Many people have asked me why I am going back to San Sebastian, after already spending six months, nearly two and a half years ago. I guess it is a good idea to explain why I decided to live in San Sebastian in the first place... As my junior year of college approached, I knew I would have to make a tough decision as to where I wanted to study abroad. I knew I wanted to spend a semester in Europe, further discovering flavors and tastes from chefs all over the world. The only problem was deciding where to go. Paris was always in the back of my head, as being the destination of choice when it came down to it, since Paris is the city of food, and love of course. Any chef has the dream of having the opportunity to travel to Paris and eat from one side of the city to the other. The only issue was not being able to speak a single word of French besides what I picked up from Bon Appetite. I wasn’t sure if this would matter, I always thought I would pick up a translating dictionary and be able to make my way but I was soon introduced to a place in this world that I can now call my second home. I was introduced to San Sebastian, Spain, a place where food is looked at as being the most elemental in a persons life after family and religion. San Sebastian was to become the place where I would solidify my passion and love for food to the point of never considering another career choice for myself. I was close to making a decision, but it took a happy coincidence to seal the deal.
Anthony Bourdain has always been a very large influence on my culinary journey. The way he expresses himself through the art of food is absolutely incredible. He tells the reader and viewer exactly how it is, without any sugar coating whatsoever. One night while watching an episode on Spain on his show, “No Reservations”, I finally made up my mind as to where I was going to study. The ten-minute segment of Bourdain in San Sebastian changed my life forever. I learned that San Sebastian has more Michelin Stars per capita than any other city in the world, including Paris, by only one star. This is a dream statistic for any chef considering a destination to live and to work. Bourdain, a mentor and inspiration made a quote during this particular episode that ultimately secured the decision as to where I was going to study abroad.
Bourdain stated, “If I could do it all over again, If I could be given another life, I would want it to be here in San Sebastian with Arzak as my father and his daughter Elena as my sister, this place is perfect, this place is special, and there is no better place to eat in this world than here in this very city.”
Arzak is the patriarch of the restaurant by the same name that is arguably one of the finest restaurants in the world. I knew I would be eating there again before long and if I was really lucky, I would land a stage while visiting San Sebastian this time around. I have been using my persistent nature yet again, sending my resume almost every night, hoping to be granted an opportunity. I knew things would be much easier once I went to visit and showed my face to the Arzak family.
I immediately turned off the TV after the episode finished, and signed up for the only University based study abroad program in the country that is based in San Sebastian. Friends of mine thought I was crazy to go to such a hidden gem of a place in Europe, not knowing a single soul, but I knew in my heart it was the next move for me to make in my life. One thing that I did not do that now looking back I most definitely should have, is read the details of the program. Since the program I signed up for was the only one in the country to be stationed in San Sebastian, I didn’t really care about the classes they taught, or the requirements to be successful in the classes. All I knew was I wanted to go to San Sebastian to eat and to learn as much as possible, and all of the other details would work themselves out. I guess you can say at this point it is comical what happened next, but it only made me stronger. It turns out the program I signed up for was an extensive Spanish speaking program. Every member of my group was majoring in Spanish, and of course I was the only one who was majoring in Food and Entrepreneurship. Every single person was fluent in the Spanish language, as if they have been speaking their entire lives. I found out when I got there that every class I was going to be taking was taught in Spanish, and four hours of Spanish class 5 days a week was a requirement. Freaking out is an understatement for how I felt the first few weeks, not knowing a single person, not being able to speak English to anybody, and not knowing what I was ordering in any restaurant since it appeared to me that there was not one menu in the city printed in English. All of my buddies who made the decision to study in Barcelona were presented with the luxury of restaurant menus in English, classes taught in English, local residents knowing some English, but not I. I was probably the only one in the city not capable of holding a full conversation in Spanish. I knew I was going to have to work hard to make it in this city but the only thing on my mind was the food.
After the first few weeks of being thrown into an environment completely out of my comfort zone, I started to adapt more and more each day. Speaking the language was getting easier as I continued going to my exhausting Spanish classes, where I would sit day dreaming about what I would eat for lunch and dinner. Everywhere I went there was food, and everything that could be eaten was delicious. Whether it was from a can, jar, garden, grocery store, or from a small bar, each morsel I placed into my mouth those six months were life changing. I would make a daily habit of going to a local fish restaurant, speak to the chef in my broken Spanish, pick out the fish I would like to eat for lunch which was still shaking around on the harbor, usually hake, and dive into a delicious Spanish white wine. Bless my parents for providing this extraordinary experience!! The accompaniment of Jerry Garcia in my I-pod enabled ears would turn each visit to the local fish joint into a flawless experience. I never held back from trying to communicate with people in the city. I wanted to learn from the best and I wanted to learn everything. Because of this mindset, I would always carry a dictionary around with me, sharing my music from the States in return for some recipes and dishes from the very best chefs in the world.
Not only was the food incredible but also the coffee, café con leche to be exact, would transform me into an absolute addict of the these delicate beans! The frothy milk that was placed on top of the strong brew each morning, followed by a decadent chocolate croissant turning any morning into an orgasmic experience. If I felt brave, I would follow the café con leche with what every local would then drink, kalimocho, which is 70% table red wine and 30% cola. At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of this concoction, but after the first sip I knew I would be drinking them every day. Kalimochos took the place of drinking water. Any house I would visit of locals, the first thing I would be offered would be a kalimocho. After a delicious dinner, the first thing I would be offered would be a kalimocho. Even when I got sick and had to go to a small underground doctors office, with the help of a translator of course, the doctor would ask if I have given kalimochos a shot to fix my ailment. It was part of the society, part of the culture, and now it is part of mine. I would make a habit of making a CD of my favorite Grateful Dead tunes, and share the music with every bar I went into. As time went out, I would enter bars and hear the sweat sound of Jerry’s voice simply because I took the time to develop relationships with the bartenders. Each relationship I built was special, ones that I miss every day here in the USA.
Using finesse, I turned the daunting scholastic situation that was presented to me into one that worked. After finding out I would leave the program with 12 credit hours of Spanish, I made an appeal to the director of the program that I only needed three credit hours and I was in the city to learn about food, not the language, even though it was important to do so. I was convinced I would be able to learn enough of the language from hands on speaking experience with the locals, and that is exactly what I did. I did the five day a week, four hours a day program for only six weeks and I was then able to drop Spanish. I then took some food classes and some electives and was able to concentrate all my time on the food. I was hoping I would be able to land a job in some restaurant, learning from various chefs, but yet again the language barrier was daunting. I had no expectation of ever having to know so much Spanish but it was a task I had to tackle or I would not be able to communicate with anyone at all.
Taking classes to learn about the culture of the area in Spain in which I was studying was fascinating. The Basque region is such an interesting place, filled with history that I would never have known if I did not study in the region. The Basque country, or territory, is located in south-western Europe. It historically straddles the territory of two countries, France and Spain along the Pyrenees. The Basque Country in Spain is located on the coast of the Bay of Biscay, on both slopes of the Western Pyrenees that separate Spain and France. Basque Country is the territory which is historically, ethnically, and culturally Basque. Spanish and French may call Basque Country (Pais Vasco) only to a portion of the country, not the whole nation. Nevertheless, Basques conceive their country as embracing the area of the traditional seven provinces: Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa, Araba, and Nadarroa on the Spanish side, Lapurdi, Nadarroa, and Zuberoa on the French side. The Basque people, whether they are “French” or “Spanish” rightly claim that their distinct culture preceded the Europeans by hundreds of years and in fact the Basque language does not contain any Latin roots as do most of the other romance languages of the region. The Basque culture has spawned a long term struggle to gain independence which has seen much bloodshed and turmoil spilled on both sides.
Something that I had to deal with every day was dealing with the Basque language. When I was not speaking Spanish, I would be studying how to speak Basque since it is the language that many locals speak, and it is a language that sounds nothing like Spanish. The origin of the Basque is still very much a mystery. Some scholars think it could be related to languages from the Caucasus in modern day Russia. Others believe the language is similar to non-Arabic languages from northern Africa. It is estimated that more than 600,000 people speak Basque across the seven provinces of the region. All I know is it is a very difficult language to master especially when your head is full of sharp red wine!
One terrific experience I was able to be a part of was taking cooking classes from the famous chef, Luis Mokoroa, president of the Cofradia Vasca de Gastronomia in San Sebastian. For many years in this wonderful city, underground gastronomic societies, which are very much like fraternities, flowered. These societies are all throughout the Basque region in Spain, not just San Sebastian; however, San Sebastian has more than any other area in the Basque region of Spain. This particular gastronomic society is one of the very few that are open to sharing their customs and traditions with the public by teaching various cooking classes. I was lucky enough to be a part of this tradition and I went to the society many times a week for classes and for traditional meals. These societies are based around a communal vibe, one in which all the men gather together for special meals throughout the week, away from their daily lives. The oldest societies are strictly for men, although the more recent ones accept both men and women members. There is one rule still in force according to which women cannot cook or do the cleaning after any lunch or dinner that is prepared. The kitchen in the society is the men’s domain. Any man or woman can enter the more recent societies but only if he comes with a member of the member. A meal might be initiated by a member of the society catching a large fish whereby he would then contact the rest of the society to meet up at the secret kitchen location and everyone would bring a certain aspect of the meal and all cook together. They would then have a feast together with lots of wine and organize their next function. Some societies have stricter rules than others. Most of them choose among the members a president, a treasurer, and some more important positions. Members hold periodic meetings in which they fix the rules, so even if the rules in each society are very similar, it is possible to find some rules different or even odd in some cases.
I found this to be one of the most incredible experiences I have ever been apart of, but there were definitely times where I would find myself to be very frustrated with some of the food. The Basque people feel very strong about their traditions, and when it comes to changing a recipe, it is absolutely forbidden. Because of this, the recipes for various dishes have been the same forever, and in my opinion, some dishes could use a makeover so to speak. I like spice, and bold flavors, which the Basque people cant tolerate so I would find myself having to keep my mouth shut and go with the flow. I would have my spice later on when I would get home where my bottle of hot sauce brought from America would be waiting for me.
Being a part of such an old tradition was fascinating. Luis, the president of the society I went to, would have a hard time speaking Spanish; instead he would speak half Spanish and half Basque, which as I mentioned is a very hard language to understand. I would find myself having to constantly look up words in my dictionary and constantly asking questions but for the most part I was able to learn with my eyes. I cherish the recipes and the information I have acquired from such interesting and devoted people. I cannot wait to make it back to San Sebastian and reunite with these very special people.
The nights I was not at the gastronomic society, I would be cooking my own meals and the nights I would not cook I would eat at the local ciderias, or cider houses, around town. Another very famous tradition in the Basque region of Spain are the cider houses, where they make hard apple cider, with approximately twenty different varieties produced at each cider house. The customs and traditions at these establishments were absolutely astonishing to learn about and I am so grateful to be able to be apart of such a tremendous cultural tradition.
In the Basque region, apples and cider have been a major part of the economy for centuries. Because of the fruits importance, there have often been laws, documents, and regulations made on apples and cider in order to preserve it in the Basque region. For centuries, anyone who damaged apples or the production of cider was forced to pay a hefty fine. The Basque region has created legislation for production of cider since the beginning of time. The main purposes were protectionism and preservation of cider as a product. One could sell their cider in other towns, but it was forbidden to bring a beverage from town to town only with intention of drinking and not selling their product. Since apples ripen in the spring, the main time of cider houses and cider sales have been March-April, exactly when I was living in Spain.
Basque farmers gather the apples during harvest season, wash them, mash them, press them, and the resulting juice is distributed in the “kupelas” or the large barrels where it rests for about two months so that fermentation can take place and the cider can be ready for the tasting. When I would go to the cider houses, I would go with a completely empty stomach. Large lines would form in front of the huge barrels and the conductor of the operation would then remove a small pin in the barrel where a steady stream of cider would flow out. Each person would fill about an inch worth of cider into their individual glasses and leave the line, making room for the next in line. It is important to drink the cider fast and to not sip on it since the flavors are lost once the cider has time to settle. The aeration that is formed from the long stream from the barrel to the glass has a lot to do with the flavor of each cider. At each cider house there are various customs that have been in place for centuries such as the menu. At most cider houses, you will find the same food being served, all on huge wooden tables without any chairs since that gives it a more “social” feel to the room. The typical menu would include: cod omelets, fried cod with green peppers, and a huge thick juicy steak that was perfectly seasoned with salt. For dessert, whole walnuts would be served with nutcrackers as well as various cheeses and quince jelly. There is only one plate to eat off of so it is a very communal experience.
When I was not having a blast at the cider houses, I would find myself at any of the hundreds of bars in San Sebastian, eating pintxo after pintxo, which are very similar to tapas. There is a strong pintxo tradition in San Sebastian. Before drinks are poured, my mouth would be filled with two or three montaditos (a piece of bread mounded with a mayonnaise-based salad), along side an entire platter of jamon (ham).
Juan Mari Arzak is responsible for putting San Sebastian on the culinary map. He is one of my true culinary hero’s .The way he describes the process of eating pintxos with everyone is very fitting. He states, “You have different foods, wines—there are possibilities. You stand up, you are very free. Its popular, everyone eats pintxos. You move, its fast. Its one moment and then another.”
I was lucky enough to live in an apartment right on the beach, with a wonderful bar underneath that had pintxos all day and all night long ready to be devoured. Friends and I would consume vast quantities of bread draped with boquerones (little anchovies in vinegar), salt-preserved anchovies, small boiled eggs wrapped in jamon with a shrimp and olive skewered on top or the most addictive of them all are the pimientos de Gernika which are anchovies and olives threaded onto toothpicks. The peppers are small and thin, and you eat the whole skewed affair in one messy, vinegary bite.
As time went on, as soon as I entered various bars, the bartender would automatically call to the chef to start cooking my favorite dishes and the wine would be poured right away. I felt as if I had lived there my entire life, as if they were treating me like I was one of their own. It was such a warm feeling living in San Sebastian
While I was living in Spain, I would find myself having to make very hard decisions based on what I would do with my weekends when I would not have class. I wanted to travel Europe and taste everything I could get my hands on and that is exactly what I did. For my spring break, I had a week and half off of class and I knew I wanted to do something very special with my time. My friends were traveling from city to city each day but I wanted to go to Italy and learn how to cook some dishes from Italian chefs who have been making the dishes for their entire lives, who were taught by their family heritage. I was fortunate to find a family in the hills of Tuscany that agreed for me to stay with them for a week, where I would have a room to stay and I would have cooking classes six hours a day which were taught by the two sisters of the house, the only English speakers in the family I might add.
I started my adventure in Florence where I ate my heart out. I would go into every store I could find tasting every cheese, olives, meats, vegetables, wines, vinegars, oils, etc. After a wonderful weekend in Florence, I waddled to the bus station since my stomach prevented me from walking normally from all that I had eaten.
I had an address on a piece of paper of a town that I was supposed to go to and I did not know much more than that. I guess you can say this was a situation where I knew very little but I was in for the ride and open to anything that was about to happen. After finding my seat on a hot stuffy bus, I calmed my nerves with Jerry Garcia’s voice yet again. About an hour into the Tuscan hills out of Florence, I finally saw a small sign that said Greve. Here I was. I was supposed to meat the Grandfather at the bus stop to then take me to the farmhouse for my week excursion. I stepped off the bus in Greve, Italy and found a very large man with a head of grey holding a piece of paper that said “PLOTKIN”. I proceeded to walk up to the man and said hello, which was followed by an entire sentence in crazy fast Italian. Clearly he did not speak a word of English and I did not know a word of Italian. I then thought I was getting myself into a situation that I perhaps should not have been in. I got into his car and for the next hour and a half we drove through the hills of Tuscany without speaking a word. It could not have been a more gorgeous drive, but in the back of my head I still was not sure what I was about to get myself into. We finally arrived at a wonderful farmhouse, where the two sisters were outside waiting for my arrival. At first, I was thinking they could be young and beautiful. What a wonderful way to spend my spring break! Two middle-aged ladies indeed greeted me, each weighing well over 200 pounds with a slight mustache below each nose. At that point, I let loose and told myself this is a once in a lifetime experience and that I had to take full advantage of every second of this opportunity. The sisters spoke some English, but not very well, just enough for me to understand them. They told me they had some bad news, the other travelers who were supposed to stay the weekend cancelled so it was just the family and me.
This wonderful family included the grandfather, the two sisters, the husband of one of the sisters, and the two daughters of one of the sisters. I was shown to my living quarters, which was a beautiful attic area with a small window looking out to the Tuscan countryside. The view took my breath away. I have seen views such as the one I had out my window in movies and in books but I never thought I would be in a situation where I would look out of my bedroom window and see what I saw. They told me to make myself at home and that is exactly what I did. I unpacked, freshened up a little and went downstairs for an early dinner. It was quite awkward at first sitting at their dinner table, just me and the family, not knowing anything about them or knowing if they would have anything to say to me. The next three hours were filled with incredible food, and way too much grappa, which was made by the grandfather in the basement cellar. I had asked him if he could show me where the cellar was and when he showed me the science lab it looked like something out of Frankenstein. But that grappa was incredible and it sure warmed up my insides. At bedtime, I was instructed to wake up at 7:30 the next morning. One of the sisters offered me a bottle of wine but I politely declined and just asked for a glass of water. I knew this next week was going to be the time of my life.
I awoke the next morning, eager to see what was in store for me. The first thing that caught my attention was the warm smell of freshly baked biscotti in the oven. I dressed and walked downstairs where I saw the kitchen table set for three with an elaborate array of breakfast goodies including homemade bread with at least five different homemade jams, biscotti, coffee, juice, fresh fruit, fresh yogurt, and other pastries. I felt as if I had died and woken up in heaven and was being treated like royalty.
Each morning, there was a small bulletin board with the day’s menu written with perfect handwriting. I was originally asked what I would like to learn; however, it was impossible to pin point a few dishes, so my answer was anything and everything.
The first days menu included, pasta alla norma, Pollo alla Toscana, fagioli al fiasco, focaccia di patate, biscotti di prato, and a generous amount of vino chianti classico, which has now become my wine of choice. I was blown away with the simplicity, yet an ultimate complexity of flavors in each dish. I know this may seem to be an oxy-moron, but the quality of the ingredients were so spectacular that when just a few were cooked together, the resulting flavors combined to create flavors and textures that were simply out of this world. Each day would begin after breakfast with a four-hour cooking lesson followed by a feast with the family for lunch. Because the lunch was so large, the dinners would consist of some bread, cheese, a few vegetables, and of course plenty of wine.
I experienced a life-altering event that week that completely took me off guard. Throughout the week, after the intense morning of cooking, I would have certain events I could choose to join for the afternoon such as visiting famous butchers, wine tastings, touring ancient cheese caves, or a stroll through the local markets. I also had the option of grabbing a fabulous book for a quiet read or taking a hike alone through the hills of Tuscany, which at the time seemed to be a great idea, yet turned out to be quite the adventure.
After expressing my desire to walk the land around the farmhouse, both sisters insisted it was a good idea for me to go for a hike alone throughout their village. I was told everyone in the village was extremely nice, and I was able to walk through anyone’s vineyard and discover my own hiking trail as I please. If anyone saw the landscape surrounding the farmhouse, they would jump at this opportunity, and that is exactly what I did. I packed a backpack with some essentials, my journal, bottle of water, bottle of wine, some crusty bread, and a pack of smokes, and my trusty I-Pod filled with my favorite tunes. I was assured I would not need a map, since supposedly it was easy to find my way, as long as I had a good idea as to what direction I started from. I was off, free at last in the Tuscan countryside with just my thoughts and myself. At this point in my life, I can honestly say I was at my happiest. I have never felt such freedom and excitement from simply being in this beautiful area surrounded by such delicious food and warm people. I headed down the hill and through the family’s vineyard, jumped over a small creek, and across the neighbor’s vineyard. About an hour into the hike, I still had a good idea as to where I came from so I was not concerned. Sipping on the bottle of chianti, munching on the perfectly crusty bread, and listening to the words of Jerry Garcia, I was in a near perfect zone. About two hours go by and I found myself at a fork in the road. At this point, I did not know where to go so I chose left. I keep walking and when I was expecting to see one sign, a completely different sign appeared. I guess it is fair to say at this point I was lost. I had thought I knew how to retrace my steps, but when I tried to do so, I found myself in a completely new vineyard surrounded by unfamiliar features. It was difficult walking down into large valleys surrounded by vineyards since it was very difficult if not impossible to see where I came from because of the lower elevation. I tried not to panic once I accepted the fact that I was indeed lost. I searched my backpack for the name of the farmhouse and luckily I had a piece of paper with the name of the family on it. When I was a kid growing up I heard plenty of stories of my father hitchhiking across the country and in Europe that was very common in those days. I knew at this moment I had to follow in my fathers well-worn footsteps, even if he would strongly have instructed me to do otherwise. I proceeded to walk to the widest road I could find, since I was traveling on dirt paths for the most part at this time. What happened next was very fitting for my experiences thus far. I threw my thumb in the air and waited for cars to pass by. I was preying there would be someone who spoke some English who knew the name of the family I was staying with who would give me a ride back. An hour went by and not one car had passed. Another hour went by and still nothing. Being a person who has always had some degree of anxiety, I was surprised at the fact that I remained relatively calm throughout this experience. Suddenly, I saw a red truck approaching from the distance and I knew this would be my best shot at getting back. I didn’t want to risk the car passing me so I stood in the middle of the road with my hand in the air, hoping the truck would not run me over. The truck, driven by an old man with a large mountain beard stopped in front of me. When I asked if he spoke any English, his response was nothing but laughter. I then showed him the piece of paper that had the name of the family’s farmhouse on it and his response went from laughter to extreme laughter. He waved me into his truck without saying a word to me. I thought either I was going to sit on this road all day or hope that this peculiar man was actually going to take me back to the farm house. When I got into the truck he started talking to me in broken Italian, believing I could understand him. With the occasional nod of my head and smile, I had my eyes pointed out the window hoping to see the farmhouse at any moment. After twenty-five minutes in the car I began to think I was being driven to a spot where my life might end. Just as I started to lose all hope, I saw the sign, MARI FAMILY, PODERE LE ROSE.
I have never experienced such a feeling of relief. When I showed the family some pictures of where I walked to, they again gave me a response of sudden laughter. Luckily, at that moment another bottle of chianti was being opened, and fresh bread was being taken out of the oven. My nerves subsided. I was back at the farm, ready for another night of intense food. I never managed to get the mans name who drove me back that day but I will never forget the expression on his face when he saw the name of the place I was trying to go. I never thought I would experience hitchhiking in my European adventures but I guess the best things in life come unexpectedly.