Ask any foodie about the diminutive city of San Sebastián and their response is invariably the same: the eyes glaze over, the mouth hangs slightly ajar, and all action is momentarily stilled at the mere mention of the gastronomic mecca. Those who have been well up, reliving decadent mouthfuls of exquisite pintxos, while those who have not whimper like a 13-year old girl upon catching sight of her favourite 1D member.
And with good reason. Situated on Spain’s northernmost coast – just 20km or so from the border with the south of France – San Sebastián is, to those in the know, one of the world’s all-time best culinary destinations. Moreover, it has the trophy cabinet to prove it.
With no fewer than 16 Michelin stars – after Kyoto in Japan that’s the most concentrated collection in the world – it’s also the proud home to two restaurants in the World’s 50 Best 2015 (down from three in the 2014 list), and is also regularly voted one of the planet’s best culinary cities in multiple magazines. In short, this is a city that tastes very good indeed.
On the ground, those claims are quickly substantiated. Pintxos – bite-sized skewers of beautifully constructed food – originated here and are the stuff of foodie dreams, so while the pricey Michelin-starred options are definitely worth a look, you don’t have to pay more than a few euros a piece for some seriously wonderful grub.
But the city is also a lot more than just an eatery: it’s superbly located, with the Bay of Biscay bringing warm Atlantic waters to the edge of Concha Bay, the perfect curve of white sand and clear sea that’s responsible for the city’s rather romantic nickname, the Pearl of the Cantabrian Sea.
With the Basque city preparing for its role as European Capital of Culture 2016, there’s never been a better time to check it out for yourself
With the Basque city preparing for its role as European Capital of Culture 2016, there’s never been a better time to check it out for yourself. Here’s how to widen your horizons – and your waistlines – San Sebastián style.
Derived from the Spanish word for thorn or spike, ‘pintxo’ refers to the skewer many of these bite-sized tapas-style bar snacks are held together with. After all, bars in San Sebastián are not, first and foremost, about drinking. Instead they’re all about food – the countertops are covered, every inch crowded with hundreds of different options, like a gourmet buffet where each morsel has been constructed with loving care.
To say which is the best pintxo would be like trying to pick a favourite child
To say which is the best pintxo would be like trying to pick a favourite child, but if you need a helping hand deciphering the menus (Basque is the region’s first language, making Spanish its second – so English translations are few and far between) turn to a food tour company such as San Sebastián Food (sansebastianfood.com), who will take you on a three-hour pintxo crawl through some of the city’s most famous bars and most delicious morsels for €95 (should you be so inclined, they even have a new cookery school where you can learn how to make your own).
Positioned at number six in the World’s 50 Best and with two Michelin stars, Mugaritz is headed up by Andoni Luis Aduriz and is an all-consuming experience from the word go. The tables are dressed with a white tablecloth and a broken plate; a smoky barbeque scent emanates through the room – and the food plays with the senses, too. There’s no menu: instead, diners are presented with 24 dishes (no bigger than pintxos themselves) that form a culinary exploration into the unknown. mugaritz.com
At number 17 in the World’s 50 Best and with three Michelin stars, Arzak marries the traditional flavours of Basque cuisine with ultra-modern culinary techniques. Run by father and daughter team Juan Mari and Elena Arzak, freeze-drying, dehydration and distillation are all used to pull together astonishingly creative platefuls of flavours that hark back to the region’s cornerstone ingredients including squid and monkfish. arzak.es
With three Michelin stars to his name, and coming in at number 35 in the World’s 50 Best 2014, Martín Berasategui’s self-titled restaurant is not short of accolades. His tasting menu takes you on a journey through his four decades in the kitchen, with dishes such as mille-feuille of smoked eel (1995) and oyster with cucumber, kafir and coconut (2011) date-stamped to show their year of creation. martinberasategui.com
If you want to try and go it alone though, here are the pintxos that escapism couldn’t live without:
Zeruko on Calle Pescaderia, for la Hoguera (a mini salt cod bonfire that will blow your greedy mind)
Goiz Argi on Calle Fermin Calbeton, for pimentos de Padron (char-grilled Galician green peppers) and txakoli wine
Astelena on Plaza de la Constitucion for rabo de buey (melt-in-the-mouth oxtail)
La Cuchara de San Telmo on Calle 31 de Agosto for carrillera (slow-cooked tender beef cheeks)
Munto on Calle Fermin Calbeton for txipi relleno (stuffed baby squid)
A Fuego Negro on Calle 31 de Agosto for Makobe with txips (a kobe beef slider with plantain chips)
Don’t be afraid to order from the blackboards, even if you’re not entirely sure of what you’re ordering
Top tip: don’t be afraid to order from the blackboards, even if you’re not entirely sure of what you’re ordering. They list the house seasonal specialities and all of the hot options available – and are often (contentious claim alert) even better than the incredible crowds of cold pintxos that line the countertops.
Height is important in San Sebastián – or, more specifically, the height from which your drinks are poured. There are two local specialities on offer: the regional cider, txotx (tx is pronounced ‘ch’), which is produced in cider farms in the Gipuzkoa province, and txakolí, a fruity young wine produced in the nearby coastal towns of Getaria and Zarautz.
Height is important in San Sebastián – or, more specifically, the height from which your drinks are poured
Both tipples are poured from a height in order to fully release their flavours, and the bar tenders are more than happy to splash those close-by, so it’s best to stand back if you don’t want a boozy shower.
For cider aficionados, it’s definitely worth taking a trip just outside the city to one of the farms in the outlying towns of Astigarraga, Hernani, Urnieta or Usurbil. Here you can sample the cider in the very place it’s produced, teamed with fantastic plates of local fare – think salt cod tortilla and blistered padron peppers. Try Sidreria Iretza in Astigarraga (iretza.com), a modern cider house where some of the dining tables are situated within giant cider barrels, or Sidreria Intxaurrondo (sidreriaintxaurrondo.com) for a more traditional experience.