Curious Cook: Secrets of San Sebastian

Cold pintxos are very popular in San Sebastian. — Photos: CHRIS CHAN

Many people know that San Sebastian is the gastronomy capital of the world, especially if one goes by the number of Michelin stars per capita in a town. It is the centre and focal point of Basque culinary traditions, which is a particularly vibrant and inventive culture. It is no fluke that molecular gastronomy was invented in this town, typifying the Basque quest for culinary excellence and sensuality in dining.

Why San Sebastian (also known as “Donostia” in the Basque language) is so immersed in fine food is an interesting question. One might suggest access to a wide variety of good, fresh seafood might be part of the answer. Yet the town has very soggy winters, high humidity all year around and is generally so damp that it is impossible to cure sausages and meats by hanging to dry naturally.

I can attest to the very wet winters as I am writing this here in San Sebastian, after wading through several inches of rainwater and a bit of icy hail this morning (for breakfast) and again this evening (for dinner).

San Sebastian is often called the gastronomy capital of the world because of the number of Michelin-starred restaurants it hosts.San Sebastian is often called the gastronomy capital of the world because of the number of Michelin-starred restaurants it hosts.

Another reason may be that people here and in the Basque region prefer to socialise around food, in much the same way that other places socialise around beer, football or rugby. There are many private groups called txokos (pronounced cho-kos) where people regularly gather around to cook for each other as a way of socialising.

This love of food is probably also further enhanced by many locals travelling/working in other countries to expand their culinary horizons and experiences. They then eventually return to San Sebastian and the Basque region where their extended knowledge get distilled/incorporated into the local food culture. Put simply, the quality of cooking and food here is just very, very high.

Made of persistence

But there is one other quality of the Basque people which is worthy of mention, and it is their persistence in the face of obdurate natural obstacles.

And there is no better example of this perseverance than txakoli, a unique white wine which balances acidity with light fruit, low minerality and subtle astringency. It also needs to be poured from a height into the glass so that air can mix with the wine and oxidise away some of the natural sharp acidity of the wine.

If it sounds a little intimidating to drink, it is nothing compared to the effort needed to make this curious wine. The prime area for producing this wine is around the small town of Getaria, about 30-40 minutes west from San Sebastian.

Only 433 hectares of vines are involved in producing txakoli here (pronounced cha-ko-lee) but this is enough to sustain a production of over half a million bottles a year from this relatively small area. Txakoli is also made in the much larger adjoining region of Bizkaia where another 1.7 million bottles or so are produced.

The txakoli vineyards in Getaria is streteched somewhat haphazardly across hills.The txakoli vineyards in Getaria is streteched somewhat haphazardly across hills.

We visited a txakoli vineyard in Getaria and it was immediately an impressive but sobering sight. Unlike the wide, expansive vineyards in, say, Burgundy, the vines in Getaria are much sturdier and taller, held upright by strong posts with cables and wires networked across the canopies to support the grapes. The vineyards are also stretched ruggedly and somewhat haphazardly across hills overlooking the sea; some face south, others face north and other directions.

The area has its own special microclimate but even so, the exposure to the sun across the vineyards is unevenly distributed. To complicate matters, the area is persistently humid, hills are steep and covered with verdant undergrowth to prevent soil erosion from heavy rains that tumble frequently in the area.

Due to the rugged terrain, every harvest is done by hand, with small tractors providing the hauling power for the 200kg trays of grapes to the production presses. Where the terrain is too steep, then all the harvesting and hauling is done by hand. Harvesting has to be done at precise moments as the heavy humidity or rainfall can introduce mildew and other fungi which can affect the taste of the whole vintage.

The txakoli grapes at Getaria are idiosyncratically Basque, with a mix of around 80% white Hondarrabi Zuri, with some Hondarabbi Zuri Zerratia, grown together with about 20% red Hondarrabi Beltza.

In the Bizkaia region, other grapes are also permitted such as Mune Mahatsa, Izkiriota, Izkiriota-Ttippia, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Chardonnay, perhaps as a way to make txakoli more palatable for other international markets.

After picking, the grapes are de-stemmed, pressed very quickly and then the juices are stored in chilled steel tanks with a special yeast added to start the fermentation process. This is for the normal txakoli which is normally a white wine, with varying degrees of “fizziness”.

Turning bottles of pink fizzy txakoli.Turning bottles of pink fizzy txakoli.

A pinkish-red txakoli is also produced mainly from the Hondarrabi Beltza grapes which need to be sorted out from the other white grapes beforehand; these red grapes are pressed and left to macerate (left with the skins on) for a period of time to derive the colour required in the juice.

The yeast strain used for fermenting txakoli had been isolated by the University of Navarra years ago from the skin of local grapes and is used exclusively for the various txakoli wines.

The fermentation process results in heavy deposits of yeast material and this is left in the base of the tanks for the normal txakoli. For fizzy txakoli, some yeast is left to ferment longer to introduce the carbon dioxide element.

In some cases, for the premium fizzy txakoli, the yeast is left in the bottles which are then turned every day in an upside down position until the yeast rests at the bottle necks. Then a special machine extracts the yeast material before corking.

For the higher quality txakoli, the wine is returned to a very cold tank to separate out the sometimes unusual-looking tartaric acid crystals which can appear when txakoli is chilled in the refrigerator. This is not done for all txakoli so the cheaper bottles can sometimes appear odd with deposits of such crystals in the wine after being left in a cold fridge.

Pinxtos and txakoli

Many people are also aware of the pinxto culture in San Sebastian, and every single pinxto bar would offer either a tinto (red wine, usually a Rioja) or a txakoli with their pinxtos (pronounced pinch-chos).

Before visiting the vineyards in Getaria, I had not understood the inherent Basque character of txakoli; the complexity, devotion and diligence needed to craft txakoli from such a difficult terrain is inspirational.

When doing a pintxos crawl, diners should only have one or two pintxos paired with txakoli before repeating the process at the next bar. When doing a pintxos crawl, diners should only have one or two pintxos paired with txakoli before repeating the process at the next bar.

I now find that txakoli has a special way of cutting through the richness of many pinxtos and offer an idiosyncratic contrast with the savoury, very delicious portions.

Many pinxtos are made for txakoli and vice versa, and to not understand this is to miss an important point about life and food in San Sebastian and the Basque region.

Etiquette of pinxto crawling

There are several ways to approach a pinxto crawl through the Parte Vieja (old part of town) of San Sebastian, or indeed any area with a few pinxto bars.

My initial mistake was to try every pinxto at the first good bar I came across. This resulted in an extremely heavy feeling afterwards when stumbling back to the hotel, which was repeated the next night at the next bar.

Later, I learnt from locals the correct way to approach a pinxto crawl is to order a txakoli or tinto at a bar, have only one or two pinxtos, and then repeat again at any many bars as possible before stumbling back to the hotel. This is much more satisfying (and sensible).

Newbies to San Sebastian shouldn’t miss out on caliente pintxos, which are hot dishes cooked to order.Newbies to San Sebastian shouldn’t miss out on caliente pintxos, which are hot dishes cooked to order.

Another mistake is missing the caliente (hot, pronounced kah-li-en-teh) pinxtos as usually a beginner would be mesmerised by the huge selections of cold pinxtos smothering the bars.

One has to search for the caliente menu where one can ask for stunning hot fresh pinxtos cooked to order.

Be careful though of the raciones (whole dishes, pronounced rah-scions); raciones are more expensive and seldom modest in size, so do this only in a group, unless one is hungry.

Oh, and be warned about ordering a txuleta (pronounced choo-let-ta). This usually results in a large (over one kg) flame-grilled section of a Rubia Gallega cow landing on the table with the waiter winking “good luck” if one is dining alone.

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Chris Chan , San Sebastian , pintxos , caliente , txakoli


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