 161, San Sebastian 20008, +34 652 703 128;; doubles from €57, breakfast €5.

Hotel Codina Contemporary, business-like 65-room property, next to Ondaretta Beach and the Palacio de Miramar. Avda. Zumalacárregui, 21. San Sebastián; +34 94 322 200; doubles from €85.

Where to eat

Calzada Vieja de Ategorrieta 3, Donostia- San Sebastián; +34 943 323 310; meal for two about €100

Otzazulueta Baserria, Aldura Aldea 20, 20100 Errenteria; +34 943 522 455; à la carte for two about €160; tasting menus € 85-130

273 Avenida Alcalde Elosegui, 20015 San Sebastian;
+34 943 278 465; à la carte for two, about €220; tasting menus €109-135

Martin Berasategui
Calle Loidi 4, 20160 Lasarte-Oria; +34 943 366 471; à la carte for two, about €200; tasting menu €155

Asador Etxebarri
Plaza San Juan 1, 48291 Axpe-Marzana, Atxondo-Bizkaia; +34 946 583 042; à la carte for two, about €140; tasting menu approx €100

Kale Nagusia 34, 20808 Getaria; +34 943 140 406; à la carte for two, about €90

Pintxos bars

These are just some of the many wonderful pinxtos bars.

La Viña
31 de Agosto, 3, Parte Vieja +34 943 427 495

Calle Pescadería, 5, Parte Vieja; +34 943 342 227

Casa Tiburcio
Fermin Calbeton, 40, Parte Vieja, +34 943 423 130. Celebrating its 80th year, an old-school bar (and Real Sociedad fans) with great offal.

Gandarias Taberna
Calle 31 de Agosto 23, Parte Vieja; +34 943 426 362. Classic pintxos and a good restaurant too, with great wines. Try txangurro tarts.

Bar Tamboril
Pescaderia, 2, Parte Vieja; +34 943 423 507. Try salt-cod stuffed peppers & battered prawns.

Aloña Berri
Calle de Bermingham 24, Gros; +34 943 290 818. In the Gros quarter. Flash, expensive and cutting edge. Try anchovy sorbet.

Mil Catas
Calle Zabaleta, 55, Gros; +34 943 32 16 56. Smart new-waver with streetside tables. Try creamy rice with wild mushies and foie gras.

El Lagar
Calle Zabaleta, 55, Gros, +34 943 320 329. Funky newcomer with good blackboard wine list. Try huevos estrellados (“crashed” eggs), a Madrid dish with potatoes and mushrooms.

Casa Senra
San Francisco, 32, Gros, +34 943 293 819. Try grilled squid with chestnut puree and baby blood sausages. 

What to do

Luis Irizar Cooking School
Five-day courses in July & August, in English. Mari 5, SanSebastian. +34 943 431 540.

57th San Sebastian International Film Festival
Imagine Cannes with better food, Pedro Almodovar and less artifice. September 18-27;

Chillida-Leku Museum
The grounds of the late Basque sculptor’s house, 10 minutes from San Sebastian. Jauregui 66, Hernani, +34 943 336 006;

Tenedor Tours 
Gabriella Ranelli de Aguirre takes private groups on gastronomic tours, +34 943 313 929;

Where to shop

Leclercq Sombrereria Narrica, 18, 20003 San Sebastian; +34 943 422 059. Keep the rain off with a wool Basque beret from this traditional hatters.

Kukuxumusu Mayor, 15, 20003 San Sebastian; +34 943 421 184. The Basque Mambo, which began in Pamplona 20 years ago. Grab a witty T-shirt for the kids.

Alboka For traditional handicrafts, linen and ceramics. Plaza de la Constitución, 8, San Sebastian; +34 943 436 300.

Zapore Jai Delicatessen San Jeronimo 21, San Sebastian; +34 943 422 882. Iberian ham, fish and shellfish conserves, foie gras and pates, cheeses, wine and cider.

Sala Nort Kale Nagusia, 22 20808 Getaria; +34 943 140 624. Delicatessen with preserved artisan foods of the village, especially octopus, bonito, anchovies and squid, plus wines.

San Sebastian recipies



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