When we planned our epic summer roadtrip for this year, San Sebastian was firmly on my list. I didn’t mind when, for how long, or even if I had to sleep in a car park (which we did by the way). I just wanted to see the foodie mecca for myself.
To many, San Sebastian is the food capital of the world. Apparently it’s got more Michelin stars per capita than anywhere else on the globe and several of its restaurants are up there with the best in the world. But even if you don’t count all of that highfalutin stuff, it’s the food culture that permeates through the streets of the Basque city that’s what will really win your heart.
As much as I would have liked a swanky meal, roadtripping in a campervan with a dog in tow can sometimes come with compromise. So we decided to take in the slightly more down-to-earth side of San Sebastian and trawl its Pintxos bars for an evening. That’s something we could easily have done on our own but, slightly nervous of how friendly our Basque pals would be towards a chunk of a Rottweiler (turns out very friendly indeed!) I decided we’d take advantage of some expert assistance and book on a tour with Mimo.
These guys had been recommended to me by not one, but THREE, people – all who can be considered fairly knowledgeable about food in their own right – so I figured if it was good enough for them, it was more than good enough for little old me. Mimo basically offer ‘culinary tourism’, cooking courses and all sorts of other food-related holiday fun, and promise to show you things you wouldn’t ordinarily have found. They started in San Sebastian but are now in Seville, Mallorca and the Algarve for all your food exploration purposes.
We booked on to an evening Pintxo tour and our special request to bring along a four-legged friend didn’t phase them at all, much to my relief. The trip promised to take us on a tasting tour of five or six bars in San Sebastian’s beautiful old town, with food and wine in each and the benefit of a bilingual guide. More than enough to whet this greedy girl’s appetite. We started at their office where we met our guide Inigo and fellow food fans and set off on what proved to be a rather raucous evening.
If you’ve read this blog before, you’ll have seen mention of Pintxos. I first discovered them in Bilbao with my mum and have been fascinated since. If you think bar snacks extend as far as peanuts soaked in urine courtesy of the men who still refuse to wash their hands after they’ve been to the toilet, then this will restore your faith in life in general. Forget processed, over-salted snacks designed to encourage you to drink more. These are tiny little meals on a stick. Beautifully-assembled combinations of tastes, textures and colours that will make you smile in sheer joy as you devour them. And what better way to spend an evening than grazing on such loveliness while working your way through all the best booze a Basque city has to offer.
We start in Bar Sport, where Inigo gives us a history of Pintxos and lets us in on the fact that there are actually more than 180 Pintxo bars in San Sebastian. Enough for me to come back at least another 30 times and doing six each time without ever going in the same one!
There we tried three dishes, Pimientos de Gernika, Txistorra which is local sausage, and grilled squid that was definitely the fave. We washed it down with Txakoli – another must in San Sebastian – which is the local white wine that they pour from about three miles above the glass for added drama.
Next was Casa Urola, where the scallop with ajoblanco – a traditional cold Spanish soup made with bread, almonds, garlic and olive oil – was to die for. A salad of leaves, faba beans, foie gras, shrimp and vinaigrette was lighter and more simple – probably good after the delicate yet rich dish that preceded it.
We also got our mitts on ‘Gilda’ – no, not a fellow tourist but the first Pintxo ever made in San Sebastian. A simple mini skewer of anchovies, Guindilla pepper and olives. This time everything was washed down with white wine from the Rueda region, which I actually preferred to Txakoli (sorry, I know I’m a heathen. Why break the habit of a lifetime?)
Atari, a corner bar in front of Santa María church was probably one of my favourite stops. They also do the biggest, best gin and tonics ever (I know as I returned and sampled a few). The food was hearty bowls of punchy flavours – hake with leek soup and seaweed mayo and the ‘Arroz del día’ which on the day we visited was with lamb, green beans and lime alioli.
Now, you may notice that pictures from this point on get a bit less numerous. That’s not because anything we had later in the evening was any less beautiful, tasty or enjoyable than these first few. It’s more testament to Mimo’s ability to bring a group of complete strangers together through a shared love of food and drink and within an hour have them relaxed enough that everyone was far too busy chatting, comparing flavours and likes and dislikes and joining in a harmonious chorus of ‘mmm’s’ to be taking pictures of their food.
When you spend your life documenting every meal and inadvertently ruining the experience of most of those with you, it’s always refreshing to return to what’s at the heart of food and drink. Its ability to bring people together. For me, this is what Pintxos are really about. It’s about balancing a glass in one hand and a gorgeous snack in the other as you chat to someone amid a hubbub of hundreds of people doing the same thing.
And so, friends, sadly I have no pictures from our visit to Txuleta. This was the moment the night got meaty. A T-bone steak pintxo, along with T-bone steak croquetas, all washed down with a glass of Rioja. The same goes for Gandarias – another haven for meat-lovers and Brandy’s personal favourite because she was treated to her own personal Pintxo rather than a nibble of other people’s. Needless to say, the sirloin won her approval, and we also loved every second of a platter of Jamon, lomo and chorizo iberico.
We finished our night (well, the tour part anyway – the night may or may not have gone on slightly longer afterwards…) at La Vina, home of the best cheesecake in the city and arguably the world. Inside, these baked beauties line the counter just waiting to be snaffled as the finale to a night of savoury success.
We eat our slices drenched in a slug of Pedro Ximenez sherry that Inigo has teamed with dessert and it is, quite frankly, to die for. I’m struggling to remember a moment this year when I’ve been quite as happy as when clutching my plate of cheesecake and sucking the sherry out of a chunk of it before letting it melt in my mouth. Yes, San Sebastian, you rule.
After bidding goodnight to Inigo, we finish the evening at Atari, where a few too many big gins may have been consumed. It’s safe to say, one night in San Sebastian just isn’t enough. If just looking around at all the bars and restaurants we missed wasn’t enough, a five-minute chat with Inigo about all the other places he’d recommend pretty much sent me straight to the calendar to look at when we could make a return trip. From certain streets to individual restaurants and their signature dishes, the best place to get certain classic dishes, there is an endless list of places to go – a list I absolutely can’t wait to return and make some inroads into.
We left San Sebastian the next day with a heavy heart (and horrible hangover, but that’s a whole other story – let me remind you, when drinking too much bear in mind where you will be waking up! In a campervan in the middle of a car park in a city is not the funnest place to be when you feel the worse for wear…). Just over 24 hours in a city like this is nowhere near long enough, but we had run out of time on our roadtrip and had to leave or we might not have made it back up to Calais in time for our crossing.
Of course, we’ll be going back. It’s the perfect place for a city break. A stunning city, complete with beach, old town, history, sights, and of course food. Yes, one of those Michelin-starred places is on my list, but it’s the balance of San Sebastian that has won my heart. It’s not the preserve of those who earn so much they can drop a few hundred quid on a meal without it impacting their life. Yes, that’s one side of it, but the appreciation of food runs beyond the rich and privileged. It’s available to all, and anyone can embrace it. Whether you want a 10-course tasting menu from one of the best chefs in the world or a few tastes of some classic Pintxos dishes from a less famous, but still wonderfully skilled chef at one of the many bars.
San Sebastian is a leveller. A place where the simple pleasure of food can be sampled by all and permeates through pretty much everywhere in the city. Where you can get involved no matter who you are, what you know, what you do and what you can afford. If only there were more places like this in the world.
We did Mimo’s Pintxo Tasting Tour on our visit to San Sebastian. They kindly gave us 50% off but we would have paid in full anyway. You don’t have to do a tour, but I’d highly recommend it as a way of trying a whole range of bars and dishes and getting your bearings so you can take in San Sebastian in all its glory.