San Sebastian, Spain

Chris had another one of his terrible conferences on a gorgeous beach somewhere in Europe this past week, a perk that may be enough to make just about anyone want to be a physical chemist. The one also happened to coincide with our friends’ wedding in Oviedo, only a few hours farther down the coast of Spain, so we found ourselves in Basque country, on the Bay of Biscay at the French-Spanish border, and the Asturias region for a wonderful 10-day break.

We are in a teenage, young relationship state of mind with Europe, writing in our journals about how we are falling more in love every day. There are many reasons for this, but a big one is the culinary culture. On our flight to Spain we were in the middle of reading “In Defense of Food“, Michael Pollan’s fascinating argument against the Western diet and US food culture/policies (his answer to all our dietary eccentricities: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”) and as if on cue, KLM came around with chicken sandwiches made only from chickens that have had a nice day (the messages on the box made our day), and surprisingly good Bordeaux wine.

We arrived after midnight and went straight to our hotel, but as soon as we set foot on the city’s main promenade the next morning we never wanted to leave San Sebastian. A white stone path paves the way for locals and tourists to bike, run, and meander around the turquoise crescent shaped La Concha beach full of sunbathers soaking up the rays, and provides endless free entertainment.  Along with beach zumba for elderly women taught by young, agile Spanish MEN, sand volleyball, and various boating excursions, fun can always be had watching the Americans (especially those attending a hard science conference) alternating between gawking and carefully trying to avert their eyes, as many of the bathers are either topless or fully nude.

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The promenade follows the beach’s curves around the entire city, continuing around the tip until there are no buildings left in sight, only Urgull, a hill used for defense dating back to the 12th century, now used as a park and topped with a towering 36-foot Jesus staring over us all. On an evening walk, we discovered that this is a magnificent spot to catch the sunset, which draws people out in crowds to line the hill and edge of the bay with bottles of wine and picnics as the setting sun illuminates the bay and its surroundings with a warm pink glow.

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 We had been anticipating the culinary delights of San Sebastian ever since we told my dad about the trip and he sent us a Travel and Liesure article listing Mugaritz as one of the 17 restaurants (ranked #3 in the world) worth an entire trip. Here, Chef Andoni Louis Aderiz takes dining to a completely mind-blowing level. You might get this hint on their website where it mentions that they are closed from December to April for the “creative period”. Reservations fill up at least 6 months in advance, so despite putting in a request in May, the place was already sold out for the entire week of our trip. Luckily, the conference organizers appreciate good food as much as they do chemistry, and had invited the two creative geniuses behind Mugaritz’s dishes to come and present a 2 hour seminar on the inner workings of their remarkable concoctions. For me, this was one highlight of the trip. They explained not only the high-tech cooking techniques they use (many pressure and heat combinations with various machines) to cook foi gras without lysing the fat cells the way one normally does,

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but they also explained the thinking behind some of the less obvious aspects they consider when creating a food experience.  One might think that a restaurant cares primarily about the taste of their dishes when designing a menu.  Mugaritz, however, caters to all aspects of the sensory experience, including in no small part the state of mind created when indulging in a meal. One of my favorite examples is this beautiful  macaron (usually one of my favorite French confections):

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They described how it is presented to the table for dessert with no explanation, and diners take a bite and savor the delicious chocolate flavor and crunchy outside with a gooey, melty center. Only after their satisfied smile does the waiter tell them that actually, blood reacts much the same way egg does when you beat it with sugar, forming stiff peaks and holding its shape, and in fact, these are very special macarons. They are made of pigs blood. Then comes the anticipated gagging and “mental experience” Mugaritz has hoped to create, asking diners to question why they initially derived so much pleasure from a “chocolate macaron”, and though the taste hasn’t changed, they are now disgusted.  This has solidified my decision to take another trip to San Sebastian just for this restaurant. It’s also worth watching the clever video the restaurant made for San Sebastian’s film festival advertising their pig blood macaron experience.

In addition to having more Michelin stars in the city than I can count, San Sebastian is also famous for “pintxos”, the basque version of tapas. Starting at breakfast, as you wind through the maze of cobblestone streets in the old town, it feels like nearly every door looks in to an ancient, cozy tavern with aged pork loins hanging from the ceiling and long wooden bars covered in colorful pintxos. It is worth a trip to the basque country just for this.  The “cold” pintxos are beautiful and look oh-so delicious (and many of them are), with combinations like a mushroom tartlet on a bed of cream with a sunny-side-up quail egg perched on top.  However, these are apparently the “tourist snacks”, and each pintxo bar actually prides themselves on a few specialty “pintxos calientes” written on a chalkboard behind the bar. Some of the best dinners I’ve had in Europe now consist only of pintxos – solomillo (filet mignon) on baguette, grilled squid, garlic prawns, creamy croquettes, sauteed cod crepes, or more modern dishes like the “Makcobe,” a mini wagyu burger on a ketchup-infused bun with fried banana “txips,” (pictured below). And of course, each bar has a huge selection of local Spanish wines by the glass, many on tap – deep reds like Rioja and Ribero Del Duero Tempranillos and Garnachas, and dry whites (affectionately and appropriately called “breakfast wine”) like Txakoli.

 And to top off the food wonders of this city, San Sebastian now claims the best chocolate croissant to date. Not a small feat, as we have sampled MANY from all over the world, but the incredible, adorable bakery Galparsoro has created by far the chocolatiest, chewiest, with a crisp outer layer of sugar, version I’ve ever tasted. It was actually too chocolatey for Chris!

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And if all of that has not convinced you that you must end up in San Sebastian someday, maybe the fact that adorable little hedgehogs run wild there will!  Apparently they are as “rampant as Peter Rabbit” in European children’s stories, so it is only a matter of time before you run into one.

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The next morning it was on to Oviedo for our first Spanish-Brazilian wedding!

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