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Enjoying Traditional San Sebastián

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Photo: Javier Salas

“You have to work a lot to get only a few results,” says Elena, “just like anything. There’s a limit to the technology—it’s only an aid.” She’s in her thirties, warm and down-to-earth, a far cry from the severe intellectual you’d expect to find making such highly engineered food. But the real secret to Arzak’s recipes isn’t the technology, she says, it’s the restaurant’s “flavor collection.” We head down the hall to a humidity-controlled room, where 1,500 herbs, spices, and preserved ingredients from all over the world are stored in small, transparent drawers. They’re catalogued by flavor on a computer. She hands me an Iranian lemon, dried until black in ground coffee for days—a traditional preservation method there. “Smell this,” she says. “This is a bank of ideas.”

We soon find ourselves eating at another of the renowned restaurants in San Sebastián, the Michelin three-starred Martín Berasategui—named for its chef—on the outskirts of town in Lasarte-Oria. It has views of green hills and farmland from a large stone terrace, where we repair periodically for breaks during the meal.

The lunch is a marathon: it lasts for hours. Our tasting menu presents itself as a “best of” compilation, and each item is listed proudly with the year it debuted. The “mille-feuille of smoked eel, foie gras, spring onions, and green apple” from 1995. The “green-tomato jelly with gray mullet roe, lemon and basil sherbet with olive juice and ginger and citric air,” from 2007. The “roast Araiz pigeon with cream of apple, lime, and basil” is also from 2007. It’s one knockout plate after another, though far more subdued—and less playful—than the meal at Arzak. And so is the atmosphere generally: the restaurant is hushed, and there are too many waiters standing around. Perhaps it is just a slow day, but the mood in the place is lugubrious, and it occurs to me that this elaborate, high-tech cooking—deconstructed, freeze-dried, and decorated with foam—can pretty easily go from brilliantly fresh to grandiose.

When I stop by Villa Soro, a stylish 25-room hotel opened in 2003 in a 19th-century estate not far from the center of town, the young American-Spaniard who runs it, Pablo Carrington, makes it clear that restaurants are driving his business. “Most of the guests were Spaniards when Villa Soro first opened,” he says. “Now—some nights we have seventy percent foreign guests, and we’re sending nine tables to Arzak.” As a result, Carrington is expanding: last year he opened the small Hotel Iturregi in nearby Getaria, and he has plans for another in Pamplona.

What’s going to happen, I wonder aloud to Carrington, when the hype about avant-garde Spanish cooking inevitably dies down?Will the renewed liveliness of the town fade away?But that’s not the problem as he sees it—just the opposite, in fact. If anything, the proliferation of stellar restaurants (San Sebastián alone has three three-star establishments, compared with nine for the whole of Germany) and global luxury brands is what threatens the character of the place. He’s uneasy, he says, about the chic-ification of the old food markets, and the disappearance of some of the smaller traditional restaurants. “And what about Almacenes Arenzana?”—the wooden-spoon and rope store we loved. “Will it still be here in ten years?Or instead be replaced by a Williams-Sonoma?”

It’s the old global homogenization phenomenon. A few days later I meet with the head of the San Sebastián Film Festival, Mikel Olaciregui, a bearded and jovial man who makes the related point that these days “every city has a film festival—and they’re all following the same movies.” San Sebastián, like Cannes and Venice, has been hosting a festival for more than 50 years, since 1999 in a striking Rafael Moneo–designed building on the waterfront downtown, a theater and event hall with shops and restaurants that’s lit up at night. Martín Berasategui has a satellite restaurant there. Around town, meanwhile, palm trees have been planted—universal symbols of the beach, but not native to San Sebastián.

Still, in spite of the inevitable modernizing forces, in spite of luxurious renovations and brand-name architects and a lot of very fancy cooking, San Sebastián’s traditional identity is strong, connected to the land and the sea. The region has long been a “privileged milieu” when it comes to ingredients, Berasategui says, “because of all the local producers—fishermen, ranchers, farmers,” and the older culinary traditions are still practiced in pintxos places, grills, cider houses, and traditional country restaurants. “Basque Country has no borders, but the cooking has roots,” he adds. “Our cuisine has sensitive, refined taste.”

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