Nestled on the southern coast of Biscay Bay, San Sebastian is without a doubt the culinary capital of Basque Country. Famed for its Michelin star restaurants and pintxos culture, this charming and hip beach city never fails to impress. While tapas are originally from Andalusia, they have truly reached their zenith in San Sebastian.
With long stretches of beach to play on by day and some of Spain’s best cuisine to dine on by night, it’s no wonder people flock to this corner of Basque Country to sip and savour. Whether you are staying in the charming Parte Vieja or old town, the Centro Romántico, dating to the late 19th Century, the surfing beach of Playa de Gros or the lavish district of Playa de Ondarreta, you are sure to encounter some of city’s flagship cuisine. And with all the pintxo, there is no excuse not to immerse yourself in the food on offer.
Is looking at pintxos menus leaving you overwhelmed? Are you not quite sure where to start? Here are ten of the top foods that every gourmet traveller should try when visiting San Sebastian.
Our Top Ten San Sebastian Dishes
Number 1 – Txuleta
Meat lovers won’t be able to resist txuleta – a thick slab of fore rib from grass-fed beef. Raised on the rugged hillslopes of Basque Country, the cattle are slaughtered at around five years old. The meat aged so that it infuses with a deep and rich flavour. They then grill it over coals, giving it that charred, smoky flavour and crisp exterior. The middle is juicy and rare. While its tempting to create something elaborate with txuleta, the truth is that it’s best on its own so that all of its indulgent flavours are present.
Number 2 – Anchoas
Many people associate anchovies as something extracted from a tin and used as a salty flavour enhancer on pizzas. The chilly Cantabrian waters rear some of the best anchovies the world has to offer. In San Sebastian their culinary potential transforms. While most are unloaded straight onto trucks, headed for the canning factory and the lucrative export industry, spawned by Italian immigrants in the 1920s, a few make their way onto San Sebastian’s pintxos plates, combined with olives and local guindilla peppers. Try them fresh from the grill in their purest form. Your idea of anchovies will never be the same again!
Number 3 – Bacalao al pil pil
Simple but delicious, bacalao pil pil is one of San Sebastian’s most iconic dishes, based around on locally sourced cod. Its natural gelatine is mixed with olive oil, creating a light, emulsified sauce, and garlic is then added as a flavour enhancer. Sounds easy, but there is an art to thickening the emulsion that makes this dish trickier than its ingredient’s list suggests.
Number 4 – Txistorra
Almost every pintxo bar in San Sebastian will offer txistorra in some shape or form and this locally produced sausage is a ‘must try’ when you’re in the city. Slightly thinner than chorizo, this high fat delicacy is of minced pork and beef, flavoured with garlic, salt and paprika, in lamb tripe. It normally stretches around 40 centimetres in length and can contain differing percentages of pork to beef, depending on the butcher. During festivals such as el día de Santo Tomás on December 21 it is available within a soft corn tortilla in what is known as talo con txistorra, or find it year-round in the dish known as huevos rotos con txistorra y patatas, another popular incarnation, including fried eggs and potatoes.
Number 5 – Txangurru
Another San Sebastian delicacy that seafood lovers won’t be able to resist is txangurru, the sublime shredded meat of spider crabs that migrate along San Sebastian’s coastline. Look for txangurru donostiarra, a delicious ‘crab casserole’ that varies slightly depending on the chef and often combines fish to enhance the flavour of the dish. Normally the crabs are slowly boiled in their shells, then the flaky white meat pried away and fried with onion, leek and tomato. Brandy is added in a blaze of flames, then the meat returned to the crab shells, sprinkled with bread crumbs and butter, and baked under a hot grill – absolutely irresistible!
Number 6 – Hongos
They often say mushrooms are ‘meat’ for vegetarians and wild mushrooms make some exceptional appearances on San Sebastian’s pintxos menus when the season allows. Hearty hongos are plucked fresh from the beech forests and pine groves surrounding San Sebastian and simply seared porcinis, chanterelles or níscalos are irresistible. Many towns surrounding San Sebastian hold a ‘mycology’ day in early November when mushroom identification, foraging and tasting activities introduce children to this age-old tradition, with indulgent meals celebrating the best of the season’s harvest. Hongos a la plancha is a common dish on San Sebastian’s menus and sees mushrooms (preferably the revered black porcini) with egg yolk and with sea salt – a dish that will satisfy vegetarians and meat-eaters alike.
Number 7 – Percebes
One of San Sebastian’s most expensive pintxos is percebes – uneasy on the eye but definitely worth the splurge! These goose barnacles (‘dinosaur toes’) are a lovely delicacy in San Sebastian. They have a soft flesh and salty flavour, somewhere between clam and lobster. They only grow in the nooks and crannies of shallow, cold water. This makes them difficult to harvest for divers who have to tackle dangerous surf and rough coastlines. They are best steamed, blanched or simmered, allowing their exceptional flavour to shine through. Eating them can be difficult – negotiating the hard shell and thick membrane to get the juicy, sweet flesh inside. But if you happen to intercept percebes coming fresh from the boat, then just gulp them down raw!
Number 8 – Kokotxas
In many parts of the world chefs throw out the cheeks of hake and cod are discarded as unwanted surplus. In San Sebastian they are revered as kokotxas and found in almost every good restaurant. Whether grilled, fried or prepared in the traditional pil pil style, they take on a sweet taste and gelatinous texture. A popular way to prepare them is braising them with garlic, parsley and olive oil. They then thicken into a gelatin. As the saying goes, ‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.’ Sampling kokotxas in San Sebastian will alter the way you use hake forever more.
Number 9 – Torrija
One of San Sebastian’s most delicious desserts is Torrija. You can’t leave the city without trying this comforting mix of bread soaked in honey and spice-infused milk. It is dipped in egg and then fried with olive oil. While it is available all over Spain, it has its roots in Basque Country. Its caramelised outer is satisfyingly crunchy while the buttery brioche is delicious and smooth. This is very popular during Lent or Holy Week, but also available year-round in San Sebastian.
Number 10 – Pastel Vasco
Originating in 18th Century Labourd, the decadent pastry known as Pastel Vasco makes regular appearances in San Sebastian’s bakeries and is pretty irresistible for those with a sweet tooth. The dense cake crust encompasses a soft crème patissière interior and, sometimes cherries or other seasonal fruit. Served with freshly brewed coffee, it makes the perfect afternoon tea and sugar fix when sight seeing throughout San Sebastian.
San Sebastian’s culinary rise to fame
Blessed with a vast array of fresh ingredients, the Basque have transformed their rustic produce into something of legendary status. What started out as traditional home-cooked recipes have evolved into some of Spain’s most sophisticated and revered dishes. This has happened within a city blessed by both natural and architectural beauty. People travel far and wide to dine at the city’s pintxo bars and savour fine Basque dishes in its restaurants. From indulgent meats to elegantly simple seafood dishes and intoxicating sweets, the city’s cuisine harnesses natural flavours and transforms them into plates that are distinctively San Sebastian. A visit to this city will awaken your senses to the wide-ranging potential of ingredients. It will leave you wishing you never had to leave this gastronomic paradise.
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Try your hand at Basque cooking!