Of Cooks and Kings – San Sebastian:
On those short trips where you have just a day or two in each destination it is always hard when the weather decides not to play nice. Our half day in San Sebastian was marred by a downpour which lasted for most of the day and resulted in something of a change of plan for us. Added to which, we were staying in a very pleasant hotel, but one that was on the outskirts of the town, without any form of transport. So, instead of walking along the beach after lunch, I spent an hour or so chilling in my room.
That’s not to say we saw nothing of San Sebastian. But, we may just have spent a little more time in Astigarraga, on the outskirts of San Sebastian than was initially intended. That was obviously entirely due to the inclement weather and nothing to do with the fact that the experience at one of the cider houses is one which really shouldn’t be hurried.
Our charming guide, Ana Intxausti, came from San Sebastian and she told us that she remembered growing up going to the cider houses for lunch at the weekends on a regular basis. The concept of cooking food at the Cider Houses comes from the days when the gastronomic clubs would visit to buy cider and bring with them their own food to cook. Eventually, someone twigged that this might make a good commercial venture and now, for around 30 euros you can enjoy the Basque equivalent of a bottomless brunch, with free-flowing cider direct from the barrel and a menu of rustic food, freshly cooked on the grill.
When we first walked into one of the Cider Houses, Gurutzeta , a little early for lunch, I was rather taken aback. A large room with long tables and benches and with a large charcoal grill in the corner already fired up. Next door, an even larger ‘warehouse’ full of cider barrels stacked to the ceiling and with yet more tables, this time without the luxury of benches!
Sidreria Gurutzeta serves a traditional Basque menu of tortilla, bacalao and tzuleta (beef from dairy cows who reach the end of their useful milking life at about four years and are then fed up or “finished” to improve the meat quality and develop fat). The beef is cooked on the grill, but before you get to that point, there’s sausage and cider.
Then tortilla and cider
Then bacalao and cider
Each time you’ve emptied your glass, the idea is to go back to the main cider barrels where you fill up again…
Eventually, you’ll get served with tzuleta – some of the best beef I’ve eaten in my life.
And, if you are still hungry – there’s Idiazabal cheese, walnuts and quince jelly to finish with.
It’s fun, slightly crazy and probably the best way to spend a rainy day in the Basque country.
We definitely needed a rest back at the hotel before we set off for a pintxos workshop with Tenedor Tours
Gabriella Ranelli, the owner, is an American woman who moved to San Sebastian from the USA more than 20 years ago. She married a Basque man and has made her niche by setting up Tenedour tours, providing a whole range of tours (not just in the Basque country), cookery classes and opportunities to learn more about the food and wine of the region. She’s a fascinating woman who settled in the Basque before there was a famous food scene and, as we prepared various pintxos she explained to us how the region developed such a unique cuisine.
The roots of Basque cuisine are in the rural heritage of the region – the mountains and the sea. But, Basque nouvelle cuisine can be traced back to a chance meeting of two Basque chefs with Paul Bocuse, who came to speak at a conference in Madrid. Juan Mari Arzak and Pedro Subijana went back with Paul to work with him in Lyons, and when they returned, they galvanised the enthusiasm of a group of local chefs to develop the Nueva Cocina Vasca, reviving and recreating traditional dishes and creating new ones based on regional products.
The result, San Sebastian became a prime destination for food lovers from around the world. It’s somewhere you can feast in the local bars on Pintxos or head to one of the Michelin starred restaurants (there are nine in San Sebastian in total – three with three stars, which is more than London or Madrid). Both Juan and Pedro now have their own three Michelin-starred restaurants in San Sebastian – Arzak and Akelare. I’m hoping to return for a longer stay, perhaps when the weather is a little more clement and explore the food scene further – half a day is definitely not enough. Meanwhile, I’ll just have to put up with dining at the London outpost of Arzak.
With many thanks to Basque Country Tourism Board, our hosts for this trip.
Thinking of visiting the Basque? Why not pin this post for later!