On the Bay of Biscay in Spain's Basque Country, just 20 kilometres from the French border, men with a bit of time on their hands turn to their neighbourhood gastronomical society.
San Sebastian is a seaside resort of barely 180,000 inhabitants and home to about 200 private men's food clubs. In each, you will find a professional chef's kitchen and a dining area where members and invited guests gather to prepare and enjoy a meal together. Women are more than welcome but do not cross the threshold into the kitchen: Here, women are cooked for.
This rugged coastline is commonly referred to as the Spanish Riviera for the elegance of its beaches and the quality of its restaurants. Bilbao, an hour west, is still the economic powerhouse of the region. It is a tough-looking industrial city whose cultural appeal - thank the Guggenheim for that - warrants a day visit. But San Sebastian's rolling green hills and golden beaches, mixed with a traditional and haute cuisine, make this city the destination of choice in the Basque Country. At all hours, the seaside promenade is busy with people taking the air; the beaches, on hot days, are lively but not crowded; and at midday and later, approaching evening, the old quarter's pintxo bars are packed with those looking for a bite to hold them till the late-night Spanish suppertime.
The pintxo (pronounced pincho) is the more artful and satisfying cousin of Spain's famous tapa. It is a bite-size morsel usually taken with a small beer ( zuritoa) or a Txakoli, the region's dry and very acidic white wine. Over the past 20 years, the more adventurous chefs in the Basque Country have been pushing the boundaries of the traditional cod paste and pimiento or anchovy pintxo. At El Fuego Negro, on a street called 31 de Agosto in the heart of the old quarter, I sampled the innovative and delicious raw mackerel cubes, chicharro, finely diced and arranged on a cherry-biscuit wafer. After that came a mouthful of seared Kobe beef with green pimiento; and finally a creamy risotto enlivened with grains of rock salt and cilantro clippings.
This is a newer interpretation of the pintxo, ordered at the bar and served hot (or at least freshly prepared) from the kitchen, as in the case of the mackerel. The more traditional fare, just down the street and all around the old town, is prepared in advance and artfully arranged on the bar top. The patron is expected to take a plate from the bar top and help himself. Each pintxo is stuck with a toothpick and the bartender charges you according to the number of toothpicks left on your plate.
I washed down my last pintxo at El Fuego Negro with a swallow of chocolaty Baigorri wine from the high Rioja region of Spain, and moved on. I had my sights set on the Casa Urola a few blocks away. It was tough going. Every third or fourth open doorway in the old quarter presents a glimpse of a bar laden with mounds of beautiful pintxos. But it was something else that caught my eye.
In the doorway of Amaikak-bat, one of those 200 gastronomical societies in town, I saw two men talking. Over their heads, a plaque announced the club's founding year - 1907. You can tell these collectives by the large flagpole sticking from their façade at a 45-degree angle over the street. The older of the two men, maybe 60, noticed my curiosity. He waved me over and invited me in for a quick tour.
Inside, two young men were seated at a long wooden table. The older gentleman assumed his position at the stove in the kitchen behind a low partition. The walls were of heavy stone and dark wood. The society's crest, on a large granite sheet, was mortared to the wall.
"At a club like this," he said, "cooking is the man's responsibility. It gives us pleasure to cook." He shuffled the two cod fillets that sizzled on the grill. The air was rich with their fresh sea aroma.
When the time came, I thanked him and his guests. Sadly, an invitation to join these men was not forthcoming, so I moved on toward Casa Urola, presided over by chef and owner Fermin Calbeton. Its decor is traditional Basque, an elegant and simple nautical feel, rustic and warm. Its fresh meat and fish are displayed in the glass-fronted coolers that rim the dining area. In the corner aquarium, a giant blue-speckled lobster traced its claws against the glass.
I started with hake necks ( kokotxas) lightly fried in olive oil and white wine, garlic and parsley. Next came the foie gras, a standard here in the Basque Country; then on a slate tile came strips of beef in a savoury reduction with thin potato fries followed by barnacles and spring mushrooms on a poached egg. After my meal, I met Fermin, a white-haired and kindly man from the southwest of Spain. He told me he had worked as a chef around the world before coming to San Sebastian. "Here were are in our mecca."
Among foodies, it's said San Sebastian has more Michelin stars per head than anywhere in the world. After witnessing the appreciation for food here, I was beginning to understand how this might be: People take their food seriously.
The following day, I met with Elena Arzak, who runs, with her famous father, Juan Mari, the most celebrated restaurant in the Basque Country. Their restaurant, Arzak, wears its three Michelin stars quietly, and sits at the edge of the city on Avenida Alcalde Jose Elosegui. I was still giddy after my meal in Arzak's modern, relaxed first-floor dining room. The tasting menu lingered on my tongue. The lobster claw and egg in chicken broth and breadcrumbs and squab breast and monkfish were all swimming onward toward that pantheon of best feasts ever.
During my meal, I watched her visit every table, and explain each dish and how it was to be approached according to the sequence of strengthening flavours on the palate. She is a small and attractive woman in her 40s, and when she joined me close to 5 p.m., it was probably the first time she had sat down all day. I thought I would reverse the tasting order and put the sharp question up front: How was business in a struggling economy?
She thought about this for a moment, leaned forward, and told me that people here save for months to eat at Arzak and other great restaurants in the city. "We aren't especially worried. In San Sebastian, food is everything. People will save. And then they will come."
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Astoria , Sagrada Familia 1; 34-943-445-000; www.astoria7hotel.com; a double room from $272 (204 euros).
WHERE TO EAT
- Restaurant Arzak , Avenida Alcalde Jose Elosegui 273; 34-943-278-465; www.arzak.info
- A Fuego Negro , Calle 31 de Agosto 31; 34 650-135-373
- Casa Urola , Calle Fermin Calbeton 20; 943-420-434
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Special to The Globe and Mail