Thursday, January 24, 2013

Food Fantasyland in San Sebastián (Spain)

Celebrity chef and consummate traveler Anthony Bourdain once named San Sebastián the place he would want to die in. Even among Catalans (who include such Michelin-starred luminaries as Ferran Adrià), the Basque Country stands out as a culinary destination... with Donostia-San Sebastián as its crown jewel.

In the Basque Country, tapas (small plates) are known as pintxos, which roughly translate to something speared. This makes sense since the bulk of options are a slice of bread with a pile of interesting toppings pierced by a long toothpick. Since the pintxos are usually laid out on the bar for customers to help themselves, the toothpicks serve a practical purpose, too. Once finished, you hand over your fistful of toothpicks for the waitstaff to tally your bill. Somehow this grand honor system works.

The traditional manner in which to partake of such beautiful bites is... bar-hopping. You stop in each place, grab a pintxo or two (preferably that bar's specialty), and move on. A nice accompaniment is Basque txakoli, a dry white wine that gets a little sparkling with its traditional high pour into the glass. Our first night, we decided to hit the pubs in spontaneous succession down one street in the old part of the city. Most joints are packed with patrons juggling plates and jostling for space along narrow counters. While the food was still above average, we weren't blown away by anything. Expectations running high, we were a little confused and disappointed so we had to regroup.

Things went phenomenally better on subsequent nights. Armed with a well-researched list of each place's premiere pintxo, we didn't allow ourselves to get carried away by the proffered abundance and frantic energy. The results were incredible! Truly sumptuous plates with well-balanced and many layered flavors. By far, the most successful were items we ordered à la minute - succulent seafood, crisp and melting pork belly of piglet, rich veal cheeks in red wine, and the list goes on and on. We only had one misstep - asking for what roughly translates to "a cone of lamb and cheese," we instead received a large plate of as-yet-unknown cut of meat consisting of mostly tiny bones, skin, and cartilage sauteed with bell peppers! At Bar Zeruko, we succumbed to the fajitas effect (as in, sizzling platter passes by: Ooh, what's that?! I'll take one of them!), ordering avant garde tapas that encouraged playing with your food. However, our favorite place by far was tiny La Cuchara de San Telmo. Tucked away down a back alley, the chalkboard with its rapidly disappearing menu items are a testament to its popularity. It was so good that we went twice!

See pictures in the Spain album on the left for gratuitous food porn.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

San Sebastián and Bilbao (Spain)

The Basque Country is an autonomous community in the northeast corner of Spain. The Basques have an immense pride in their ancient culture and language - Euskara bears no relation to Latin languages and throws in a lot of x's and k's to boot. The resulting differences culminate in repeated calls for Basque independence from Spain, and in the past, nationalists in the separatist ETA sometimes punctuate the struggle with incidences of violence and terrorism, not unlike the IRA in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, many people are drawn to the region for tourism because, as some Spaniards simply put it, it IS like visiting a different country.

San Sebastián, or Donostia in the Basque language, is only about 20 km from the French border. The city has a population of only about 180,000, but its reputation as a holiday destination far exceeds its size. The biggest draws stem from the sea. San Sebastián is gorgeously picturesque with its own perfectly curved stretch of sandy beach in La Concha and the small island of Santa Clara in the middle of the bay. If sunbathing seems a little too tame for your tastes, the beach of Gros (or Zurriola) regularly puts San Sebastián on the list of best surf cities. Finally, you can learn more about the long tradition of Basques as whalers and fishermen at the aquarium and sample the bountiful briny catch at Bretxa market.

The express bus from San Sebastián to Bilbao (100 km to the west) made it quite convenient for a day trip. Along the way, we passed sheep-dotted mountains, snug farmhouses, and a few vineyards - not surprising, since Spain's most famous wine region La Rioja includes a slice of the Basque Country.

With about 1 million inhabitants, Bilbao has a distinctly more metropolitan flair than little San Sebastián. But we braved the steady rain for one reason and one reason only - the pièce de résistance  of Bilbao -  the Guggenheim Museum. Flowing and shimmering metalwork from Frank Gehry houses contemporary art on the banks of the Nervion River. Inside, there were exhibitions on droopy plugs and bathtubs from Claes Oldenburg as well as disturbing drawings from Viennese artist Egon Schiele who may or may not have been a pedophile. We also really enjoyed wandering through the giant, metal labyrinth by Richard Serra (and I got excited when I recognized another of his pieces in the Toronto airport!). But let's be honest, even on the inside, most of the museum's actual contents were out shown by the swooping and soaring spaces of Gehry's architectural wonder... so, go, see it for the building, just not for the art!