Friday, 16 March 2012

Donostia. A Fiesta of Pescado

A foodist holiday in North-West Spain is a mixed bag. Ours steered clear of the posh places, which, I expect, run the full spectrum from simply wonderful to should-have-been-a-lot-more-bloody-wonderful. One day we’ll go to a crazy, fancy, Basque food-cathedral gaff, but it’s not really what excites me: I’m too stingy. On other trips we’ve been initially wowed, only to be largely let down. Spanish food’s supposed to be cool and interesting isn’t it? The ham is amazing, even the cheap stuff’s really good. Tortilla, the heroic spuddy omelette-cum national crutch, is probably my all time bestestever sandwich filling (especially with a bit of jamón on the side) – but I had to come to Spain to realise it could also be shite. Bocadillo de lomo*! Om nom nom!!! Maybe that’s my favourite... Salt cod is great, hake is great. Any of these things done well, on their own or combined, will make my day. But not every day. Why is it so hard to find vegetables? Pimientos de padron doesn’t redress the balance – fried mini green peppers are tasty, with a little crunch from rock salt sprinkled on top. All good stuff, but where’s the salad, hombre? I want a radish. I’m pining for broccoli, for fuck’s sake...**

With this in mind we booked self-catering in San Sebastián. We would still eat pintxos (the Basque tapas, pronounced ‘pinchos’) and drink beer and have fun, but when we got back to base we could have some carrots.

The pintxo bars were what brought us here. Last year we’d spent the afternoon, and had to drive home after only two little beers and a fantastic plate of pulpo gallega (octopus with olive oil and paprika). The temptation was to stay and drink and eat – and walk back to France... Instead we promised to return. 

The Basques call it Donostia (which, surprisingly, also translates as Saint Sebastian). It’s rather a grand, sophisticated place with an old town, a new town and three spectacular beaches, but also a vague scruffiness that we are always struck by when entering Spain from France†. I quite like a bit of scruff, mind you. We headed straight out to the old town to fill ourselves with ham, eggs, spuds, salt cod, grease, bread and beer!

A good night. I wanted to check out the fish market so at the end of a very lazy morning we bimbled into the Bretxa food hall. It was still very busy and the fish stalls were predictably great. There were exclusively whole fish on display. They were prepared to order by fishmongers wielding big curvy cutlass-type knives. I surprised myself by recognising most of the fish: bass, bream, maigre, pollack, cod, herring, mackerel, monkfish, dover sole, lemon sole, brown gurnard and, my favourite, weever. And hake, hake, hake. They were all buying hake.

All the stalls were exceptional (and dirt cheap) by my standards, but the one that held my attention was like an art installation‡‡. It didn’t have the most spectacular display, there was no snaking queue – the fish looked top notch and it was displayed simply and prettily, but the guy at work behind the counter was mesmeric. I must have peered at the gliding and flicking of his knife for half an hour before I realised I ought to have taken a ticket to be in the queue.  I took one and continued to stare, transfixed. He was a magician: relaxed, unhurried, deliberate, smooth, delicate but effortless. While I watched he must have prepared five hake in exactly the same way, all perfectly portioned and placed ready to be wrapped up for his discerning customers. He was very cool. I think he’s my new hero... When my turn came I hadn’t even decided what to buy. I got what the man before me got (to go with his hake). I thought it was a fresh herring. I’ve only just found out it wasn’t. I also bought raw prawns and a few fancy-looking clams. ¡Gracias señor! Brilliant! Grab some incredibly lovely ham and salchichon, don’t forget the veg, find Dot (by now, almost suicidal), and off home for a luncheon feast! Via a swift cerveza of course!
Scad, or horse mackerel (with broccoli!). Weever cevice. Yum and Yum!

Hake 'bianco', with paprika - so 'rojo'

Merluza con salsa verde - hake in parsley sauce.

*Thin boneless pork loin chops slapped in the middle of a baguette. I don’t particularly like the red stuff that has been marinated in paprika and garlic. Fresh and plain is where it’s at – grilled with plenty of salt and perhaps a squeeze of lemon. Don’t overcook it and let it rest in the bread so that you keep all the juices! Om nom nom indeed!  God, i’m starving...

** Broccoli’s for girls. Not purple sprouting – that’s for winners and kings!

Check out the link for a very informative and useful list of pintxo place recommendations. Don’t be a slave to recommendations, though. Follow your nose and try lots of places. You don’t have to stay if it’s not up to much... You might end up getting a little drunk, mind.

† The cake shops are an interesting example of this. Go to a patisserie in France and then into one in Spain. You’ll see what I mean.

However, a bit of internet research, and the herring that I bought turns into a ‘horse mackerel’, or scad. Oh well. Serves me right for allowing myself to feel clever...

‡‡ Not in the boring and pointless sense. Although, perhaps Dot wouldn’t agree...