Local Flavors: San Sebastian, Spain - #107

Every city in the world has a local flavor, a flavor that comes from the signature dishes of the town, from a group of favorite ingredients or a type of restaurant that is only found in that area.  It's a flavor that comes from appreciating a particular piece of cooking equipment or a cooking technique.  This is the land of the Basques.  It runs along the northeast coast of the Iberian Peninsula, with three provinces in France and four in Spain.  Surrounded by the Pyrenees Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, their history goes back for hundreds of thousands of years.  In fact, the Basques have the most ancient culture in Europe and accordingly, the most ancient local flavors. 

So please join me, Burt Wolf, for a taste of the local flavors of the Basque country of Spain.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: For hundreds of years, Basque fishermen followed whales across the Atlantic, eventually ending up off the coast of Newfoundland and discovering the huge schools of cod that lives on the grand banks.  Many historians believe that the Basques knew a great deal about the new world long before Columbus showed up, but didn't tell anybody about it because they considered it a commercial advantage.  And it makes perfectly good sense.  If you found gold, why would you want to tell the competition where your mine is? And cod turned out to be a gold mine for the Basques.  Dried cod was a way of preserving valuable nutrients and became a popular food throughout Europe.  The demand for cod increased when the Catholic church required meatless meals, and the Basques were the major suppliers.  Today, codfish is an essential ingredient in the local flavors of the Basques, and their chefs are considered to be some of the greatest seafood cooks in the world.  But cod is not the only important fish in the Basque kitchen. 

Walk through the market in the city of San Sebastian and you will see the other local favorites, langoustine, which is a European species of lobster, monkfish, tuna, hake, sardines and anchovies.  Because Basque country is as much about mountains as it is about the sea, lamb has always been an important part of the local cuisine. 

The sheep also supply milk, which is used to make a number of traditional Basque cheeses.  The cheeses take on the flavor of the mountain plants on which the sheep fed.  In the United States, you can find a number of Basque cheeses.  The Basque are also famous for their hams.  The mountain forests, filled with acorns and chestnuts, became a natural habitat for the pigs, and ham is an essential part of the Basque diet.  The little upside down umbrellas are there to catch any drippings.  The local flavors of the Basque kitchen, like all local flavors, reflect the history of the region.  Ancient Romans did a little trading with the Basque and introduced wheat, olive oil and wine making, which was rather important, since all three elements are essential to one of the great gastronomic traditions of the Basque, a tradition known as the pintxos bar.

GABRIELLA RANELLI & BURT WOLF WALKING: I've gone to this bar, which is the place that I've had breakfast in almost every day for the last ten years. 

BURT WOLF: My guide is Gabriella Ranelli, a friend of mine who is an American and has lived in San Sebastian since 1989.  She’s a specialist in Spanish art and a serious eater.

GABRIELLA RANELLI ON CAMERA: Okay, this is a pintxos bar where they have ... pintxos are little snacks.  They're called tapas in the rest of Spain.  But here ... this is the breakfast one.  This is a little bit different from the one people go to in the evening, which are heartier.  And normally you know, if you come here all the time, usually you come stumbling in, they'll hand you the newspaper first thing in the morning.  They know whatever you like to eat.  Everybody has their favorite pintxos usually. And they know their clients.

GABRIELLA RANELLI ON CAMERA:  He’s pouring some txakoli which is a sparking ... well it's a local wine.  It's a white wine but they pour from a great height so it gets a little effervescent, but it's not a sparkling wine.  It's made with grapes which are grown on the steep hills next to the sea, so they don't get a lot of sun.  They get a lot of rain.  It's quite tart but it's an aperitif.  It's an aperitif, yeah.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: These are great.  It's just an egg omelet on a little piece of bread.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: ... little piece of bread. 

GABRIELLA RANELLI ON CAMERA: Yeah, very simple but it's absolutely ideal. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: I want one of those.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Hilda?  Why is it called a Hilda?

GABRIELLA RANELLI ON CAMERA: Well it’s actually … in English we would probably say Gilda.  It’s after the Rita Hayworth film.


GABRIELLA RANELLI ON CAMERA: Had a lot of impact here.

BURT WOLF ONCAMERA: It’s anchovies, little peppers and olives on a toothpick.

GABRIELLA RANELLI ON CAMERA: Uh huh.  Every bar has its own version of that. 


GABRIELLA RANELLI ON CAMERA: Yes, like Rita Hayworth.  Right.

BURT WOLF ON CAAMERA: Rita Hayworth was considered spicy.

GABRIELLA RANELLI ON CAMERA: That scene where she takes off her gloves, you know, that revolutionized the entire country.

BURT WOLF: I don't see the bagels, but I definitely see the smoked salmon and the cream cheese.

GABRIELLA RANELLI: Uh huh.  You take whatever you want and at the end, we just tell them what we've had and they'll tell us how much it is.  They're very good at math.  So it's the honor system, and people are very honest.  Nobody cheats at pintxos. 

BURT WOLF: At night, the pintxos bars take on a different menu and a different character.  Groups of friends come together, forming a loose assembly of like-minded pintxos-lovers.  They know what they like to eat and they know where they like to eat it.  They have a pre-planned route and they move along it.  One team that I traveled with always starts at eight o'clock on Thursday nights at a specific bar.  They go there because they like the mushrooms.  After about thirty minutes, they move on to the next place.  If you miss the eight o'clock opening, you know where to catch up at eight thirty, and that would be true for the third or fourth spots as the night continues.

GABRIELLA RANELLI ON CAMERA: You've got to pace yourself.  That's why the wines are so small also.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Ah, that's right. Big glasses with a little bit of wine.

GABRIELLA RANELLI ON CAMERA: But you might have to go to twenty bars, and so if you were drinking an enormous tankard full of wine, you wouldn't make it passed four.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Also, one of the nice things about this is it gives a lot of room on the top for air, which means you get a better flavor from the wine.  Shall we?


BURT WOLF: The streets of San Sebastian's old city are packed with pintxos groups moving from bar to bar.

GABRIELLA RENELLI: This is where we're going, okay?  Now you can always tell the best pintxos bars because they've got the most people in them.

BURT WOLF: This place is jumping.



GABRIELLA RANELLI: You've got to elbow your way in here.  It's a time-honored tradition.  But this restaurant is very well known for its seafood.

BURT WOLF: What's this?

GABRIELLA RANELLI: It's baby eel.  It's come down from the mountains.  You have to eat them with a wooden fork.  And stir them around, give them a good stir.  The reason you use a wooden fork is also because if you used a metal fork,  the eels would slip right through it.  They come from the Sargasso Sea.  Nobody knows where.   They travel here, they get here when they're about three years old.

BURT WOLF: It looks like pasta.


BURT WOLF: If you didn't tell me they were baby ...

GABRIELLA RANELLI: It doesn't taste like pasta, let me tell you.

BURT WOLF: How much is that?

GABRIELLA RENELLI: Uh ... they cost about $500 a kilo.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: $500 for two and a quarter pounds?

GABRIELLA RANELLI ON CAMERA: That's the traditional food that they eat on the day of San Sebastian, the 20th of January.

BURT WOLF: I want to finish every eel this bowl.


BURT WOLF: At $250 a pound, this is serious stuff.

GABRIELLA RANELLI: It's delicious.  One of the things they have here ... one of the selections they have are goose barnacles.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Goose barnacles? Geese get barnacles?  I mean, they move around a lot but I didn’t know they got barnacles.  Goose barnacles.

GABRIELLA RANELLI ON CAMERA: It’s a specialty here that most people enjoy.  They’re big barnacles.  And we must have some wine because ...

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Wine is good.  Wine goes with goose barnacles.  Is there a particular wine that you drink with goose barnacles?

GABRIELLA RANELLI: Here are some goose barnacles.  They’re hot.  You’d better wait a minute.

BURT WOLF: I’m actually quite full.  I ... I just ... I don’t know if I have any room left for a goose barnacle.

GABRIELLA RENELLI ON CAMERA:  Have to wait on the goose barnacles.  (Laughs)

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Are you sure I have room for goose barnacles.  Yeah, I do.

GABRIELLA RANELLI ON CAMERA: I think that ... uh ... the best way to eat the goose barnacles instead of ... uh ... well warm.  I wouldn’t eat them this hot because they have a special sort of flavor.


GABRIELLA RANELLI ON CAMERA: But I think ... why don't you finish your eels?

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Oh, eels are fine.  The eels are okay. 

GABRIELLA RANELLI: We're gonna need these ... we're gonna need these actually because eating goose barnacles can be a little messy.

BURT WOLF: Oh yeah.

GABRIELLA RANELLI: So just keep one handy.  Okay.  I think that looks like a good one.

BURT WOLF: Oh, it looks like a wonderful goose barnacles.  Now what do I do?

GABRIELLA RANELLI: Okay, find a good spot like there, between the nail and the body and kind of pull it open.  No, you have to use your nail, get your nail in there and twist it open. 

BURT WOLF: I'm not gonna be able to do this.  I don't have to eat it.  No.  All right.          

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Obviously this is not one of my talents.

GABRIELLA RANELLI ON CAMERA: That was a defective barnacle.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: A defective barnacle.  Okay, so you've opened one for me.


BURT WOLF ON CMAERA: And I just kind of like, eat it?

GABRIELLA RANELLI: Just eat ... don't eat the nail.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Is that sauce?

GABRIELLA RANELLI ON CAMERA: No no no.  They're cooked in sea water for one minute.  I guess they got a barnacle juice off them or something. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Like a snail.

GABRIELLA RANELLI ON CAMERA: They're a great delicacy here. 

Not a first date kind of food.

BURT WOLF: You know, they're really very good. 


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: All right, I can hang up and ship out.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Sorry I left ... I didn't finish all the goose barnacles.

Another traditional aspect of Basque gastronomy is the cider house.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The Basques have been growing apples for thousands of years and making cider since medieval times.  At some point, a farmer decided to sell his excess capacity and thought it would be a good idea to let everybody have a taste just after the fermentation.  They brought alone something to eat and before you knew it, the tradition of cider tasting was part of gastronomy in the Basque region.  And cider houses developed all over the area. 

The cider houses became centers of social life.  During the cider tasting season, which runs from late January through March, the traditional cider houses open up and people stand around tasting cider. During the rest of the year, they're closed.  But here in San Sebastian there's a restaurant called Sideria Donostiarra, which is open all year round and has an atmosphere that is very much in keeping with the old farmhouse tasting rooms.  One big space, long wooden tables without tablecloths, an open kitchen, grilled food, vats of cider along the walls and patrons filling their glasses with the traditional cider catching technique. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The process for making apple cider is basically the same process used for making wine, with ... uh ... apples sitting in for the grapes.  There's a natural yeast on the crushed apples that turns the sugar in the apples into carbon dioxide gas and alcohol.  The carbon dioxide gas makes the cider bubbly and the alcohol makes the cider. 

There was a standing menu in the cider house.  First, slices of cod omelet, and a green salad.  The main course is grilled steak.  The dessert, slices of local cheese, strips of quince jelly, and walnuts.  And of course, as much cider as you want.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA:  Another traditional aspect of Basque gastronomy, along with the cider houses, are the eating societies.  The first eating society opened in the old city of San Sebastian when a bunch of friends decided that they needed a place where they could eat or drink that was not controlled by the laws that controlled the opening and closing of the cider houses.  But the actual origin of the eating societies goes back to the Peninsula wars of the early 1800s. 

In 1813, as part of his attack on Napoleon's army, the Duke of Wellington ordered a siege of the city of San Sebastian.  When the English and Portuguese troops broke through the walls of the town, they raged through the streets, murdering both the French troops who had occupied the fort, and the local inhabitants.  Most of the city was burned to the ground. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The Basque men who came together to rebuild their city, came from every social level and from every occupation.  They were faced with an enormously difficult task and they had to learn to cooperate and to treat each other as equals.  They did treat each other as equals during the work and in the communal meals that they would take together to discuss their situation and their plans for rebuilding.  And it was out of those communal meals that the Basque eating societies developed. 

Today there are over 200 eating societies in San Sebastian and hundreds more throughout the Basque provinces.  They're all male clubs where members gather together to talk, to play cards and to cook. Some clubs have twenty or thirty members.  Some have hundreds. 

But each is based in its own meeting hall, where all members still come together as equals.  The recipes that are prepared are traditionally Basque, learned by the cook from watching his mother.  But each cook has also tried to add his own personal touch to the dish.  He may only know how to cook two or three different dishes, but he is considered a master at each.  Some anthropologists believe that the eating societies also reflect an ancient division between the roles of men and women in Basque culture. 

Until very recently, women were at home.  The men were at sea.  Months, sometimes years, passed before the men returned.  These extended periods away from home and family are thought to have produced a preference for all male social contacts, a preference which is met during the time on land by the eating societies. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Now that theory is a little bit of a stretch for me, but as I talked to the guys who belong to these societies, they all express an appreciation for a place where they can come, feel at home, and yet not be expected to answer personal questions asked by the women in their family or to express their feelings.  You know, if women are from Venus and men are from Mars, then the Basque eating societies are a place where guys can come together, relax, talk about their old planet and spend a little time in outer space.  The preparation of traditional Basque dishes continues in the eating societies, in the homes and in the restaurants. 

But it is also being exported.  There is a large Basque community in the United States and some very good Basque restaurants.  Gerald Hirigoyen is a Basque chef who came to America and opened up two fine restaurants in San Francisco. 

One is called Fringale, the other is Pastis.  He's also written an excellent book on Basque cooking, with recipes adapted to the American kitchen.  The book is well thought-out and the recipes are easy to cook.  I stopped into Pastis to watch him prepare a few dishes from the book and to talk about cooking equipment.  We started with potato and white bean soup.  Originally, this was eaten for lunch as a mash of beans and potatoes.  Now it's served as a thick, smooth soup.  What do you look for when you pick up a knife?

GERALD HIRIGOYEN ON CAMERA: Well, when I pick up a knife, I think ... first of all, I think what's really important to me ... uh ... it has to be very sharp, because I think if you have a knife that's not sharp enough, you can really injure yourself.  I like a big knife.  I mean, I'm not gonna use a big knife for everything but I think a big knife can be pretty versatile and ... and you can do a lot of things with that. 

BURT WOLF: There's some research that indicates that people cut themselves more with dull knives than with sharp knives. 


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Because they're afraid.  Whenever I go for a knife, I look for balance, which I can easily spot that way.  I like a full tang that goes all the way back through, so it gives me better balance in the handle, smooth rivets that don't stand up, and I like a bolster point that's very smooth here, so I can put my finger ...And the big ... for me, the bigger, the better. 

GERALD HIRIGOYEN ON CAMERA: Exactly, and you know what I love with the bigger knives is that I can crush my garlic with that, so it's really easy and that's how we do it.  So when you have a big knife like this, it allows you to do things like that.  And then we can mince it if you wanted to after that. 

BURT WOLF: The soup begins with olive oil being heated in the sauce pan, chopped onions and crushed garlic go in and are sautéed for five minutes.  Then dried white beans that have been soaking in water overnight, and potatoes, along with a sprig of rosemary.  Gerald porous in vegetable stock and the soup simmers for an hour. 

GERALD HIRIGOYEN: And also what I like about this soup too ... it's mostly vegetable and it has a great flavor to it.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: And very low in calories.


BURT WOLF: While the soup is cooking, olives are pureed in a blender.  When the soup is cooked, the rosemary is removed and the soup goes into the blender to be pureed. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: All right, a few thoughts on picking out a blender.  Bigger is usually better.  I'll always pick something that's four to six cups because when you're actually using it, you only fill it halfway, so the bigger it is, the fewer refills you have to go through.  I like a glass container because I want to see what's going on the inside.  I think it's very important that the content measurements be easily readable.  You want a top that's wide and fits on securely.  You want to be able to take out some portion of the center of the top so you can add ingredients when you're blending, but also to be able to open it up when you add warm ingredients, so steam doesn't build up.  That's a very important safety feature.  You want a good grip on the handle, you want it to fit securely on the blending base.  You want the base to be heavy enough so that it doesn't dance around when it's running.  You want at least two to five different speeds and it's nice to have the kind of blender ... what's it called?


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Step start.  I always forget that.  You always want to have a step start so that it begins slowly and builds up to its speed.  I think that's what I want in a blender.

The soup is poured into bowls and the olive puree and some chives go on top. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The next dish is a tureen of ham and cheese layered together.  Tureen is a dish, but it's also the name of what comes out of the dish, like casserole.  You want a heavy one. It can be porcelain or enamel over cast iron.  You want it to have a slight V-shape so whatever you're going to try and get out of it will release easily.  It should have grips or handles on the side. You're going to need a heavy top that will hold everything down inside, and you want it to have a little hole in here because if you're cooking, you want the steam to be coming out.

All right.  Let's make this dish.  Gerald starts with a three and a half inch deep tureen that is lined with plastic.  He alternates thinly sliced layers of ham and cheese until the tureen is full.  He's using Bayonne ham and sheep's milk cheese, which are two of the staples of the Basque region.  But the dish will work just as well with prosciutto and Monterey Jack.  About twenty layers of each go into the tureen, at which point it is refrigerated overnight. 

GERALD HIRIGOYEN ON CAMERA: So now we're going to unfold it and that's pretty easy.  We just want to pull on the side like this, and then it should come pretty easy.  And that's it.  So when it's really nice and cold, it's pretty ... it's a pretty easy job to do.  So as you see, we have all our layers right here.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Oh, that's nice.

GERALD HIRIGOYEN: It's nice and packed right here, so we have a beautiful tureen right here. 

BURT WOLF: It's cut into slices that are about a half inch thick, dusted with flour and sautéed in olive oil for a minute.  Gerald uses a non-stick pan, which is usually a good idea when you're sautéing something with cheese.  Then the slices are served on a frisée salad, with a little vinaigrette on top.  The main course was roasted chicken in the style of the Basques. 

GERALD HIRIGOYEN: So we're gonna put our shallots into the saucepan and then I'm gonna add two cups of wine and then we're gonna let it reduce, bring it to a boil and then reduce.  All the way down.  And then we're gonna add the butter. 

BURT WOLF: And the red wine and shallot mixture is blended together with some butter and refrigerated for a few hours.  Half that mixture is rubbed in between the body of the chicken and the skin, and then on the skin. 

GERALD HIRIGOYEN: Generously, of course. 

BURT WOLF: The remaining shallot, wine and butter mixture is used to coat dried bread cubes that are stuffed into the chicken.  It's a very easy stuffing.

GERALD HIRIGOYEN: Yes, exactly. You get enough flavor of the red wine, the shallots.

BURT WOLF: Then the chicken is roasted to an internal temperature of 185 degrees Fahrenheit.  And the best way to tell what the internal temperature is,

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA:  is to use an instant thermometer.  This is actually the most extraordinary one I've ever tested.  It's made by Thermapen.  It's digital.  It gives you a reading within five seconds.  Has a very long probe but very thin at the end here, so the hole that it makes is quite teeny and will close up quickly.  You won't lose any of the juices.  You could angle it any way you want.  It has a heat-proof grip and the read is enormous.  Even I, with my diminishing eyesight, can spot that.  And when you finish using it, you just close the probe and it turns off to save the batteries. 

Finally, the chicken is sliced and served with the stuffing.  For dessert, we have a gateau Basque cake and cherry soup, which is a very nice way to end a meal that started with a soup.

BURT WOLF: Well that's a brief look at the Basque country of northern Spain, the oldest culture in Europe, with the oldest local flavors, all male eating societies where the men cook for each other and celebrate their ancient camaraderie, cider houses celebrating the juice of the apple and the traditional foods of the area, and pintxos bars, just celebrating.  I hope you've enjoyed this visit and I hope you will join me next time on Local Flavors.  I'm Burt Wolf.

If you would like free copies of the recipes from this program, or hundreds of other recipes from Burt’s programs, to read his special reports from around the world and interviews with leading food authorities or to order a copy of The New Cooks’ Catalogue, a critical guide that tells you what to look for when purchasing cooking equipment and utensils, with over 1,000 color photographs and recipes, just visit Burt online at BURTWOLF.COM.