Lindsey McClave in Spain: Adventures in eating, San Sebastian-style
Our travel bar was set quite high for San Sebastian.
This city by the sea is at the heart of the foodie-universe and was the final stop on a tour of northeastern Spain. Widely considered to be one of the best gastronomic cities in the world, the term Michelin Star is thrown around loosely, as if it is normal for one place to boast so many at such a wide variety of culinary establishments. And I’m not just referring to the revered destinations of Arzak, Akelarre and Mugaritz, all three of which are regarded as some of the best restaurants in the world.
It is nearly impossible to eat poorly in this town. And you have the sense everywhere you go that less-than-stellar food is simply not an option. Experimenting with flavors, playful food and dishes that push the envelope are a part of the everyday and you are able to experience them without hesitation or reservation at one of the hundreds of pintxos bars that sprinkle the stone streets.
Pintxos are the Basque version of the tapa – small bites that take on an endless variety of forms and flavors. We would be in San Sebastian on a Sunday and Monday, when nearly all of the aforementioned destination-restaurants would be closed. Would I want to make sure to go to Mugaritz or Akelarre if I were to return to San Sebastian? Absolutely. Did it change our culinary experience? Not one bit.
We arrived at our hotel with no plans or agenda in line. The sky was a brilliant blue and the sun was high. We slipped on our bathing suits, grabbed a handful of loose euros, and set out to discover for ourselves just what it is that makes this place so special. Lucky for us, it was even better than we could have imagined.
The drive from Laguardia to San Sebastian is lined with varied, primarily mountainous terrain, and we weaved in and out of several long tunnels throughout the way. After two hours we felt the world begin to level out and we knew we were getting close. We were staying at the Hotel Londres and our ocean view room was a highlight of our time by the beach. The overarching goal was to relax during our final days of vacation and we were able to do so, sipping Rioja wine and looking out at the sea on our balcony (located just below the ‘E’ in Hotel). We did have reservations for a multi-course lunch arranged, in case of poor weather, but one look at the beach and the gorgeous sunshine and everything changed. It was time to bask in the San Sebastian sun!
However we did need to eat. So we set out to explore the old town, where the greatest concentration of pintxos bars are found. Things were hopping, and we slipped blindly into a handful of bars, decisions based solely on the throngs of people toasting glasses of txakoli, the lightly effervescent local white wine.
Wow – this was overwhelming. Long bars stretched the length of the room, lined from end to end with platter after platter of assorted savory treats. Most common were mini-baguettes filled with local meats and cheeses along with an impossible number of small slices of bread topped with an unlimited assortment of fish salads, anchovies, hot peppers and tapenade.
Initially, there doesn’t seem to be any method to the San Sebastian madness. Do you just grab a pintxo and go for it? Do you place an order at the bar? We stood back for a few minutes and observed our surroundings, finally surmising that you order your drinks and ask for a plate. After you’ve helped yourself to your fill of their delicacies, you simply tell the bartender how many pinxtos you sampled, as well as your drink tally and you pay the bill. The honor system – live and in person!
The mouth-watering highlights of our first pintxos excursion included a tiny tart filled with caramelized onions and tomatoes and topped with the most adorable fried quail’s egg. We also sampled a stack of garlicky, cheese and butter-laden mushrooms set atop a slice of ham and a crusty baguette. These particular bites would leave Z and I chewing, nodding our heads in silence, small smiles creeping at the edges of our lips. The rumors were true. Everything tasted amazingly, impossibly better in San Sebastian.
Pleasantly satiated, we made our way back toward our hotel to seek out our very own spot on the famous La Concha beach. Sand stretches to a finite curve, rounding in a dramatic arch created by the bright blue sea. There were minimal chairs and umbrellas, just towels and sunbathers, making the most of this gorgeous day. We found a small spot close to the water and spent the next four hours reading and dreaming. It felt so good to soak up the sun, my body forming a spot in the sand, making its mark on this beautiful place.
As the afternoon grew short, we made our way back to the hotel to shower and freshen up. We took a long stroll down the beach and stopped for drinks at a cafe with picturesque views of La Concha. The beaches were emptying and make-shift ‘football’ games were kicking off. We cheered them on and watched the sun set, grabbing one more cafe before we set out for the bars. It was time to get serious about the tradition of pintxos hopping.
The San Sebastian version of a bar crawl, pintxos hopping is a nightly ritual in this town, one complete with general guidelines and tricks to help you along the way. We picked up on these points through observation and had a lot of help from Maribel’s Guides, a wonderfully detailed travel bible to all things San Sebastian (and Spain, for that matter). Setting out in a group, the goal is to hit as many bars as possible, each individual indulging in one drink (generally a small glass of txakoli or a mini beer, referred to as a zurito) and one pintxo. Upon finishing, you drop your napkin on the floor and move on to the next stop. No time for lingering here. There is eating and drinking to attend to!
We made our way back to the old town that evening, no one spot in mind to start, just looking for the busiest bars – the more littered napkins on the floor the better. I stuck to txakoli for the night while Zach slung back zuritos. The txakoli is acidic and sparkling with a low alcohol content. Just enough to keep you going without weighing you down. We started with items found on the bar tops – small sandwiches and peppers with olives and anchovies. We savored a mini pot-pie of sorts, warm gravy poured overtop the bits of ham peeking out, as they served it to us from behind the bar.
We continued to wander the alleyways and found our way into a very small bar, void of any offerings within view. Instead, a large chalkboard made up the bar back, all pintxos noted in the Basque language. We picked up on a few words and were treated to several artfully prepared delicacies, including this foie gras with fruit compote. Txakoli tipped back and plates clean, we continued marching on.
As I mentioned previously, it was Sunday in San Sebastian, a day off for most of the city. Ten thirty would normally have been a time that people were just getting started. But we noticed that the cobbled streets were becoming less populated and the overall vibe of the evening was quite calm and relaxed, even more so than our lunch-time excursion. We had spotted a bar with a delightful looking pintxos menu posted outside of their door. They also boasted a small number of tables and chairs, something that is not that typical in the average pintxos establishment. We decided to give it a try and to sit down for a bit. We’d done well with our bar hopping thus far and had earned a mini-reprieve.
The atmosphere was upbeat but subtle and one look at the plates on the tables surrounding us and we knew we had selected a spot frequented by gourmands. We grabbed a seat and ordered two glasses of crianza as well as an assortment of small plates, my favorite of which boasted small cubes of lightly smoked salmon topped with a beautifully herbed cream and freckles of roe. I stole the third bite. I wasn’t going to be generous with this one!
When this cheesy orzo dish founds its way to our table, Z quickly nabbed the first bite. His face lit up and he was ecstatic. “Guess what this tastes like – you’ll know immediately!” I scooped a small amount onto my fork and as I raised it to my mouth, I caught whiff of a scent that would conjure childhood memories in almost anyone’s mind from my generation. Mac and cheese… from the blue box with the orangish powder pouch inside. Mix with milk and butter and you have a delicious and satisfying (if not exactly natural) meal! It was a funny find amongst the foie gras and roe that we had been spoiled with throughout our trip and led to a leisurely walk down memory lane for both of us, recounting childhood stories.
Stuffed roasted red pepper with tuna fish, another broken egg dish and a couple more glasses of crianza later and we retreated to our room. We opened the patio doors and sipped on a final glass of wine while we watched the lights glint off of the ocean. It was the perfect way to end the day.
The next morning brought with it cloudy skies and much cooler temperatures. A dramatic change – today would not be a beach day. That was fine. There were still several areas of town and countless pintxos bars we had yet to explore. And the San Sebastian market, La Bretxa, was open today! We popped into a corner shop boasting a variety of croissants (one of my top 10 favorite foods, for the record), fueled up with a cafe con leche, and made our way to market.
Unlike the La Boqueria in Barcelona, La Bretxa is located in a modern shopping center, adjacent to a grocery store with all of the essentials in package form. What an ideal situation! Pick up your paper products, condiments, etc., and then head next door to a seemingly limitless number of food stalls boasting the freshest seafood, local meats and every vegetable you could possibly want. I could explore these aisles for hours!
After the market we simply wandered, allowing ourselves to get lost in the city. We paused for a bit to observe the surfers practicing their sport on La Zurriola, the beach located just one kilometer adjacent to La Concha. We took in the pintxos scene on this side of town and dodged a few raindrops, amazed that we had made it nearly ten days without a cloudy sky! It almost seemed apropos. It was our last real night of the trip and an undertone of melancholy was creeping its way into my mood. I turned my back on it, trying with all my might to stay in the present, to not let the foreboding feeling steal this once-in-a-lifetime experience. We had one more night, and I was going to make the very most of it!
We struck gold with our pintxos spot that evening. Astelena sat directly off of a main square, the type of area we were generally wary of as an infamous tourist-trap. We had heard good things about this spot however, and everything we read implored you not to become too caught-up with the mouth-watering offerings sprinkling the bar-top. Strict instructions were to order off of the menu boards for their made-to-order creations.
We were more than happy to oblige and, with the help of one of the bartenders (who blessedly spoke English), we ordered up several items. The first to arrive were a skewer of chorizo, peppers and onions and a crispy-fried pocket of salmon and goat cheese. Both were artfully plated and brought on bold flavors. We were instantly excited. Yet more proof that the myth about San Sebastian was indeed true. This food was damn good. Not one thing was left to chance. Every single element had a purpose. And we were at a bar for goodness sakes! These dishes ranged in price from two to four euros. Incredible!
A mini fish filet encrusted in black sesame seeds and paired with fresh greens and a cool tomato soup was followed by beautifully rare beef tenderloin with roasted root vegetables. Perfection. And just the right amount, the tiny flecks of salt helping accentuate the flavors and ensuring your wine glass stayed full.
Our final course at Astelena was a sphere of braised beef cheek with french fries. Over the top and very rich, this five- to six-bite portion was absolutely ideal. We added a solid highlight to the list – first Alkimia in Barcelona, followed by Hector Oribe in Rioja. This was our San Sebastian moment and man did it taste good.
We stretched the night a bit further, catching the end of the football game in another bar and grabbing a final txakoli at the last stop. It was time to go home. We walked along the seaside street on the trip back to our hotel, and I just couldn’t say goodnight yet. We had to have one last moment on the beach!
We wandered the coast, feeling like we could call La Concha our very own. It was surreal. But isn’t that just it? The magic that travel brings? All of a sudden, the world feels very small and immensely large at the same time. A mini-moment that encapsulates so much more than what is on the surface.
It wasn’t time to say goodbye, but leaving was inevitable. Each trip has brought me a bit closer to solving the mystery that is ‘me.’ I shed my insecurities, find confidence in my voice and realize that I am making my way solidly though this world, one place (and one blog post) at a time. And I couldn’t ask for a better partner in this adventure. I have so much more to learn, and I have a feeling that this self-exploration will be a life-long process. I vow to savor every moment. On this final night in San Sebastian, we kissed the sky goodbye.
Gracias, Spain. It was more than I could have hoped for.
Now – on to the next adventure!
About the author: In 2011, Lindsey McClave created a blog called foodie-girl. Foodie-girl was designed to be a creative outlet, a place for her to chronicle her adventures in the kitchen, log her favorite wine and cocktail experiences, record tales of travel throughout the world and to hone her writing skills. This outlet and these obsessions – food, wine, travel and writing – have happily led her to a career as a freelance writer and recipe developer.