Food & Wine
Cooking classes in San Sebastián: The best way to learn about Spanish food culture
Good ingredients, fantastic wine and new friends for life. We took cooking classes in Spain's gastronomic capital.
It's a hot, humid and rainy day in San Sebastián. In a basement beneath the luxury Hotel Maria Cristina, seven excited tourists, a photographer and a journalist have come together.
Read related articles: 48 hours in San Sebastián? This is what to see and do
With rain in the air, a visit to La Concha city beach was not a good option. Instead, they've all sought shelter in the bright basement room to attend a cooking class in order to learn more about Spanish food traditions.
The course is held by the company Mimo – Bite The Experience, which offers a whole host of cooking classes and guided food tours in San Sebastián.
Basque traditions are important
Today's teacher introduces himself to the students in the cooking course. Eneko Irizar is a chef and one of the people behind Mimo – Bite The Experience. In addition to being related to one of the founders of the Basque food wave that started over 50 years ago, Eneko has a long history from top restaurants all over the world.
Sometime in the 1970s, a handful of innovative chefs from the Basque Country decided to revolutionize the food served in the region. The new culinary movement was based on French nouvelle cuisine along with a focus on the area's unique ingredients. The aim was to create traditional Basque dishes with a twist, where clear and simple flavours were at the centre. In addition, it was all to be presented in a creative and tempting way.
Read related articles: Magical tacos in the middle of a Basque Michelin-starred paradise
The Basque Country offers fantastic ingredients
Since then, the food city hasn't looked back. In the last 20 to 30 years, the rest of the world has also discovered the culture, and culinary tourism in the region and the city has grown dramatically. It is perhaps not surprising that San Sebastián is the city with the most Michelin-starred restaurants per capita in the world.
Read related articles: This is where the hit wine series Drops of God was shot
Eneko says that this revolution helped promote the whole of San Sebastián as a unique food destination and that the wave continues to further innovation to this day. Through Mimo – Bite The Experience, he has now taken on some of the responsibility of showcasing these traditions to visitorsin addition to some traditional Spanish dishes.
"I think we in the Basque Country are very fortunate to have easy access to fantastic ingredients. It isonly in this region that one has access to sea, mountains, and flat and fertile soil. We have our own wine production. In addition, we have very clearly defined seasons where certain ingredients are extra good, and which we are good at utilising to the fullest," says the chef.
"I believe that it is this, combined with a strong focus on preserving but at the same time renewing the food traditions and food culture of the Basque Country, that has led to the exceptional level of food served in the area," he adds.
Do it yourself cooking classes
A group of foreign visitors has now gathered in a big, bright kitchen to learn more. They have all been given a chef's jacket and pay keen attention as Eneko goes through the day's menu. Today's lesson consists of four dishes: salmorejo – a traditional tomato soup from Andalusia, a risotto with octopus and octopus ink, a classic paella, and churros with chocolate sauce for dessert.
All of this is to be prepared over the next few hours. It's almost a light version of Masterchef, but (thankfully) nobody is being sent home.
From octopus to chicken
All the ingredients must be cleaned, cut, fried and boiled before everyone will dine together and the atmosphere in the room is good. Despite the kitchen being crowded with extroverted North Americans no one speaks up when Eneko asks for a volunteer to stir one of the kettles.
"When I ask for a volunteer, I want you to fight to do the task," Eneko says in a loud and determined voice to the course participants.
Despite an order worthy of Gordon Ramsay, everyone understands that the chef is joking. However, it doesn't take long before all the participants are in action - some are cutting, others are filleting squids and whole chickens.
Throughout the process, Eneko demonstrates and instructs the participants on what to do. Nothing is left to chance.
– San Sebastián's food is iconic
Married couple Sarah and Brian have travelled from their hometown of Milwaukee in the US and have already completed a two-week road trip through Spain.
"We had to stop in San Sebastián. The food here is iconic," Sarah tells Picolo.
Her husband nods approvingly and says that he lived in Paris for a while when he was younger, which really ignited his interest in food. They both share it, and the couple says they often attend cooking classes when they're on vacation.
"It's a great way to get to know a country or city and experience the culture up close," says Brian.
"In addition, you learn something you can bring home with you. I still make pasta the way we learned on a course in Italy," Sarah adds.
In this course, the couple apparently learns a bit of kitchen culture as well when Eneko wags his index finger upon discovering that Brian is using too high of a temperature on the stovetop. The gentle chiding is no serious than that they both burst into laughter.
"Whew, that was close," Brian says, laughing.
"If you continue like this, there will be no wine for you later," Eneko threatens with a smile.
Read related articles: Chasing his third Michelin star in the world's premier food city
Genuine Spanish paella
Fortunately, it's an empty threat, and a glass or two of wine is available if you wish to sip while cooking. Once the dishes are ready, the participants all sit down together at a long table and enjoy the food they have prepared.
Various local wines are served for the meal, including Txakoli. This is a dry, slightly bubbly white winethat should be poured into the glass from a height of at least 20 centimetres. The process is supposed to open the wine and aroma and release some of the bubbles in the bottle.
Read related articles: A local guide to the best pintxos bars in San Sebastián
From the very first bite, the participants around the table grow quiet. Everyone agrees that there is something special about sharing a meal when you have contributed to the preparation of the food yourself. The fact that you also quickly get to know each other makes the cooking course experience well worth the money.
Now that everyone is one small step closer to attaining a Spanish passport, we have to ask what theyhave learned during the course:
"If you order paella at a restaurant and have it served within 15 minutes, it's not real paella. It needs to boil for at least 16 minutes," says a member of the group.
Editor's note: The airline Norwegian has covered air travel in connection with this report. Picolo makes its own editorial decisions freely and independently.
Discover San Sebastián
Dazzling beauty, world-famous food and beautiful beaches. Here is where to stay in the Spanish city.