Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Possibility of San Sebastian

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Wellesley Moms travel in groups, even if it’s something as routine as a trip to the playground.  Once there is more than one such Mom in one place, the conversation quickly turns to choosing the best private school, soccer practice, and maintaining a vacation home on Martha’s Vineyard.  I can discuss those topics as well as nuclear physics, so I usually stay quiet or talk to nannies.  But one day, an intriguing thing happened.  I heard a woman speaking Spanish to her little girl. Half of Wellesley nannies speak Spanish, but the woman was obviously little girl’s mother. “Where are you from,” I asked timidly.  “Spain,” she replied.  “Where in Spain,” I continued?  “Oh, a very small town, you probably never heard of -- San Sebastian.”  “San Sebastian!”  I cried excitedly.  “I might be going there this summer!”  My knowledge of Spanish geography is quite rusty, but if there is one city I can point on the map with my eyes close, it’s San Sebastian.  It’s in the Basque country, 25 km from the French border, on the Northern coast of Spain, with some of the best fish markets in the world, and the most exciting food in Europe at the moment (at least according to some sources).  Raquel, the lady from San Sebastian, was surprised at my enthusiasm until I told her I ran a cooking school.  “Ah, food!” she said.  “Yes, we do have amazing food.”  

A few months after I got back from Tokyo, Jason started asking me where I want to go next.  “Really?  I can do this again?” I asked tentatively.  I was worried that after I abandoned my family for 10 days last year, he won’t let me go anywhere until the kids were in college.  “The trip to Tokyo increased your sushi making skills tenfold,” said Jason.  “I am just doing it for the food,” he said smiling.  I doubt his heroism has much to do with sushi.  Culinary travel is my psychedelic drug of choice, and Jason likes seeing me happy.  I felt like I just won the lottery.  Whatever did I do to deserve his generosity?  A few destinations have been on my list for a while: Spain, Morocco, Turkey, and Mexico.  After looking into the possibility of cooking classes in English and availability of interesting restaurants, the answer seemed obvious.  San Sebastian.  

Meeting Raquel was like a sign that I should stop dreaming about it, and go search for cooking classes and airfare.  Here is what my itinerary looks like at the moment.  I plan to take a Basque cooking class focused on seafood, go on a pintxos tour, and go on a tour to the French side of the Basque country where we plan to visit the market, slurp oysters, and eat out.  I also might have a chance to visit Raquel’s family.  Her father is an avid cook and belongs to a gastronomic society.  Gastronomic society is like a private dining club meets Seinfeld’s make-your-own-pizza concept.  Basically, it’s a commercial kitchen where you can cook your own meals.  They are so widespread in the Basque culture that about half the men belong to one.  Traditionally, women weren’t allowed to join, but that’s starting to change.  The only way to visit a gastronomic society is to be invited by a member.  

The problem is that Raquel’s father doesn’t speak English.  But Pimsleur Castilian Spanish CDs are a blessing.  As of last week, my Spanish was limited to a few phrases I picked up from my restaurant internship 10 years ago, and whatever Dora Spanish my 5 year old took upon herself to teach me.  Not that “necesita la trucha (I need trout),” “rapido, por favor! (quickly, please!)” and “Hola, soy Dora!” aren’t a good start, but I have a lot to learn.  

Will Helen learn enough Spanish in two months?  Will she get a chance to visit a Basque gastronomic society?  You’ll find out in the end of August.

Meanwhile, if you’ve been to the Basque country and have any advice on what to see and where to eat, I am all ears.


grahams said...

Back in 2007 some friends were getting married in Pamplona (where the bride was born) and we decided to make it a vacation. So we spent the days surrounding the wedding in Pamplona and then set out on a tour of the Basque region. We drove up to San Sebastian for a night (because we hadn't planned in advance we were only able to stay one night as the San Sebastian Film Festival was about to begin and all the lodging was booked), then up into Bayonne, France for a night, through the Pyrenees for a few days and ultimately back in Pamplona to catch our flight home.

While it's been long enough I'm having trouble remembering restaurant names, the food on the trip was amazing and you're going to love it.

Some other highlights:

* Hiking up the hill to the closed (abandoned?) amusement park in San Sebastian and enjoying the views.
* Spending a night in Roncesvalles, which is an amazing little that almost entirely to service pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela and it was also the setting of the Song of Roland. We ended up renting an apartmento for the night as it was such a pretty town. And, strangely, the greatest tap water I've ever had.
* Spending a night in the monastery at Leyre

Shirley said...

You are blessed with a wonderful husband. Being a great cook, its amazing that you like to learn. Enjoy your trip and classes.

Anonymous said...

Lena, we stayed in Villa Soro there and LOVED it. The food is so delicious that you never want to eat anything but pinchos again! Have a fantastic trip and take some pictures for us!

Helen said...

Is this Galya from Belmont? Thanks so much for the tips. Any specific restaurant recommendations?

Julio said...

Helen, you might want to try duolingo.com to improve your Spanish.

About recommendations, I strongly recommend http://www.barzeruko.com/

Anonymous said...

Yes, but we moved from Belmont to Waltham few months ago. Here is the thing: these pinchoes look so amazing and they are served in so many places in town, so you end up stopping and diving in every hour or so and have a few plus a glass of their lovely local wine txakolí (cha-koh-LEE), so you end up so full and so tipsy that you just cannot do a sit down dinner! We did make a reservation for one of their Michelin star places, but ended up cancelling because we were radiculously full. And the pinchoes are fancy- baby squid, foie gras, lamb chops, etc...so why spend hundres of euroes of you can be complety blissed out on just a few. We were there for a concert of our favorite pianist G. Sokolov, so one evening was taken anyway.

Unknown said...

Helen, have a fantastic trip! If you do one thing that doesn't involve food, check out the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. The building is incredible, and there is an enormous puppy outside made of flowers. The exhibits change, so you should check what is there, but you might love it even if the exhibit isn't something you're normally interested in. And all of the captions are in Basque, Spanish, and (very helpfully) English.

Anonymous said...

Pimsleur gives you a good start, but the progress you make is slow compared to the time you put in. I suggest doing the first 30 lessons to get a base (and what you do learn thru the lessons you have learned quite well) then going to Assimil. Assimil has lousy instructions supplied, but you can find people's suggestions of how to use it online. I went thru the full 90 lessons of Pimsleur Italian and by the 6th brief Assimil lesson thought I was already learning things past what Pimsleur had taught. And Assimil is much cheaper to buy.