The streets are nearly empty. As light cascades down cobbled thoroughfares, dog walkers shield their eyes and market-goers tow their rickety carts toward Mercado de la Bretxa.
The market of San Sebastián sits underneath a square just a pebble’s skip from crashing waves surging up the mouth of the Urumea Itsasadarra River. Lamps glowing red illuminate butchers navigating dangling strings of txistorra, Basque chorizo, while across the aisle, an bright white storefront advertises every imaginable form of bacalao, or salt cod.
Tucked in a rear corner, Bar Azkena has been crafting delicate, fluffy breakfasts for nearly 20 years. Tortillas, or omelets, stuffed with surprises like squid ink and blood sausage fill the bar counter, necessitating foldout tabletops and overflow seating across the aisle. Traffic is brisk. Vendors arrive in aprons for a quick bite while regulars sip cava over several courses. The standard breakfast consists of coffee, (certainly a café con leche), a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice, tortilla and an open-faced toast piled high with jamon iberico and drizzled with olive oil. This last course is a meaty digestif, arriving on a shard of slate, and is so tall it requires a special pincer method to jam all of the cured pork into your mouth. Peppery green olive oil runs down your hand as you taste each ingredient in turn. Every aspect is delicious, crafted with care, and the peppery oil is cleansing.
Bar Azkena is a microcosm of San Sebastián and also of Basque Country, a region rich with history and meticulous culinary traditions that transcend modern foodie fads. It is a family affair with husband in the front of the house and wife concocting remarkable eggy goodness in the back. Basque Country skirts pretension and instead finds unity in the power of exceptional food.
Nestled in the north of Spain along the Bay of Biscay and border of France, the Basque Autonomous Community occupies rocky coastlines hardened by millennia of waves rocketing in from the Atlantic. Mountains and hills ripple southward, often topped with white stone cottages and sheep roaming the rocky greenery.
Centuries of conflict are now hidden in plain sight: a mountaintop fort transformed into a shrine of pilgrimage, secessionist graffiti battered by waves along bulwarks. During the Napoleonic wars San Sebastián was leveled and rebuilt. A prison that once sat on the waterfront promenade has now given way to barbers, bakers and barkeeps. Grand hotels and casinos lie across the natural harbor from the old city, glittering temptingly in the late afternoon sun.
Elegant crescent-moon-shaped beaches sit within the city, convenient for the lazy sunbather. In cooler weather, casual beachcombers are absent, replaced by fervent surfers bedecked in neoprene and observed by friends and dog walkers. Seeing black silhouettes trotting amongst strolling locals is delightfully common.
The sea is an integral part of Basque life, the ubiquitous presence of salt cod, shrimp and calamari tapas more than a hint. A winding path over the rocky cliffs to the east of San Sebastián yields an ancient portion of the Camino de Santiago. This long-traversed and famous pilgrimage sees constant foot traffic, whether by pilgrims or lovers looking for seclusion. A two-hour hike (15-minute bus ride) will deposit you in the port town of Pasaia. Fishermen dodge waves on their way to a small lighthouse that marks the entrance of another natural harbor. One shakes his head and bemoans the high wind while another puffs pensively on a cigarette.
Following the path inland along the channel brings you to the heart of the old town, a fishing community and commercial port spanning both sides of a treacherously small channel. An old dry dock has been renovated into a museum and time capsule, endeavoring to recreate a 16th-century whaling vessel sunk off the coast of Canada. Dioramas illustrate the historic packing of salt cod and cider, common foodstuffs in the Basque region today. The steady woodworking of the living museum is a testament to the power of tradition and heritage. A one-minute ferry ride takes you across the channel into a compact old town full of tapas bars and churches.
Hunting for pintxos could be considered an art of happenstance, with the best luck evidenced by crowd watching. The odd tourist is lost amongst locals following their routines, making it easy to find the popular haunts. Have a small glass of something with one, maybe two pintxos, then move on, maximizing the opportunity to discover new gems. It is conceivable you could try oxtail (rabo de buey) three slightly different ways and be satisfied. Hot pintxos are made to order, so it is wise to peer behind the bar for a chalkboard listing more morsels for consideration. The quality of the food is as shocking as the quantity. Neat stacks of pata negra toasts abut glittering skewers of anchovies, while crab salad steadily disappears nearby, making it hard to show restraint with an empty plate. Dozens of dishes piled high with cured meat and the fruits of the sea illustrate both the rich food culture of Basque Country and the access to quality ingredients that is available.
Near the natural harbor, Paco Bueno is popular early in the evening, featuring fried calamari and shrimp for a pittance to pair with a glass of cleansing txakoli, the local white wine. The grapes seem to capture hints of the ocean, proffering a clean and slightly saline tipple that goes well with fried fish. Following the flowing crowds, people split up amongst the alleys for the next haunt.
A three-hour finish is on the short side for a sidrería meal because there is no rush, only the enjoyment of good food and company
San Sebastián holds the auspicious title of having the highest concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants in the world. Those with fat wallets can have a field day in the old city, but there are more than enough bars to host weeks of pintxo hunting without a repeat dish at a given place.
While there are vast smorgasbords of pintxos available everywhere, certain dishes tend to disappear faster than others. Bocadillos, or sandwiches, are often made out of an entire small baguette stuffed with simple combinations that emphasize the flavor of each ingredient. Bar Narrika is tiny, but serves up massive bocadillos like La Trini, a favorite of tuna, lettuce, mayo, anchovies, and pickled peppers. Patrons perch in alcoves scarfing bocadillos just outside the splash zone of the bartender pouring wine from above his head into a glass at his waist. The elegant gesture is both entrancing and terrifying for the clumsy, but useful in opening up the flavors in txakoli.
Around the corner sits Bar Etxebarria, the ideal place to find Basque microbrews. The counter is filled with tap handles and towers of coasters to support the constant stream of beers. Imbibing delicious beverages is not a problem in San Sebastian. The massive variety of pintxos ensures that pairings are no gastronome’s dilemma. Vinos Martinez in the old town is the local beverage hookup and even makes its own patxaran, a Navarrese beverage made from sloe berries. It is lovely to sip chilled after dinner, with contrasting fruity and anisette flavors that are the perfect balance of sweet and clean.
To fully experience Basque Country you must head to the hills south of San Sebastián. Tucked in the valleys beneath noble hills about ten minutes outside of town, Astigarraga is host to countless sidrerías, or cider taverns. These cavernous hilltop tavernas have a voluptuous set menu and an endless high-pressure stream of cider. Dining at a cider tavern is for groups, with long rough-hewn tables and bench seating surrounded by oft-standing clientele, eyeing, with increasing frequency, the entrance to the nearby cellar.
Sidrería Bereziartua is family-run and its ciders have won numerous awards. Aitor and Hector, the latest generation in a long line of cider masters, are rightfully proud of their product. The Bereziartua family welcomes groups of giddy cider lovers into the taverna as if it were an extension of their home.
“When you are drinking the cider, it is like you are crushing the apples in your mouth. It is very clean, you keep wanting more,” says Aitor, as cider rockets onto the rim of a wide-mouthed glass. The ritual ricocheting brings a lovely fizz to the tart cider. Massive casks as large as 25,000 liters sit walking distance from the dining room so that the thirsty can grab a glass in between courses. The barrels are arranged chronologically, making it possible to taste the full yearlong maturation of the cider.
A traditional cod omelet whets the appetite for an oncoming storm of delicious food. The delicate flakes of rehydrated salt cod are a Basque staple and appear in myriad forms in numerous traditional preparations. The next course is yet another form of cod, a fillet lightly grilled and topped with fried peppers. It is both tender and crispy, with a gentle spiciness.
What happens next is a bit unexpected. Massive steaks, or txuleta, often passing a kilo in weight, are deposited on the table with majesty. While shared between groups, it is often a bit of an adventure reaching the end. After we receive a few more splashes of cider, a hard cheese and quince paste are brought to the table to cleanse the palate.
A three-hour finish is on the short side for a sidrería meal because there is no rush, only the enjoyment of good food and company – a sentiment that fortunately is a constant throughout Basque Country.