Tuesday, November 1, 2016

San Sebastián. Life is good, and the food even better.

Here, twelve miles from the French border, you are in the real heart of Basque Country, and it is entrancing.

People have been living in the area for around 25,000 years and the city was chartered in the 12th century, but a catastrophic fire following the breach of the town's walls and the fall of the city in 1813 to an Anglo-Portuguese force has given it a 19th century look.

It's a town that makes its living largely from tourism and international festivals and as a cultural magnet for the people of the region. Tourism improved dramatically when separatist violence from the ETA ended.

Where it's easy to kick off your shoes and enjoy yourself, even on an overcast day in late October.

A stroll along either side of the river

Or in the old city

Will bring you to places like Constitution Square (where the numbers over the apartment doors harken back to when owners were forced to rent balcony space to their betters to watch the bullfights in the square)

Or a sunset over the Atlantic.

But, what has really put San Sebastián (Donostia, in Basque) on the map is food.

In what turned out to be a stroke of genius, we hired a guide to take us around to a few bars in the city for pintxos. Although we could have survived with a bit of pointing and taken advantage of the reasonable amount of English and the substantial amount of friendliness found in the Donostiarra who live here, our guide enriched our experience immeasurably.

Donostia is a city obsessed with food and gastronomy. Especially on Thursdays, people go out with friends and family to a series of bars offering both cold and hot pintxos. They order a couple, together with a drink they never finish, enjoy them and move on to the next establishment. People almost always stand, as this is a snack, not a meal. Kids are typically in tow.

Our first pintxo was a Gilda. Olives (yes, but only-available-in-Spain really good ones), anchovies (a revelation), and peppers (one in ten is hot). Eaten in one bite & it was extraordinary. The Gilda was apparently named after Rita Hayworth's 1946 movie of the same name. Franco banned it. Reason enough.

Within sight of this first pintxo bar were three gastronomical societies, of which the city of barely more than 180,000 people is reported to have around 140. We were told that in their matrilineal society, Basque men value a place of their own, especially one in which they can cook and can claim the kitchen as exclusively theirs. Men may belong to 2 or 3 of the societies, maintaining connections to childhood friends, work colleagues, and so forth. The city has an embarrassment of riches in terms of food. Of Spain's five restaurants with 3 Michelin stars (the highest rating), three are in San Sebastián. But, back to the food.

At our next stop, we had squid in its own ink, as well as beef cheeks.

One of the pintxos at our third stop was Brie coated in poppy seeds and lightly fried. By the third stop it was raining a bit, so we huddled close under the umbrellas as we stood at the tables, but the eating was enough of a distraction that it really didn't bother us.

As befits a pilgrimage to San Sebastián, we reported for our course in Basque cooking.

Our instructor Augus (holding the bag) took us through the paces.

Proper cleaning and deboning means you don't over handle the fish

But carefully remove both the skin and the inner membrane which otherwise will cause the cooked fish to curl.

Oh, and don't forget the cheek, the real delicacy.

The fish is cooked gently by swirling the pan (for hours, if you don't know the chef's shortcut).

The peppers must be correctly sautéed. And, yes, Adrianne from Miami was recording pretty much every technique.

Frank, the Basque-American whose mother witnessed the attack on Guernica, tries his hand at one of the chef's secrets. Whisking with a colander.

The team begins to assemble one of the dishes.

This one.

Truly delicious.

And reason enough for a visit to Donostia (San Sebastián).

On egin! (Bon appetit!)


Sunday, October 30, 2016

Being so close . . .

When planning our trip to northern Spain, it occurred to us to wonder how far off the beaten path we would find the famous Paleolithic cave paintings. As it turned out, not far. From Bilbao, we rented another car and headed west towards the mountains, making for Altamira, El Castillo, and La Moneda.
El Castillo (the Castle) and La Moneda (the Money) are minutes away from each other along a mountain path. La Moneda is mostly interesting for its rock formations, but El Castillo contains the oldest known cave art in Europe (at over 40,000 years old). They are discs and stencils of hands made by blowing pigment onto the rock surfaces. There's also representational art in the cave, although it is a little more recent (but, not much). We were impressed with the skillfulness of the execution and how the artists incorporated the naturally occurring contours of the rock surface into the compositions. The back or stomach or haunch of the animal wouldn't actually be drawn, for example, but the artist would enhance the animal form one might see in the rock contours by using pigment to fill in the "missing" elements of the design.

The most (justifiably) famous Spanish cave is Altamira. It is open only to a few visitors who are chosen by lottery in order to conserve the artwork. In fact, we met two young men during our visit of El Castillo, one of whom had been fortunate enough to have been chosen to go into the cave. His friend showed us a video showing how visitors are suited up in what look like hazmat suits for their tours. However, a "Neocave" has been built that is a faithful, life-size replica of the cave and the paintings, visits to which are controlled with timed tickets. There's also a sizable display covering cave art and other early human topics that could take most of a day to thoroughly consume.

Altamira's art was produced at different eras ranging from 36,000 years ago to 13,000 years ago. It was the areas further into the cave (rather than closer to the entrance) that were used for the paintings. To Jim's question why the cave walls and ceiling weren't smudged with soot from the fires or torches used to see inside the caves, the guide at El Castillo explained that animal fats were used for lighting because they burned much cleaner than wood and didn't produce that kind of smoke. To make the paintings, the artists used charcoal and ochre (iron oxide). They are very cleanly and precisely rendered, so that it's clear that the painters must have practiced extensively elsewhere before committing their art to the cave walls and ceilings.

Being already in Cantabria, how could we not visit one of the small towns in the hills?
We chose the one Sartre called the prettiest town in Spain in one of his novels (it's amazing the research promotional people do), Santillana del Mar.
We even managed to have a nice lunch, after once again confirming that we couldn't find anywhere to eat lunch that opened earlier than 1:00 (we must confess to never fully adapting to Spanish dining hours).
And we visited the town's Romanesque church and (no longer functioning) monastery before making our way to our house in the countryside.
A house along a lane in a tiny farming village

In the midst of fields with the pungent smells of country life

A house we couldn't find without first rendezvousing with our host at the bar along the "main" road and following her along a narrow lane to the edge of the village.

Where Amanda put together a meal for us with ingredients purchased in the nearest town, including hake cut to her order by the fish monger in the supermarket, and fresh figs just pulled from the tree in the garden.

Knowing of our interest in food and plan to next visit San Sebastián, our host pushed us to drive into the city of Santander for lunch, as she maintained that the food was just as good and cost half of what we would pay in San Sebastián.

So, we took the plunge and had a great meal

At a restaurant that hands out a little dictionary with the names of foods in eight languages. We think we'll keep it!