San Sebastián (or Donastia in Basque) is on many folks’s must visit list and it is not hard to see why: it has some of the most stunning beaches of any city in the world, top notch shopping to rival much bigger cities and the awesome Museum San Telmo and Kursaal Cultural Center. But it is food that is San Sebastián’s raison d’etre. Even the acclaimed food & travel writer AA Gill confesses that “I’ve never been to San Sebastián…it’s one of those niggling things that disjoint the equilibrium as I lie awake…making lists of all the things I’ll regret when I die…And the reason I want to go to San Sebastian is to eat…”
And eat we did…San Sebastián is deservedly famous for pintxos (though many other fantastic foodie things are shake’n in the area) which is the Basque word for tapas. There are two main styles of pintxos: the ready-to-eat or quickly-warmed-off-the-bar style or the made-to-order, cooked version, with the latter being slightly more expensive and the former being crazy cheap (usually 1 to 2 euros). Many of the pintxos bars are in the Parte Vieja (Old Section), a spider’s web of narrow lane ways which seem to change character with the time of day or night, as shutters come up or down. A typical evening would begin about 7:30PM or so, with a leisurely stroll up & down the catacomb of passageways and whenever hunger and/or thirst pangs struck, we eyed the most hop’n joint & popped in, grabbed a plate & loaded it with pintxos from the bar (see below), all washed down with a decent Rioja, a cold cerveza, or a glass of the local white wine, txakoli.
At the upper end of the pintxos bar hierarchy is La Cuchara de San Telmo, with an old style, minimalist decor and about a dozen made-to-order pintxos on offer. We tried 3 or 4 but is was the seared sea scallop that captured the Hounds’s thumbs up.
Just around the corner was another highly regarded pintxos joint, A Fuego Negro where we tried the Corazones de Pollo – chicken hearts – which looked almost too good to eat…but we did.
For our daily lunches we often opted for the ‘Menu del Dia’ deals that many of the restaurants promoted for 10 to 12 euros ($15 to $18 US or Aussie). This is a 3 course meal (starter, main & dessert) and includes a bottle of wine! Estupendo!
The Basque Coast is renowned for its seafood so we made it our mission to verify that reputation. Squid in many shapes & forms was in season & plentiful on menus…
So if the galaxy’s stars line up in your favour, and you like fab food & the most slurpable vino, then San Sebastián should make your list so, unlike AA Gill, you will have no regrets…
In order to get to Spain, we took our car across to Cherbourg on the ferry, which meant a bit of a mad dash southbound, traversing France at a less than a pleasurable, relaxed speed. Bad planning meant forking over a small French king’s ransom to use the toll roads – sacre bleu! At last count, France had squeezed £150 from our weeping wallets. Some of our pain was dutifully eased by a 2 night crash at the sweet Le Moulin Pastelier, run & hosted by expat British folks Donna & Chris.
Just a spitting distance outside of Toulouse, in the verdant French country side, it made the perfect place for rest & exploration. We were handed some good tips on the local villages and that the big, regional market would take place the next day in Revel.
We love French markets – it puts our faith back (after many years absence) that the French really do know their food. Zut alors! We circled the market square half a dozen times, eyeing up the plethora of cheese, charcuterie, butchers, bread, condiment & veggie stalls and developing a massive case of market produce envy. Our UK markets are good, but the Revel village market was in a seriously different dimension.
The charcuterie stalls elicited the most drool as it is an artisanal art form not widely practised in the UK and just beginning to catch hold. In our searches for UK charcuterie courses we have come across just one not in London proper, taught by – you guessed it – a Frenchman.
The choices at the Revel market were beyond overwhelming and it was quite hard, knowing we were going to be in Spain for 3 weeks, to hold back on packing the wee Nissan Micra to the gills with a decent assortment of just about everything the market had on offer.
The French, besides knowing their food, also know how to do a damn fine job of presentation. They seem to have that je ne sais quoi factor that, with just a minor, subtle twist, the ordinary becomes the extraordinary. Example numero uno – bowl of olives (below) flecked with bits of red peppers.
Or this almost irresistible, savoury scented humongous pan of a French styled paella…
And to add the final nail in our argument coffin, whilst having a rest stop at a service centre on aforementioned toll highways to hell, who but the French, instead of shelves stacked with junk food, offer you the option to purchase servings of Duck Confit or perhaps some Raclette or Comte cheeses for your journey…