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Postcard from San Sebastian


Wednesday, 27 July 2011


Weather fine, natives friendly, food fantastic. Please don't say that's a Big Mac…

I'll have the grilled hake, please, caught by that fishing boat over there, with sautéed potatoes and a bottle of that light, lemony white wine - Albariño, is it? And can I have a panoramic view from the quayside, thanks, a bit like this. Yes, I am a spawny get.

Bay of plenty

Bay of plenty

San Sebastian is set in a horseshoe bay with golden sands, green headlands either side and a pretty little island right in the middle. Just getting here was a treat. The main highway from Bilbao is knotted with viaducts and tunnels, each signposted with their own name and distance in metres, which glide over shallow gorges and punch through pine-covered hills tumbling down to the Costa Vasca, or Basque Coast.

No tower-blocks, skyscrapers or post-modern eyesores. Just elegant hotels and houses in a Belle Epoque resort that must be good because it's packed with Spanish holidaymakers, plus plenty of French tourists from over the nearby border.

Around this time, ten o'clock at night, people come out to eat or stroll along the prom. The well-dressed girls sport edgy hairstyles with straight fringes; the men drape their sweaters over their shoulders and just about pull it off. Smart-casual, Spanish style, and not a tattoo in sight.

I won't go on. Actually I will. A squid's throw from this row of seafood restaurants called Muelle Pesquero, is the Parte Vieja or Old Town - a proverbial warren that teases the tourist with sudden glimpses of beautiful churches at the end of narrow streets, hidden away like the pink temple at Petra.

San Sebastian bar terrace (left) and Old Town quayside

San Sebastian bar terrace (left) and Old Town quayside

Later tonight in the main square, outside a bar serving free drink (no, really) a middle-aged Mexican with a karaoke machine will serenade a singing, swaying crowd with a rendition of Cielito Lindo or 'Cute Sweetie'. I love this song, they sing it when Mexico play in the World Cup. Ay ay ay ay, canta y no llores. 'Sing and don't cry'…

The Spanish call it tener duende - having soul, often signified by a tingle down the spine.

The footballer Xabi Alonso left all this behind to sign for Liverpool FC in the summer of 2004. That first journey from his new apartment at Albert Dock must have been a blast: up Islington and along Rocky Lane and West Derby Road to the Drive and Melwood, past the shell of Gregson's Well and the Grafton and the bus stops and bookies and Bargain Booze and beauty salons and the graffiti saying this one's a slag and that one's a grass.

Party time. That's me in the hat

Party time. That's me in the hat

As it happens Alonso spent five years at Anfield (eventually joining Real Madrid in 2009) and doesn't have a bad word to say about the city. If anything San Sebastian is playing catch-up, having just been named European Capital of Culture for 2016 - a title it'll share with the Polish city of Wroclaw.

Reading the news on a local website took me back to 2008 and those wild celebrations in the Empire Theatre's bar, captured on TV: 'The Basque delegation exploded with joy and happiness and hugs and congratulations… Hearing the jury's verdict, the former mayor could not hold back the tears, like other team members who have worked for two years to help San Sebastian win this honour'.

Church rose window (left) and fancy ironwork

Church rose window (left) and fancy ironwork

Cuisine will surely play a part in their knees-up. I'm no great gastronaut by any measure - couples have been known to get up and dance when I use my knife and fork at a table - but I can recognise great food when I see/smell/taste it. The grilled hake is a regional speciality, merluza a la vasca, and literally just for starters.

In 2006 I was lucky enough to attend a special evening for Alonso, a self-confessed foodie, at the London Carriage Works restaurant on Hope Street. As a thank-you for the player's promotional work for the Basque country, triple Michelin-starred chef Martin Berasategui and his team were flown from San Sebastian to Liverpool to cook a nine-course banquet. (Alonso and Berasategui are friends and fellow ambassadors for their hometown: they've both received its ultimate accolade - the Gold Drum awarded for boosting San Sebastian's name abroad).

Xabi Alonso (middle) with chefs Paul Askew and Martin Berasategui in 2006

Xabi Alonso (middle) with chefs Paul Askew and Martin Berasategui in 2006

With the help of Carriage Works chef patron Paul Askew, the Basque team cooked up treats like ink-stuffed squid, fillet steak on cured pork and fois gras, and pigeon in red-wine sauce. "Maestro! Maestro!" cheered the assembled diners when Berasategui emerged from the kitchens at the end of the meal. Now visit his website (www.martinberasategui.com) and try not to drool.

It hasn't always been quite so. In an interview with Luis Irizar, another great chef from the city, Eusko News (www.euskonews.com) identifies a 'quantum jump in Basque cuisine over the last few years which has allowed it to be admired all over the world'. The catalysts, it claims, were economic prosperity and the influence of modern French cooking.

In a region isolated by mountains and sea, explains Irizar, grandmothers were traditionally in charge of feeding big families. "They spent the whole morning making us a stew and had the patience to leave the pot on the heat for five hours, and then you sat down at the table and ate it with a black pudding from a pig that had been recently slaughtered. What could taste better than that - the essential cooking of our grandmothers, who were a world of patience and love."

All the sadder, then, that he ends with this familiar observation: "We can give our children the best food at home, but when they see McDonald's advertising every day - and on top of the burger they offer them a ticket to the cinema - it acts against us. In the end, whether we like it or not, we are becoming Americanised, and in America they are so big they can't fit through the door."

Emergency in the Basque Country, Senor Oliver - get your manbag and film crew packed now.


'I'm no great gastronaut by any measure - couples have been known to get up and dance when I use my knife and fork at a table - but I can recognise great food when I see/smell/taste it'


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