San Sebastian may be the unofficial food capital of the world, but for three days this year it went more than a little London. Nick Harman gets a taste of Gastronomika 2013
If this coach goes over the edge and into the sea, a lot of London restaurants are going to have problems next week.
Jose Pizarro is three rows in front, Fergus Henderson appears to have nodded off in his seat in the middle, Nuno Mendes is peering pensively past his fringe and out the window, Junya Yamasaki of Koya is with the bad boys at the back, Bubbledogs/Kitchen Table lads are all chatting excitedly and the Clove Club are members of the happy band. On board are plenty of other brit chefs who are bywords in the blogs, plus a couple of food writers and at least one of those is desperately trying to remember if he’s been rude about any of these chefs recently.
We’re barreling through the darkness en route to a mass dinner at Elkano, a restaurant in the seaside fishing village of Getaria about 24km from San Sebastian (Donostia). We’re going to eat turbot-rodaballo. It’s a simple dish, a whole turbot, or in this case about twenty turbots, cooked on enormous oakwood fired grills outside the entrance.
Nothing more than salt, cider vinegar and oil is added and the fish is served in three defined parts - the bottom side that never sees the sun, the top half with its dark skin and, on the side, a rack of gelatinous bones. The texture and taste contrasts are clear and defined and you drag the local bread through the glorious mess your plate soon becomes and you greedily suck the skin off those bones. Outside, roasting in the heat from the grills ourselves, we gather for cigarette breaks and agree that it is possibly the best fish we’ve eaten anywhere
It’s certainly a long way in style from tweezers and Thermomix cooking; it’s basic Basque and the assembled chefs lap up the simplicity, so refreshing after a day of food art. We’re all in town for Gastronomika 2013, three days of learning and lecturing and this year there’s a strong Brit presence because the festival is flying the London flag, literally, because London has come to Spain, innit.
You’d think San Sebastian, a city that has become a byword for great food would be too cool to like London grub, but far from it. Outside the conference center, a modern structure next to the old town and perched like a giant bathing hut just a few yards from the beach, James Knappett has set up a food truck selling his eponymous Bubbledogs. Within a few hours it proves so popular they have to create a zig zag queuing system and locals and attendees of all ages happily stuff hot dogs into their mouths while dribbling sauce on their shirts just like any London food blogger.
Inside they’ve seen Heston open the show and heard from Jonny Lake of the Fat Duck and Ashley Palmer-Watts of Dinner, they will go on to see Anna Hansen(The Modern Pantry) cook fusion, smell the spices of Atul Kochar (Benares), marvel at the erratic Lundun accent of that man Knappett and watch Jose Pizarro (Pizarro's) and Cesar Garcia (Iberica) demo. Over the next few days Nuno Mendes (Viajante) will also demonstrate, as well as Fergus Henderson (St John) and Tom Kerridge (Hand & Flowers), the latter to be found wandering about backstage hugely happy with the success of his book, TV show and now UK’s Best Restaurant Award.
Attending these events is both fascinating and frustrating. You get to see, and smell, some remarkable dishes being created but you never get to taste any. The hall is hot and a bit stuffy and during the Spanish chefs’ performances you wear translation headsets which make your ears hurt and sometmes deliver Spanglish. For the chefs it’s about seeing what could be on the menu stylewise next, to see heros in action and go out on the lash in the evening. For me it’s work and pleasure combined but you can only watch so many demos.
Luckily there is the food Disneyworld of San Sebastian to explore. So many tabernas, so little time, and picking the right ones isn’t easy. You peer in and try to judge by spotting who are locals and who are tourists. The latter are easily identifiable, they are taking endless pictures and are filling large plates with pinchos as if at a wedding buffet. With a shudder you withdraw.
Some bars in the beautiful old town have got lazy and serve bad food but get a good guide, and I recommend John Warren of San Sebastian Food, and you will be steered right. In San Sebastian the good and the bad and the ugly are not fixed, so you need the most up to date info if you’re not to blow your euros on the wrong pinchos.
John is scathing about some tabernas and waxes eloquent about others, particularly in the Gros area of town an area little visited by tourists. Here he deftly steers me from place to place, drinking the sparkling txakoli wine, very dry and pleasantly low in alcohol, as we go, while I wonder how much more food I can take before exploding like Mr Creosote.
I also wonder if I am going to get scurvy. John assures me that in their homes the locals eat as many green vegetables as anyone else, but in the tabernas the closest you come to green veg is an olive. If it’s not fatty or fried or both, the Spanish don’t want it. Here in Spain it’s best to forget about your five a day and just concentrate on trying to get just one a day.
Back at the conference centre it's good to see London being hailed as the most exciting food city in the world. The talk is all of our multi-cultural melting pot and how, having never really had much of a cuisine to defend, we have been omnivorous in our welcome to everyone else's. Yes we fall for crazes rather too easily, and fall prey to silly hype occasionally, but we keep our eyes open as well as our mouths.
Maybe next year we'll be the ones holding our own Gastronomika, that's if all the chefs made it back safely home of course.
Photos taken with the HTC One Mini