Travel Notebook: San Sebastián

Jul 03

View over La Concha Beach.

View over La Concha Beach.

At the end of May we went to San Sebastián in Northern Spain to celebrate the tenth wedding anniversary of some good friends. We of course remembered the celebrations first time around, and their amazing wedding breakfast in a restaurant (now Ni Neu but originally Martín Berasategui’s Michelin-starred restaurant attached to the Kursaal Congress Centre). We were excited to hear that a repeat of that meal was planned, plus a trip to a sidrería in the hills the following day, which we had also enjoyed ten years ago.

We started a great evening at Ni Neu by chatting to friends on the terrace, where were served inventive appetisers known as pintxos. These snacks are common in the Basque country but in San Sebastián they have been elevated to an art-form, with chefs competing with one another to produce ever-more-complex and delicious creations. Throughout the trip were we impressed with the quality of the food; at one tourist cafe we even found pintxos presented inside the spiky ‘shell’ of a sea anenome.

Pintxos with a sea anenome (right).

Pintxos with a sea anenome (right).

Typical pintxos in a bar.

Typical pintxos in a bar.

At Ni Neu we enjoyed various pintxos: cured beef; an escabeche of marinated octopus; farm-raised chicken with a herb mayonnaise; “seasonal cream”; homemade croquettes and crispy tempura battered prawns. The latter were presented stuck in a wire ball (see below) – as usual, the presentation was fun and wildly creative! The meal itself was also lovely. It included a baby-squid and rice dish which is traditional at weddings in the Basque country.

Tempura battered prawns on the terrace at the Kursaal.

Tempura battered prawns on the terrace at the Kursaal.

Our friends had considered the squid dish (below left) for their wedding breakfast in 2007 but had decided against it due to worries about guests’ clothes. They must have regretted omitting it, though, because the dish was firmly back on the menu at their anniversary – it was fantastic (and no clothing was ruined!) We also had a confit of cod with a pil pil sauce and ‘seafood perls’ and some amazing bone-roasted lamb with a cheese cream. It was just as memorable as the wedding breakfast all those years ago.

Left to right: Squid ink with rice; confit of cod and bone-roasted lamb with cheese cream.

Left to right: Squid ink with rice; confit of cod and bone-roasted lamb with cheese cream.

The weather was hot and humid during our stay, with some thunder-storms, but there was a bit of beach time for the kids. Adults travelling solo went to the La Perla spa, which, somewhat unusually, offers seawater pools (including one with a submerged gym). The beach life in San Sebastián has something of a French Riviera feel about it – in fact the border with France is not very far away. I wore a lot of marinere-style tops, and, if the weather had been cooler, my beloved nautical scarf would have felt right at home by the harbour area.

The harbour in San Sebastián.

The harbour in San Sebastián.

Details from my nautical scarf by Trussardi.

Details from my nautical scarf by Trussardi.

Our trip to the sidrería was another memorable highlight. These family-orientated restaurants offer simple, local dishes at trestle tables, while guests help themselves to cider from barrels around the room. There’s a definite knack to serving yourself – the Basque method is to unleash the cider from the tap while you hold your glass down low and at a distance from the barrel. This requires a) height and b) nerves of steel (there are buckets to catch the inevitable spillages, but don’t wear your best shoes!)

Helping myself at the sidrería.

Helping myself at the sidrería.

We also enjoyed some great food, with an incredible steak as the centrepiece. A magazine I spotted at the airport really sums up the Spanish attitude to good food.

Delicious beef at the sidrería (left) and Beef! magazine.

Delicious beef at the sidrería (left) and Beef! magazine.