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Dec / Jan 2017
Foodie's Paradise

WRITER: Maryanne Haggas PHOTOGRAPHERS: Javier Larrea & Tim Graham 

Located on Spain’s northern coast, near the French border, is a small Basque town – San Sebastián – with more Michelin stars per capita than anywhere else in the world. 

Belle Epoque in design yet highly modern in spirit, San Sebastián first came to prominence in the mid-1800s when Queen Isabella II began coming here in a quest to seek relief from a skin ailment in the icy Atlantic waters. Followed as she was by much of the aristocracy of the time, San Sebastián quickly became a favoured summer retreat for Madrid’s well-to-do. Today, the place remains ever popular and now comprises the Parte Vieja – or Old Town – where you find most of the nightlife, the Centro, which is the chicest district of Spain's chicest town, and its antidote – Gros, with its laid-back, surfer culture. The food scene here is just as wide ranging too, covering the full culinary spectrum from sophisticated three-star Michelin restaurants, of which there are 16, to humble pintxos bars, pronounced “peen-cho”, which serve edible treasures on a stick.

Pintxos are a big deal in San Sebastián and the way to do them like a local, is to crawl from one bar to the next, either at lunchtime or in the evening, and sample each eatery's speciality dishes and drinks. Lunch times are for lighter options, whilst dinners are almost Michelin worthy. Therefore, as the midday sun sets in, head to Kaskazuri for some of their signatures such as peppers stuffed with salt cod, or wander over to Bodegón Alejandro for some heart-warming game meats, apple pie with rosemary trifle and lemon thyme ice-cream, or a selection of local cheeses like Bidearte, Txapalak, Pikuñeta and Urdina. And as a side of local trivia, know that this dimly lit hideaway is where Michelin-star chef Martín Berasategui learned his trade at the tender age of 13, when his parents ran the restaurant.

 

The key to eating pintxos is to be selective because a particular pintxos bar can be famous for one pintxo and have 20 others that aren't even worth trying. The second thing is to remember all the items you consumed, as the Basque culture relies on an honour system, in which you must inform the bartender what you had and pay accordingly.

 

As day turns to dusk, slip into something stylish and head to award-wining Arzak, a triple-Michelin-starred restaurant that consistently ranks among the best in the world. Chef Juan Mari Arzak has been a major influence on Spanish cuisine for more than 30 years and eating here is an experience you won’t forget. If you fail to book a table at Arzak, try Mugaritz, a double-Michelin-starred restaurant run by Andoni Luis Aduriz. Forget French food supremacy, for the eight-course degustation menu here proves a hearty masterwork that fills you with memories that can last a lifetime.

In between fantastic food and sensational sangria, try to make room for more pintxos by stretching your legs on some walks: promenades and pathways lead up the hills that surround the city and it’s definitely the best way to see the sights. When you are ready to rest your head, check into the five-star Maria Cristina, the grande dame of San Sebastián hotels, designed by Charles Mewès, of Ritz Paris fame.

If you’re flexible with your dates, we definitely recommend coming during the Santo Tomás festival (December 21st), which is a street market specialising in sausages, cheeses and honey, or on January 20th when the city commemorates its patron saint, Sebastián. It’s like an amusement park for your palate.

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