Story and pictures by Amy & Dave Spanton @australianbartender
The journey from Sydney to San Sebastian is not for the faint-hearted. From door to door it was more than 36 hours so by the time we arrived in San Sebastian we were ready to be fed and watered to kick off our two-week food and drink pilgrimage to Spain.
San Sebastian is a beautiful city, hailed for its food culture (in no small part thanks to the praise heaped upon it by the late Anthony Bourdain). While just a speck on the far north-west corner of Spain right on the border with France, San Sebastian is a coastal beauty, an old city with a roaring river, beaches and some of the best food in the world.
While many people flock here for the Michelin star restaurants, for us it was more about the pintxo bars, which were such a huge source of inspiration for our Euro Wine Bar in Sydney, Vermuteria. And it didn’t disappoint. So here are some of our highlights from a 48-hour tour of San Sebastian.
The home of the ‘gilda’ and therefore an essential stop on our tour. Founded in 1942, Casa Valles is everything you expect from a Basque tapas bar with windowed cabinets on the bar top overflowing with pintxos (varied toppings on bread from anchovies to jamon, gildas and more), an icy cold beer tap and of course, dozens of jamon hanging over the bar. The smell of jamon permeates the bars of San Sebastian and is served at every meal, from breakfast to dinner.
For anyone who finds the idea of waiting till 8.30pm to eat, it’s good to know that there are a handful of places in San Sebastian that serve food while everyone else shuts their doors, and this is one of them. With over a hundred years of history serving classic basque dishes, this is a great place to hit up for classic pintxos like pig snouts and blood pudding.
High-pouring cider and Txakoli-style wines were in full effect sitting at the bar which was fun to watch in action. Visitors flock from all over the globe to family-run Txepetxa for this exquisite pintxo, crowned with one of a dozen different toppings, like the pepper-onion vinaigrette (the jardinera) or spider-crab cream (the centollo).
Food highlights at this bar for sure with a crew of amazing staff from Central America and the owner on site with a group of friends, clearly proud of the incredible venue he has built. This is the home of delicious hot tapas and everything here is made to order (meaning no snack cabinet on the bar top). Everything here is so good – tender suckling pig, rich veal cheeks in red wine, beautiful bacalao, the best scallops ever. They also serve a delicious Vermouth. A must visit.
Casa Julian is located in a town called Tolosa about 30 minutes in a taxi from San Sebastian. If you want to go (and you should) make sure you book several months in advance. We went on a Tuesday at lunch for the first seating and the place was completely full. It’s pretty much one thing on the menu – steak, steak or steak. They are famed for using only the very best hand-selected dairy cows for their beef and hats off to them, it was quite literally the best steak in the world.
Casa Julian started its life as a fruit shop. He slowly expanded with sandwiches on Sundays before offering roasts thanks to an Argentinian influence. It was so successful that in 1954 they opened the grill, Casa Julian. Julian passed the business on to his friend, Matías Gorrochategui, and to this day is run by his sons. When we visited, Matias was seated in the reception, sipping contentedly on a whisky and greeting guests.