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Ask any Spaniard where the best food to be found in Spain is and they will undoubtedly answer the Pais Vasco (Basque Country) with the city of San Sebastián being its culinary centre. Set on the beautiful Cantabrian coast, San Sebastián has a backdrop of rolling green hills and jagged mountains split by fish-filled rivers. Sitting alongside the cold waters of the Bay of Biscay, the city is supplied with an amazing array of fresh ingredients and the Basques definitely know how to make the most of their incredible bounty. Here is my pick of the very best of the region’s food.
Don’t leave San Sebastián without trying…
Scattered across the jagged hills of the Basque country, traditional cider houses or Sagardotegi serve some of the planet’s most amazing beef. The grass fed animals are slaughtered quite old at around 5 years then the meat is well aged until it develops a complex flavour not unlike a good blue cheese. The favourite cut is thick slabs of fore rib called txuleton which are grilled over coals to create a charred smoky crust but left very rare on the inside and served with nothing more than a sprinkling of good sea salt.
The cold waters of the Cantabrian Sea are home to some of the best anchovies in the world. Most end up heading straight to the processing plants barely metres for the port to be cured in salt for 6-8 months before being hand-filleted and packed in oil or pickled in local vinegar. Try them either grilled fresh from the ocean in just about any Basque restaurant or as part of a gilda, one of the most traditional pintxos made up of an anchovy, olive, and local guindilla pepper held together on a small skewer.
Alubias de Tolosa
Spain produces some fantastic beans and there are a number of towns known specifically for their bean and bean dishes. The town of Tolosa in the Basque region of northern Spain holds an annual 4-day festival to celebrate the local Alubia de Tolosa, the small black bean the town is known for. Cooked in a simple vegetable broth then traditionally served with cabbage, morcilla and guindilla peppers, Alubias de Tolosa are truly outstanding.
Bacalao pil pil
Probably one of the most typical Basque dishes of all, bacalao al pil pil is a perfect example of what Basque cooking is all about. Just a few humble ingredients, bacalao, garlic and olive oil combined with a genius technique that creates something magnificent. By slowly shaking the pan while cooking, the natural gelatine from the salt cod mixes into the olive oil creating an amazingly light emulsified sauce.
Talo con chistorra
Talo is the Basque version of a soft corn tortilla similar to the Mexican staple. Most commonly eaten at markets and fiestas like el día de Santo Tomás (St Thomas day) which kicks off the Basque countries Christmas holiday season on the 21st December. Both the Basque cities of San Sebastian and Bilbao celebrate the day (and night) with a street market revolving around the beloved local sausage called chistorra. Grilled chistorra, actually very similar to chorizo but a lot thinner, is a Basque staple available in just about every pintxo bar or restaurant in San Sebastián.
There’s something so comforting about baked egg custard, especially when it’s been soaked into buttery brioche with the bonus of a crunchy caramelised crust to crunch through. Torrija is served all over Spain but the best versions are to be found in the Basque country particularly San Sebastián where local chef Andoni Aduriz of Mugaritz has taken it to another level. Torrijas are traditionally eaten around Easter more often than not for breakfast but like most people you’ll be more than happy to eat them any time of the day and at any time of the year.
Pastel Vasco is a traditional pastry made up of a dense cake crust encapsulating a soft creamy interior of crème patissière and sometimes cherries. Every patisserie has their own recipe so there are hundreds of variations of this truly unique Basque dessert. Some are almost crunchy on the outside while others have a more cakey exterior. Either way, the texture of creamy crème patisserie combined with the outer shell makes pastel Vasco a pastry masterpiece.
Pimientos de piquillo
Protected by their own Designation of Origin, pimientos de piquillo are cultivated in and around the village of Lodosa in the Navarre region of Spain. After picking, the small bright red peppers are roasted over smoking embers giving them a subtle yet rich smoky flavour, before being seeded and packed in jars or tins by hand. Commonly seen served in Pintxo bars across the north of Spain their small size and shape make them perfect little sacks for stuffing to make dishes such as pimientos rellenos de bacalao (peppers stuffed with salt cod).
Bandade de bacalao
Brandada de bacalao is just one of the hundreds of common salt cod preparations popular throughout Spain and the Basque region of France. Every region has its own idea how it should be prepared, what should go in it and what it should be served with but its always just a simple emulsion of salt cod, garlic and olive oil. Originally served as a dip with crusty bread, brandade is now commonly used as a stuffing for piquillo peppers and croquettes or gratinated as a topping for pintxos.
In Spain, especially in the Basque region, the cheeks of hake or cod fish are considered a delicacy unlike in most parts of the world where they are often seen as surplus and unfortunately thrown in the bin. The almost sweet flesh is gelatinous in texture making them perfect for the classic pil pil method of cooking but can also be grilled or fried. Every good restaurant in San Sebastián serves kokotxas in one way or another and it’s definitely a necessity to try these little morsels if visiting the city.
Ash Mair, winner of MasterChef: The Professionals 2011 and author of My Basque Cuisine, is working with MasterChef Travel on its tours to San Sebastián.
Travellers are advised to read the FCO travel advice for the country they are travelling to.
Have you sampled the food of San Sebastián? Would you add anything to our list? Share your must-try dishes below, plus visit our travel section for more globetrotting tips. We also have plenty of tapas recipes to create your own versions at home, plus a travel guide to the whole of Spain.