From liquorice-perfumed shellfish on a three-star table to anchovies and crisps in a tapas bar, San Sebastian has shot in a few years from Basque seaside resort to global foodie destination.
Of the seven Spanish tables to have notched up the coveted top rank in the Michelin food bible, three are nestled within a few miles of each other in this northern Spanish city that counts more stars per inhabitant than Paris.
“People here are crazy about food, it’s in our blood. Everything takes place around a table, it’s our language,” three-star chef Martin Berasategui said on the sidelines of a top chefs’ congress last week.
“People here love to eat, it’s fair to say they have a special culinary sensitivity,” agreed Elena Arzak, who works in tandem with her father Juan Mari in driving what has become known as new Basque cuisine.
A long-standing friend of the avant-gardist Catalan chef Ferran Adria, her 68-year-old father regularly sends out inventive new recipes from a workshop on the first floor of his eponymous restaurant in San Sebastian.
“It’s not a laboratory as such, but it is a research kitchen that enables us to offer around 40 new dishes each year,” he said.
“We freeze-dry hake to reduce it to a powder, and sprinkle it on a fillet of hake cooked à la plancha,” he said by way of example. Other recent tricks include liquorice used to enhance the flavour of shellfish, coconut to boost carrot, or peanuts added to tuna.
Tourists travel from around the world to sample the wares of the Arzak father-and-daughter duo and their Basque peers – but locals also make up a fair slice of the custom.
“It’s not the kind of restaurant where you go every day. So less wealthy people save up to be able to come along once a year, just like other customers,” explained Mr Arzak.
For both him and fellow chef Pedro Subijana, who mans the three-star table Akelarre, the Basque food revolution can be traced back to the mid-1970s and a meeting in Madrid with French pioneers of nouvelle cuisine.
“That’s where it all began,” says Mr Arzak. “We came home to San Sebastian wanting to shake up our traditions.
“Then the success of El Bulli (and its chef Ferran Adria) gave us a shot in the arm that propelled our cuisine onto the world stage.”
Known for using hi-tech methods to “deconstruct” and reassemble ingredients, Mr Adria’s restaurant near Barcelona was crowned the world’s best for four years – only losing the title this year to rising star Noma in Copenhagen.
Spain’s success story came to the dismay of some French chefs, who were attacked by the international press as resting on their laurels even as dynamic rivals were driving a revolution on the other side of the Pyrenees.
Michel Guerard, a key figure of nouvelle cuisine in France, says Basque chefs have sparked a virtuous circle of creativity, drawing on influences from home and abroad.
“These chefs, often trained in France, overhauled and re-imagined their cuisine by mixing up traditional and experimental techniques,” he said.
Mr Berasategui, who learned the ropes in his parent’s bodegon, or local tavern, before training under great French chefs, believes “the past 15 years heve been a historic moment for San Sebastian’s cuisine.”
But that is no reason to get big-headed. Quite the opposite: “The more apples a tree has, the more it must be firmly rooted in the ground.”
“We try to work a signature cuisine that is contemporary but still keeps in touch with our roots,” agreed Mr Arzak.
“Our tastes are open on the world. We might be working tandoori or ginger, but unconsciously we’re still guided by our own palate,” added his daughter, who still admits to a tendency to “add garlic and parsley everywhere.”
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