San Sebastian is a small, picturesque city in Spain (pop. 186,000) situated on a bay that opens to the Atlantic Ocean within shouting distance of the French border. Despite its relatively small size it contains multitudes. San Sebastian is:
1. The center of Basque history and culture in Europe;
2. The home of pintxos, a type of tapas often served on a small skewer;
3. The primary location that cultivates and makes wine from the Hondarabbi grape;
4. A mini-Monte Carlo where Europe’s A-list celebs mix with a bohemian surfer culture;
5. And it features the 2nd most Michelin-starred restaurants (seven) per capita of any place in the world (trailing only Kyoto Japan).
Our two-day visit to this former fishing village felt like a whirlwind tour through millennia. Our first stop was Valle Salado (Salt Valley) a natural salt spring that was discovered 6500 years ago. The ancient people who lived here diverted the water from the spring into shallow pens. As the water evaporates high quality fleur de sel is left behind. The salt content of the spring water is 30 times the salinity of ocean water.
This facility was abandoned 20 years ago when industrial salt production cornered the market. Today, a local non-profit has begun a restoration project and the salt fields are now both an archeological site (having recently achieved UNESCO site status) and a functioning artisanal salt producer with parts of the original facility now producing salt again. In fact several of the Michelin-starred restaurants in San Sebastian have their own salt pens here. The guided tour of the facility was a fascinating look back in time.
After Valle Salado we visited Txomin Etxaniz, a Txakoli winery nestled in the mountains overlooking the bay. Txakoli is a white wine made from the indigenous Hondarrabi Zuri and Hondarrabi Beltza grape varietals. I have occasionally come across these wines in the U.S. but they are almost always from Basque country, with some minor plantings in nearby Cantabria and Burgos. It is a simple, dry yet fruity white wine with distinct apple notes, marked high acidity, and some CO2 to give it spritz. The bubbles are enhanced when the wine is poured from a height of 3-4 feet above the glass as is typical in Basque country. It is wonderful with anchovies.
The vines are grown on steep hillsides in a very wet climate. Vintners do battle with the inevitable rot and mildew by trellising the vines with a system of tall poles that keep the grapes high above the ground. The vines first grow straight up about seven feet in the air before being trained to follow a wire mesh between the rows creating a tunnel that funnels sea breezes through the grape bunches keeping moisture to a minimum. This is a variant of the Pergola system of trellising used in some regions of Northern Italy and Argentina.
San Sebastian is also famous for pintxos. Pintxos were originally tapas served on a small skewer or toothpick, but pintxos bars in San Sebastian now serve a full range of tapas taking advantage of their abundant seafood. Our tour included a short ferry boat ride to the village of Cibure where we assembled at a charming rustic restaurant Ziaboga for our lesson in how to make pintxos from seafood freshly caught that morning. The chef and his staff guided us through the process of selecting and butchering fish and putting together the dishes to be served that day.
I spent the morning fileting tuna, slicing paper-thin servings of jamon and assembling one of their classic pintxos dishes, white anchovies gently cooked in warm garlic oil, and served on bread with a condiment made of alioli and tomato. We then were able to eat the fruits of our labor. My favorite was marinated shark, served on a slice of lime topped with a bit of wasabi.
This was an an abundant feast but I had to show some restraint because we were on our own for dinner and Lynn and I had reservations at Akelarre—a 3- star Michelin restaurant with stunning ocean views and serving tasting menus that update traditional Basque cooking. We chose the two menus dubbed “innovative” but each of the 8 courses included a reference to traditional ingredients and preparations.
I didn’t take extensive notes on each dish—the conflict between being present and documentation is irresolvable for me—but here are a couple highlights.
The first dish was prawns flamed in a small, covered pot at the table that gave the seafood an exquisite, smoky flavor, especially when sucking on the head. The contrast of smoke and brine with the concentrated freshness of the beans gave this dish great intensity.
But for pure comforting enjoyment, squid cut to the size and shape of grains of rice, and briefly cooked “al dente” in a squid ink sauce ( and thus appearing as a “risotto”) topped with a flower of butter and parmesan cheese that melts into the dish, was the most satisfying.
Three-star Michelin restaurants are as much about presentation as flavor. This salad called “the leaves and foie under the rain” was the most impressive in appearance. That bottom leaf covering the plate is actually foie gras and the luscious dressing was an infusion of herbs with no oil or vinegar.
As I argued in American Foodie, if cuisine is to qualify as art it must be “about” something, making meaningful references to food traditions and the sensibility of a people while extending that sensibility in new directions.
Akelarre succeeds on that score. Chef Pedro Subijana’s cuisine is influenced by French, Italian and modernist cooking but avoids the trap of being merely “showy” or novel. His dishes have meaning because they express a sensibility rooted in local traditions while incorporating influences from afar when they make sense.
From ancient salt fields to modernist cuisine there is indeed a universe to explore in San Sebastian.