I can't remember the first time I heard about the Basque town of Donostia (usually referred to, in Spanish, as San Sebastian). It might have been in a food magazine, or on the tip of a chef's tongue in some impassioned, late-night discussion about where the best place in the world might be to eat. But there it was, buried in my psyche, a promise of delicious things. It remained there for years; an itch unscratched.
There are plenty of stories scattered across the internet that explain, mostly with wonderment, about how good the eating is in this part of Basque country. And the reason is simple, I think: People here really and truly care about cooking and product. Perhaps more then anything else. The parade of cooking celebrities and shower of Michelin stars didn’t happen by chance; the movement began to simmer a long time ago, in basement taverns, and aging seafood halls, in gastronomic societies. And you need to see that first, before it all comes into focus.
Donostia is a town built on the foundations of a food culture both sophisticated and primal – there is decorum and fine dining; dark taverns where drunks munch on tiny sandwiches and sip watery beer; there are the vineyards and butchers and fishmongers and wonderful chocolate and pastry shops; there are foreigners and Basque folk foraging side-by-side for the best pintxos through the tunneling restaurants of the old town; and there is the cold sea and the green mountains that supply what might be the second-best market in Spain. From the second we arrived, I was smitten.
For the past two weeks I’ve been turning this idea over in my mind – what makes the food here better than anywhere else? And instead of answering that, I’ll just tell you what I ate at a seafood restaurant.
About thirty minutes from San Sebastian, through the mountains and then around the foggy coast, is a town called Getaria. Vineyards that produce tart, Txakoli grapes hug the hillsides that look down over an old church and a wide elbow of sand. There is a harbor for fishing boats. And a restaurant called Elkano, and a fashion museum.
I was told that I must eat at Elkano by Eneko Axta, a prodigiously talented chef whose brilliant cooking I would later try at Azurmendi, in Bilbao. The Chef told me that this was “classic Basque seafood cooking – the best kind.”
When we entered the restaurant at 2pm it was empty – it started to fill at about 3, which apparently is fish time in Getaria. The menu is spare. There are several fish to choose from, all fresh from the local fleet docked outside, a few starters, and your meal begins with bread and good olive oil.
Owner/manager Pedro Aitor approached us and warmly explained the seafood available. Then, he asked if I minded bones, and when I shook my head, his eyes lit up. “The red mullet is here, now, only for a few weeks,” he said, smiling. “It is the one from under the rocks, the small, sweet red mullet. Everyone here orders turbot, but for me, the red mullet from the reef close to shore speaks of this season, of the spring. I would never serve one from the deep sea, these are the babies, the first of the year.” His eyes were distant, and I wondered if he was looking at the sea when he spoke, addressing it as much as us.
So we order red mullet. And hake throats (kokotxas), which he says “are our favorite thing to eat, and only one per fish.” The throats are done three ways, lightly fried with an egg batter, grilled and grilled and served with a mild salsa verde. We also order squid, grilled with ink sauce “only one boat fishes for squid now, in Getaria, and we get the best catch.” Also, a bottle of Verdejo from Rueda, brisk and very bright, from pre-Phyloxera vines, crisp and cold like the afternoon outside.
The hake throats, gelatinous with a wisp of smoke from the grill, are wobbly, saline bites. Strangely, as I eat them, I’m reminded of China – of the sea cucumber and shark fin and fish maw that takes their place at the Chinese table because of texture rather than taste. Except that these hake throats, like the juicy, mild flesh of the fish, do taste pretty good.
The meal got better from there. The red squid was served beside a stripe of ink cooked with salt and onion; it was tender and only adorned with salt, cooked as perfectly as one is able to. Living in Thailand, I eat a lot of squid, which is often charred or chewy; none is as tender and simple as this. My wife and I smiled between bites and sips of wine, realizing this is one of those meals we’re never going to forget.
Then, although all the other tables are digging into large, flat turbot crisp around the fins, we are presented with two tiny, tender red mullet. The owner encourages me to suck the juice and brain from its skull and I do.
Have you ever sucked out the contents of a prawn’s head – one that’s fresh and fatty? It was like that, but better. Like the first breath you take after a long drive that ends at the edge of the ocean. Like sea urchin butter. Like red mullet brains, the first of the year, from under the rocks.
The flesh of the little fish was firm and sweet, tight like crabmeat, and again it wasn’t sauced or spiced, merely salted. The final flourish was a black piece of slate, with a slash of tart apple sauce, and on it sat the barely seared livers of the fish we were eating. It was delicate and rich, just a nibble, and it left me wanting more.
Which I do now, and always will, until I get back to Elkano.
(Part two, on mushrooms and pintxos, beef and spring lamb, coming sometime in the relatively near future)
The beach at Getaria