From The Wine Spectator: November 30, 1998
Seductive San Sebastián
In the traditional Basque town of Oiartzun, Spain, hard by the coastal city of San Sebastián and only 10 miles from the French border, Hilario Arbelaitz cooks Michelin-starred meals at the 500-year-old farmhouse in which he was born. Offers to relocate regularly arrive from restaurant investors in Madrid, Paris and New York. They dangle large salaries, equity shares and creative freedom, but he always declines.
"Here in San Sebastián we have a gastronomic tradition," says Arbelaitz, executive chef and part-owner (with his two brothers) of Zuberoa Jatetxea, which has earned two Michelin stars and a reputation as one of the best restaurants in Spain. "Not only the chefs, but everyone who lives here understands cocina alta, the high cuisine. They accept it and live with it." He gestures around the dining room of the converted farmhouse, with its exposed beams and antique furniture. "And though money is important because without money none of this could exist, love of what you do is more important," he says. "Here, we cook and eat for love."
These sentiments are noble, but they don't reveal the entire truth. Arbelaitz is a devoted aficionado of pelota, a Basque sport similar to handball that, in one of its forms, exists in the United States as jai alai. Until recently, this 47-year-old with the unlined face of a man of 30 was playing twice daily: each morning, and again between the midafternoon lunch service and the long, late Spanish dinners. He has slowed now, but still manages a fiercely competitive match three or four times a week. "Playing pelota keeps me sane," he admits. "I couldn't do that anywhere but here."
You'll hear that refrain often in San Sebastián. Set on Spain's northern coast, between the city of Bilbao, with its hulking new Guggenheim museum, and France's Côte Basque, it is a place of strong flavors and singular tastes, and its devotees--native or foreign-born--have come to accept nothing else. While their passions and the inscrutable language they use to express them might initially seem strange to visitors accustomed to the multinational ease of Paris, Rome or Barcelona, visitors who stay here for even a few days are inevitably seduced.
It begins, as many seductions do, with appearances. The city looks like no other in Spain--or in any other country, for that matter. It's a panorama of turn-of-the century buildings, street lamps like lighthouses topped with luminescent globes, arches and balconies in place of the traditional Spanish courtyards, smartly dressed people carrying briefcases and shopping bags, and waves lapping against pearlescent sand.
And then there's the lifestyle. From the middle of the last century, San Sebastián has existed to further the good life. Spain's upper class spends summers relaxing on its beaches and eating its seafood; this makes titled royalty virtually indistinguishable from the city's residents. Together, they shop at fashionable downtown boutiques (the city disdains department stores), inspect the impressive array of fresh fish at the Mercado San Martín and attend gala parties during September's renowned international film festival. Dressed impeccably, they take long promenades along the beachfront as the sun settles behind the Bay of Biscay. They attend exhibits of modern sculpture and discuss architecture and cinema over the local green wine, Txakoli.
And always, they eat well. The city is home to more than 100 formal gastronomic societies, in which inducted members--almost all of whom are male and who range from bank executives and the president of the local soccer club to factory workers and fishermen--take turns cooking elaborate and expensive dinners. And when they're not cooking for each other, they often dine out.
"Food is an obsession here," says Pedro Subijana of Akelare, one of the finest restaurants in San Sebastián and in Spain, which is almost saying the same thing. "People will devote much of their paychecks to a single meal, and they'll consider it well spent."
What most are eating is, in one form or another, usually categorized as "new Basque cuisine," which is to say that it wouldn't have existed 20 years ago. An outgrowth of Paul Bocuse's nouvelle cuisine revolution across the French border, it was also a reaction to an increased urbanization in Basque culture. Subsistence farmers, who had scratched out a living from the mountainous soil for centuries, relocated to towns and cities such as San Sebastián, Bilbao, Vitoria and Pamplona, taking jobs in banks and on assembly lines. The heavy meals that had served to fortify them for a day's work in the field were no longer necessary.
Instead, food became lighter, more flavorful and ultimately far more interesting, and fine wine from the nearby Rioja region replaced fermented cider as the beverage of choice. Seafood and local produce still tend to dominate, but they are often paired with surprising ingredients in combinations tending increasingly toward the baroque.
At Panier Fleuri, where the wine list represents 41 different Rioja bodegas, local specialties like kokotxas (tender hake cheeks) and red peppers stuffed with squid are given postmodern form. At Akelare, where master chef Subijana personally takes every order and diners gaze out over the water through a wall of windows from a perch atop Monte Igueldo, the tasting menu has lately included dishes such as white beans with pigeon and caramelized peppers, melon soup with savory ham sorbet, and green asparagus and octopus ragout with diced foie gras.
If some of the food seems unusual, well, wait until you hear the party at the next table discussing it. Listening to the curious Basque tongue of Euskera, which is larded with incomprehensible combinations of t's, x's and k's, has been compared to hearing someone gargle with pebbles in his mouth. Speaking it in public was once punishable by imprisonment--not for its cacaphony, but because it represented a subversive political act.
Since the death of Francisco Franco in 1975, the Basque provinces have fought for and received semiautonomous status within Spain. That explains the proliferation of signs in Euskera, though it hasn't eliminated sporadic assassinations and kidnappings of local politicians by Euskadi ta Askatasuna, a terrorist group that wants nothing less than complete independence for a united Basque homeland.
Though ETA is losing support, it is active enough to give pause to the fainthearted tourist. However, both the Spanish and provincial governments take pains to assure visitors that they are at minimal risk. As for getting along in Euskera, all but the most fervent Basques will speak to you in Spanish. English, however, is not widely spoken.
Quartered at the Maria Cristina hotel, it is difficult for a visitor to believe that anything here could ever be amiss. Set on the Urumea River, just two blocks from the Bay of Biscay, the Maria Cristina is a graceful wedding cake of a building that dates to 1912 but still offers a full range of modern amenities, including frequent-flyer miles. (It is now a full-fledged member of ITT Sheraton's Luxury Collection.) But even booking a lavishly furnished rotunda suite at the Maria Cristina, with its crystal chandelier, dark wood cabinets and Oriental rugs, won't guarantee you sunshine. For a beach resort, San Sebastián suffers through decidedly bad summer weather, and entire weeks can pass without the sun breaking through the cloud cover.
Fortunately, you can always eat, which is what many visitors come for, anyway. The city's culinary reputation hasn't spread as far as those of Lyons and Bologna, but for those in the know, it is as much a food destination as anywhere in the world. The estimable Michelin organization thinks so: San Sebastián and its environs have as high a concentration of Michelin stars, per capita, as any renowned culinary center. The city, with 176,000 inhabitants, has the three-star restaurant Arzak, the two-star Akelare and the one-stars Urepel and Panier Fleuri, which stand directly beside each other one block from the Maria Cristina.
Within a few minutes' drive of downtown is the eponymous gastronomic laboratory of Martín Berasategui in Lasarte, Zuberoa in Oiartzun, Ramon Roteta in Fuenterrabia, Lasa in Vergara, and Aretxondo in Galdacano, all rewarded by Michelin. Television sensation Karlos Aguinano (the Emeril Lagasse of Spain) holds forth, starless but still superb, in nearby Zarautz. And then there are the literally dozens of imaginative eateries that specialize in less formal or strictly regional cuisine, and tapas bars such as Oñatz and Txepetxa, which rival Logroño's as Spain's finest.
Not all the food is new Basque. Rekondo, halfway up Monte Igueldo, is known for delightfully classic preparations of traditional Basque dishes, including salmon from the Bidasoa River and--if you're fortunate enough to visit in season--the increasingly rare delicacy of tiny baby eels, olive oil and garlic simmering in an earthenware tureen. Oh, and for one other thing: a wine cellar reputed to be Spain's largest, containing 100,000 bottles collected as a personal passion by proprietor Txomin Rekondo.
His bounty includes multiple vintages of all five of Bordeaux's first-growths and of châteaus Cheval-Blanc, Ausone, Pétrus and Yquem, as well as almost every vintage ever produced of Bodegas Vega Sicilia. (A few of the oldest are part of his personal collection and not for sale). There's a Pesquera vertical dating back to the beginnings of Alejandro Fernandez's winery in the mid-1970s, and reasonably priced Riojas dating from before the Spanish Civil War through the '80s. (A stunningly rich and still tannic 1943 Marqués de Riscal recently cost only $80, for example. And amazingly, the same wine was available for $60 at the understated Ezeiza shop on Calle Prim the following morning.) Dining alone at Rekondo? How about a half-bottle of 1964 Faustino Rodriguez for only $15? You can hardly get a carafe of Beaujolais for that price in Paris.
As good as the other restaurants are, San Sebastián's devotion to world-class cuisine reaches its apogee with Arzak and Zuberoa. The former, a friendly but formal restaurant serving evolved cuisine in an elegant house on the road out of town, is lovingly described in almost every guide to the area, but Zuberoa has devotees who consider it the best restaurant in Spain, and Arbelaitz one of the culinary world's true secrets.
His forte is textures, the smooth meeting the crisp and the gelatinous playing off the firm. A meal might include poached scallops and calamari on grapefruit jelly; opalescent tuna sashimi with truffles and Iriazabel cheese; and oven-baked cod, pounded with oil and garlic, in a puree of soft peppers.
He recently served that meal to out-of-town guests at the end of a weeklong stay, by which time such combinations no longer seemed strange, just miraculous. And then Arbelaitz, who almost never visits his own dining room during a meal, spent half an hour at the table, discussing food, wine and his hometown's quality of life. By then it was 1 a.m., and he stood up with a start and announced that he had to go finish up in the kitchen. He had plenty of work to do, and a pelota match only six hours away.
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