Star of Spain

Star of Spain

Matt Flemming travels to San Sebastian to investigate how the city got all its Michelin Stars.

San Sebastian has no shortage of charms. The crescent shaped La Concha Bay and its beachfront Belle Epoque character are iconic, flanked by Mount Urgull and its imposing statue of Christ in the east and Mount Igueldo and its funicular on the west. The cobblestoned streets of the historic Old Town are at the heart of the city’s cultural identity.

With a population of less than 200,000 residents, San Sebastian has the vibe and the pace of a small town, where Basque traditions are maintained and local businesses and products are valued above all else.

In a country with an abundance of exceptional local restaurant scenes, San Sebastian seems an unlikely place to be dubbed Spain’s culinary mecca and no less than one of the greatest food cities in the world. It begs the question: How did San Sebastian earn its world renown?

This reputation is often attributed to its remarkable Michelin stars per capita ratio – eight restaurants garnered a total of 16 stars in the 2016 edition of the guide. In fact, only eight eateries in Spain were deemed worthy of three stars, and three of them – Arzak, Martin Berasategui and Akelarre – are in San Sebastian.

The fine dining accolades are the result of a centuries-old food culture, a pair of influential historical events, the area’s excellent terroir, as well as a group of chefs who revolutionised Basque cooking. And the spectrum of food experiences in San Sebastian extends beyond fine dining, to the many pintxos bars, gastronomy clubs, cider houses and markets found throughout the city.

Some of the city’s most important institutions are its gastronomy clubs. These exclusive societies provide a space for members to cook with friends and family and dine in a restaurant setting. Chef Pedro Subijana of three starred Akelarre claims that these clubs emerged from the ruins of the Siege of San Sebastian in 1813, during which much of the city was destroyed.

“The people of San Sebastian held meetings to discuss how the city would be reconstructed,” says Subijana. “And at these meetings, they cooked together — that’s how gastronomy clubs were invented.”

These clubs introduced cooking as a competitive sport into the everyday lifestyle. “A long time ago, they used to be only for men. So, there was competition among the society members to be thebest cook but also among their wives, who wanted to cook well enough to give their husbands a reason to eat at home. Competition is always positive – the level gets higher when there is competition,” says Subijana.

Decades later, San Sebastian was transformed into a resort town when it became known as a high society retreat popular with Spanish royalty and later as something of a Spanish Monte Carlo – a
grand casino (now San Sebastian’s ornate city hall) was built in 1897 and operated until the Franco-era brought about the prohibition of gambling. Spain’s aristocrats arrived with servants, drivers and cooks in tow, but also hired local residents to work in their kitchens. San Sebastian was left with a workforce of chefs who were skilled in cooking for the upper class. This era, according to Subijana, was when the seeds for San Sebastian’s fine dining scene were sown.

Subijana and Juan Mari Arzak are two of the fathers of New Basque Cuisine, a movement they began with 10 other local chefs in the 1970s. This modern take on traditional Basque cuisine not only brought the city to the forefront of Spanish cooking, it was extremely influential on the nation’s fine dining scene as a whole. Subijana and Arzak didn’t seek to reinvent Basque cooking; instead they pursued a philosophy of experimentation and collaboration. New Basque Cuisine also embraces a scientific understanding of cooking and the use of modern technological techniques in the kitchen.

“We wanted to build something together,” says Subijana. “As chefs, we had no secrets. We opened the doors to our kitchens to show others what we were doing. We felt free to try new things, to adopt new ideas and to create new dishes that were based on traditional Basque cooking.”

Subijana says that while a healthy sense of competition still exists, it is not unusual for San Sebastian’s star chefs to get into the kitchen and cook a meal together at a gastronomy club. He and the other founders of New Basque Cuisine also work to mentor talented young chefs in their kitchens, and also through the Basque Culinary Center, an education and research facility. Luis Andoni Aduriz of Mugaritz spent time working at both Akelarre and Arzak before opening his own restaurant. Aduriz has gone on
to become arguably Spain’s foremost culinary creative genius – he spends four months each year researching new dishes and planning a new menu that provides a full sensory experience. Mugaritz is currently ranked seventh on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, and for good reason. Edible cutlery, edible river stones and even edible centrepoint are some of the surprises that await

While most visitors may come to the city for the Michelin stars, a night spent exploring the pintxos bars in the Old Town is just as much of a quintessential San Sebastian experience. Pintxos, the Basque equivalent of tapas, are served up on large platters on bar countertops. Guests can walk in and help themselves to these two-or-three bite dishes as bartenders serve up glasses of txakoli, a local sparkling white wine. Local residents love to bounce from one eatery to the next, sampling and snacking while drinking and socialising in a friendly and convivial atmosphere.

The Gilda, a concoction that consists of an anchovy, pickled peppers and olives on a toothpick soaked in oil, is the classic pintxo – a salty, savory and sour snack consumed in one quick bite. Other cold pintxos include Bayonne ham, deviled eggs, olives, Russian salad, anchovies and shrimp served on small slices of bread. Most shops will have a small menu of hot items prepared to order, which may include Bechamel croquettes, Spanish omelets and garlic potatoes.

But there is no shortage of pintxos bars serving more modern takes on the common pintxo. A Fuego Negro, Bar Antonio and La Cuchara San Telmo are three such bars, which play with textures and ingredients in crafting some of the city’s best small dishes.

The Basque flavour palette is on display each day at the city’s La Bretxa Market near the Old Town. At the heart of Basque cooking is a heavy dose of fish including hake, cod, eel, sole and anchovies — add to that locally raised beef and lamb, as well as game meats, cured meats, chorizo and goat cheese. Fresh vegetables such as mushrooms, asparagus, artichokes, tomatoes and peppers are also central elements of local cooking.

Rounding out the quintessential culinary experiences in San Sebastian are the cider houses. Found in the countryside villages surrounding the city, these purveyors of hard cider typically offer traditional set menus that consist of massive T-bone steaks, roast cod filets, and codfish omelets, with sheep’s cheese, quince paste and walnuts for dessert – along with all the cider you can drink.

Any foodie’s expectations for a tour of San Sebastian are sure to be sky high but given the dedication to culinary craft that exists here and the host of delectable food experiences, it’s hard to imagine anyone would award this city anything less than three stars.

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