Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
In the Northwestern section of Spain, where the slopes of the Pyrenees meet the Bay of Biscay, is where one of the most culturally and gastronomically important European cities is located: it is called San Sebastián in Spanish and Donostia in Basque.
I was in San Sebastián to attend Gastronomika, the annual conference that attracts important chefs from around the world.
Most of the famous Spanish chefs were present; all of the Michelin-starred ones, as well as the not so famous - many looking for inspiration from the sample dishes shown by the famous ones. Participants were there to showcase new recipes; plus there were considerable discussions about the avant-garde Spanish gastronomy and which direction it is going. For me it was also an opportunity to meet and talk with Spanish chefs that I know, and taste some of their new dishes, plus pair these dishes with some of the best Spanish wines. Additionally, some of the larger and more important food and wine producers as well as entire regions had stands at the fair that accompanied the conference, so participants could sample the best ingredients Spain has to offer to the world.
As San Sebastián has been designated last year European Capital of Culture, you will also find in the city a shiny multidisciplinary cultural complex called Tabakalera, a former tobacco factory that reopened as a center for contemporary culture. This enormous six-level complex presents a changing mix of exhibitions and events, from film screenings and sculpture displays to artistic symposia and magic shows. But don't miss the spectacular city views from the observation deck on the roof.
The city is located on the shores of a circular bay with pristine white sand beaches that have attracted wealthy beach-goers since the middle of the 19th century. This city was famous during the Belle Époque era and it was where Queen Maria Cristina established her royal summer residence, which brought in the aristocracy from the rest of Spain during the hot summer days.
The evidence of San Sebastián’s glamorous past can still be seen throughout the city but is especially evident in the area called Parte Vieja i.e. the old town, where very pricey Belle Époque and Deco apartment buildings line the streets, and patisseries, bars and tascas invite visitors to taste the bounty of the Basque countryside and the nearby Atlantic Ocean.
One of the important structures in the old city is the San Telmo Museum, which was inaugurated in 1902 and is considered the oldest museum in the Basque country. It has been housed in its current building since 1932 and the building itself is actually one of the museum's highlights. The complex that forms the museum is divided in two distinct structures. The original building is a Dominican convent from the 16th century; a unique architectural example with a mixture of gothic and renaissance styles. The new building was added a number of years ago and was designed by the architects Nieto y Sobejano. The contemporary and avan-guard architecture adds to the overall appeal of the complex, creating a very interesting mixture of old and new. If you only visit one museum in San Sebastian, then the San Telmo Museum should definitely be it.
I and another American writer were the only US-based food journalists invited to the conference this year; we did an informal survey amongst the local staff of the conference as to where we should go to try good, very tasty Basque dishes and the unanimous winner was “La Cuchara de San Telmo” a bar (tasca) located across the street from the San Telmo Museum.
La Cuchara is a very small narrow restaurant with great food that serves mouthwatering “raciones” and “media (half)-raciones” and we had a wonderful meal the last evening there, sharing a media-racion of charcoal-grilled octopus, a lobe of roasted foie-gras with a sweet, almost like a maple-syrup sauce (in the picture it doesn’t look very appetizing, but trust me… it was delicious) and a 4-cheese-and-tomato comfit dish to accompany my Keler Lager beer and her glass of Garnacha. And we were very satisfied! If you decide to spend time at any tasca or bar and want to eat more than the small traditional tapas or pintxos you can eat very well by selecting a few raciones or media-raciones instead of having a formal, much more expensive, restaurant meal.
Finally for summer visitors and good swimmers, La Concha, is one of the most beautiful urban beaches in Europe; it is festooned by luxurious beachfront mansions and a wide boulevard edges it. It has a boardwalk that is lined by an ornate white railing that has become a symbol of the city. There are, however, two other beaches in the city, both of which are less formal and much more relaxed: Ondarreta and Zurriola.
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