After a short 36-hour stay in Paris, we were off to San Sebastián in northern Spain. We decided that we would spend a few days checking out this foodie city since we never made it there while living in Spain. That may have been a good thing as I would be plotting to visit monthly if it was closer!
Sadly, however, the weather did not cooperate with us. It rained the entire time we were there. Ok, it rained all but 2 hours of our time there! In those two hours, we hiked up Mount Urgull to get some stunning views of the city, sea, and famous La Concha beach. But the thing was that even with the rain, we were absolutely falling in love with San Sebastián.
So when in Rome San Sebastián, you must join in the foodie culture! Therefore, we signed up for a tour with San Sebastian Foods. My friend Anne had recommended them (and she never steers me wrong!) so we selected the Market Tour: Basque Food A-Z.
We met at the San Sebastián Foods store on Calle Aldamar in the old city. Our tour guide Lourdes led us through basic introductions and gave us a quick overview of how the day would proceed. We would start at the local market, continue on to a local jamón shop, and then to enjoy some appetizers and wine at a gastronomic society. Lastly, we would move to a local restaurant for the main course and dessert. Yep, sounded like the perfect way to spend a rainy day to me!
The market was like most other food markets I’ve been to in Spain. There has been a push to modernize many of the country’s outdated markets. The downside is that many of these food markets have lost their character but I guess it’s a price to pay for purchasing safe, quality products. The key difference was that I usually don’t have a fabulous guide like Lourdes leading me through it so I learned far more about this market than most others. She weaved the group through the market stopping at stalls to explain basic Spanish ingredients (with some samples!), local Basque specialties, and throwing in tidbits of history and culture. On top of it, we were thoroughly immersed into the Saturday hustle of locals purchasing food for the weekend. It was great seeing the energy and passion for good food of this city!
After the market tour, we ventured out (yes, in the rain) to a local jamón shop. Lourdes explained the different types of jamón. My husband and I are pretty well-versed in the varieties and quality after having lived in Andalucia for several years but we were blown away by the samples the shop provided. They didn’t hold back in offering up some of the best jamón around!
We then headed to a local gastronomic society. Food geek alert…I was so excited to see this was part of the tour! I was fascinated by the concept and excited to learn more about it. In short, gastronomic societies have been in San Sebastián for over a century. These all-men brotherhoods were originally founded to create a meeting place for free conversation and drinking without government regulations or oversight. Over time, the focus of these societies has shifted to cooking and camaraderie of its members. They meet to shop for fresh ingredients, cook up food for their friends, play cards, socialize, and drink. Now it begins to make sense why San Sebastián has some of the best restaurants in the world, eh? So a man would join a society and then head there to hang out with his friends while cooking, or eating, delicious food. As Lourdes told us, the wives felt comfortable knowing that their husbands were hanging out with a bunch of guys than doing who knows what!
Over the years, some of these all-men societies have come to allow women to enter but only as guests. There is one rule for women: do not cross the line into the kitchen. The kitchen is, and will remain, the man’s domain. I know several women who would happily give up that duty! 😉
The men served us the local wine txakoli (wish I could find it here!), tomatoes drizzled in olive oil, and morcilla (blood sausage) that was warmed to a spreadable consistency. The bottles of wine kept coming and by the end, we were all a merry bunch. The members of the society wanted to take pictures of us so they snapped away as we stood there happily buzzed off good food and wine. They even passed out their business cards in hopes of receiving postcards from around the world which they display in their society. Yep, there should be one of Mt. Fuji in there by now!
The last part of the tour was a local restaurant where we enjoyed a main course and dessert. We were served a firm white fish with clams in a garlicky broth (there was a non-seafood options if coordinated beforehand) and red wine. Then it was time to move onto dessert, local cheeses and membrillo. I was full but cannot resist membrillo. This was my first taste after several years, and it was magical. Firm and sweet; the perfect balance to the salty tang of the cheese.
During the entire tour, Lourdes answered any questions about food, the local culture, Basque Country, and more. I really appreciated her openness to all topics that were discussed. I learned an incredible amount about Basque Country and its people as well as Spanish food in general. I love food tours because when you sit and “break bread” with others, you feel like family by the end. This experience was no different. We felt that we were in the company of good friends and even made plans to go pintxo-hopping with some other tour participants that evening.
When I return to San Sebastián , signing up with San Sebastián Food will be the first thing on my list! They offer a variety of tours from evening pintxos hopping or dinner at a sidra (cider) restaurant to cooking and bread-making classes. They have also revamped their corporate branding to now include food styling classes as well.
Sigh, I must figure out a way to return SOON….