We are standing on what the New York Times calls “one of the best 12 foodie streets in Europe” – 31 de Agosto in San Sebastian’s Old Quarter (Parte Vieja) trying to get our bearings on where to eat. The Brits have their pubs; Italians their espresso bars, and San Sebastians their pintxos bars where they serve tiny appetizers often small enough to fit in the belly of a spoon, but packed with explosive taste. We soon discovered that four stops along the pintxos trail means we could skip lunch or push dinner back late into the evening Spanish-style while our taste buds recovered.
The pintxo (Basque for tapas) debuted in 1946 when Rita Hayworth’s flirty little film Gilda arrived on the international cinema scene, inadvertently becoming a culinary aphrodisiac to perk up dreary post war cuisine. When Hayworth’s saucy striptease was suddenly aborted once she tantalizingly removed her arm length gloves finger by finger, it predictably left the crowd wanting more. All anyone could talk about in straight-laced Catholic San Sebastian was Gilda. The film even brought priests out on the street picketing the film for its immorality.
When the regulars met up for pre- lunch drinks while their wives cooked lunch in true Basque tradition, one enterprising barkeep figured out how to keep them at the bar longer and empty their wallets faster. He placed a skewer of a saucy, piquant combination of anchovies, peppers and olives on the bar, and christened it Gilda. Basque cuisine was reborn.
Pintxos are no small thing, pardon the pun. Foodies from everywhere flock to the city to taste its varieties; wonder at its markets, and study its preparation in cookery classes.
If cod is the staple for English fish and chips, the same might be said for the anchovy. Every bar we visited presented it differently – fried, topped with peppers, peeking out from a cloud of crab meat, marinated, coupled with olives and peppers and skewered like a shish kebab; tiny portions or enough to fill a dinner plate. Finally at Casa Urola we satisfied our carnivore cravings with tapas of veal cheek with Bechamel sauce; another of Serrano ham from purebred Iberian pigs reared on a diet of acorns, and the pure bliss of a skewer of flavorful grilled T-bone steak. By the time we staggered into Bar La Vina for dessert – very unpintxos slices of cheese cake – we felt as if we had tasted the best of everything that swims or grazes, and all for a few Euros each.
“I have spent much of my life hating anchovies,” says Texan Martha Hopkins, author of InterCourses: an aphrodisiac cookbook. “When I came to the Basque region, I knew that if I were ever to like an anchovy, it would have to be here. I tasted anchovies in the little town of Gretaria where there’s a small fish packing factory and was stunned– not fishy, not stinky! Then I took a workshop in pintxos preparation in San Sebastian where we were taught the classic Gilda. If I could find the same quality in Austin, I would certainly serve anchovies at my next party and make my guests try them!”
Navigating the wren of streets in the Old Quarter, our first impression is how much it reminds us of Wales where the words bear no resemblance to the romance languages we knew. Ditto in San Sebastian where street names are written bilingually in Basque and Spanish. As part of the three self-governing Basque regions of Northern Spain, San Sebastian’s top priority is nurturing its cultural heritage, almost extinguished during the Spanish Civil War when General Franco embarked on a campaign of persecution against them. Only in cooking clubs called Sociedades Gastronomicas or txokos could members revel in being Basque, as long as politics were kept out of the kitchen.
Today there are about 120 txokos in San Sebastian, some open to tourists. But not many outsiders know they exist.
“Visiting one gave us a very special insight into the history of San Sebastian’s unique culinary heritage, and the organizations credited with keeping Basque traditional cookery alive,” says Kim Jones on a visit to the city with her husband and children. “We’re foodie people and want our sons to appreciate foods from different cultures. In the well-equipped professional kitchen, the boys were thrown into the preparation of our three course meal – pulling parsley heads off stalks, ‘painting’ an egg wash on a pastry topping and sprinkling almonds over a pie top. Chef encouraged them to smell, touch and taste as they cooked, saying ‘you should eat with your five senses.’
“Meanwhile two other men in the kitchen were also cooking and raised their glasses in greetings to us. It was one of the nicest holiday experiences we’ve had – such a privilege to be allowed into the inner sanctum of what was once a men-only affair and to see such skills from the men cooking around us, thoroughly enjoying the experience and wanting us to share in the gastronomic delights.”
San Sebastian’s traditional market La Bretxa is surely one of the world’s best. When not pub crawling, we check out its variety of local pates, cheeses and cold meats for a picnic in the city’s stunning parks, and then totally bliss out.
Five other great reasons to visit San Sebastian
* Each September, it hosts one of the top film festivals in Europe.
* The choice for dozens of local, national and international surfing competitions, its Zurriola beach is the ideal place for all things surf- lessons, restaurants, hangouts, stores and accommodations.
* The city is an outdoor art gallery with 56 major sculptures.
* Its 16 Michelin starred restaurants in and around the city elevate dining to fine art.
* It’s Europe’s 2016 city of culture.
Ever since we spent our 18 month honeymoon sailing the Mediterranean on our own catamaran, we’ve become addicted to traveling by waterway so Spain via ferry was the obvious choice. Brittany Ferries operates crossings to Spain from Portsmouth, England, a short journey by train from London. One option is to book a one or two night luxury cruise to Bilbao; then can catch a bus for the hour- long ride to San Sebastian. Another crossing is the 24-hour cruise to Santander. Bus connections are more complicated, but renting a car to explore the countryside, stopping at local markets and villages make the holiday memorable.
The cruise is the perfect setting for romance–love songs crooned by singers; fine dining, and even demos on mixology so we could give friends back home a taste of scrumptious San Sebastian.
San Sebastian Essentials
Martha Hopkins took a pintxos class at the top-notch Hotel Maria Christina’s San Sebastian Foods —www.sansebastianfood.com/en.
The company provided the image used of the cooking school.
Kim Jones and her family’s txokos experience was arranged by firstname.lastname@example.org.
We ate at four bars – Goiz Argi at Fermin Calbeton 4; Casa Urola at Fermin Calbetn 20; Bar Txepetxa at C/Pescaderia 5, and Bar La Vina at 31 de Agosto 3.
The San Sebastian Tourist Office (www.sansebastianturismo.com) provided us with a guide and publishes directories to pintxos bars, and everything San Sebastian for a perfect trip.
Brittany Ferries offers mini-cruises as well as Spanish and French holiday packages (http://brittany-ferries.co.uk)
Words and photos by Sheila Sobell and Richard N. Every, professional travel photojournalists, who have written most of the romantic getaways for this site.
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