Finally we arrived in Donosti to enjoy the San Sebastian Gastronomika – Euskadi Basque Country
I arrived at the San Sebastián, Donosti bus station at half-past midnight on Sunday, October 8. A fresh mist and a light drizzle welcomed me. The temperature was pleasantly cool after the long journey. The humidity that the sea breeze brought, cleared my head and revived me. When leaving the station, I found myself face to face with the Urumea river; far from splitting the city in two, the river gives it a size that only cities with a river have. I strolled across the María Cristina bridge: imposing, ancient, majestic, superb… At the end of its path I noticed a cube that emits a radiant white light which stands out against the darkness of the night. It’s the Kursaal, the fairgrounds that will host the 20th edition of Gastronomika, San Sebastián’s gastronomic fair, over the next few days.
I moved towards Calle Oiartzun, near the Kursaal, where I will spend the night. The city appears deserted and content, quiet under the mist. And stately with its nineteenth-century buildings. It is one o’clock in the morning and I have to get some sleep, although I am excited about tomorrow, and that makes sleeping difficult. It is not some childish urge, Gastronomika is one of the most significant culinary events in the world of gastronomy. The list of speakers and conferences is impressive: Aduriz, Subijana, Dani García, Joan Roca, Eneko Atxa, Elena Arzak, Carme Ruscadella, Ángel León, Diego Guerrero, Virgilio, among others.
On the way to the Kursaal Congress Center
That morning, I get up early; I want to arrive before anyone else at the Kursaal for my accreditations. In the clarity of the day I see the streets of the city in all their splendour. They say San Sebastian is a beautiful city. They underestimate it. In 1813, after the siege and capture of the city by the Anglo-British troops of Wellington to free it from the Napoleonic hosts, the whole city burned to the ground, except for 35 houses where the commanders of the ‘liberation troops’ resided (today that street is called ‘31 de agosto’ [August 31] in commemoration of that date). Thus, practically all the buildings show impressive nineteenth-century façades, which are each more striking than the former, as if the architects responsible for reconstructing and expanding the city had competed to who could make the most striking, modernist, and baroque design. The streets, clean and pristine, meander around the small mountains, integrate into the city, and blend perfectly with the exuberant nature. Everything is one: the river, mountain, and forest fuse into the city. And climax at the sea. That wild Cantabrian sea, without which the gastronomy of this area would not be the same.
Without realising it, I have reached the Kursaal. The weather is pleasant, but a little fresh; winter is knocking at the door. At the foot of the conference centre is Zurriola beach. A wild sand on which the waves beat out their rhythm. A brave man, wearing a wetsuit and with a surfboard under his arm, walks towards the sea. The breeze brings in that fresh sea smell of saltpeter. It’s half past nine in the morning and a crowd gathers at the entrance. To the west is the mouth of the Urumea River, presides over by the imposing silhouettes of the María Cristina Hotel and the Victoria Eugenia Theatre.
The expectation is evident in the faces of all those who are queuing up for their accreditations. Here congressmen, journalists, speakers, photographers and industry professionals intermingle. More and more people appear, the queues become longer, the temperature rises. Suddenly murmurs are heard. All heads turn in the same direction. It’s Carme Ruscadella, the woman with the most Michelin stars in the world (7), with her usual enormous smile and iconic thick-rimmed glasses; the appetizer of what is to come next, as following her they all start parading in: Ángel León, Eneko Atxa, and in the distance you can see Joan Roca. A group of curious fans and journalists swarm around them… They are wearing their chef’s jacket to commemorate the event. They greet everyone They are nice, personable people.
Welcome to Gastronomic 2018!
On the way to the press room I make way for a large group of students studying at the Basque Culinary Centre. You can see the emotion in their eyes; They are going to meet their idols. I am given the day’s agenda. It’s awesome. There are about 30 events scheduled for the day, including lectures, courses, talks and showcookings. It’s a difficult decision, there is a wide selection of events and it will be impossible to attend them all. Diego Guerrero will give a talk about new textures and their application in the kitchen, half an hour later Daní García will talk about contradiction as a creative method, and following that Elena and Juan Mari Arzak will give a presentation in the Kursaal’s crowded auditorium. As soon as they finish, Martín Berasategui will take over and, in the afternoon, we have the pleasure of listening to the Sandoval brothers, then Oliver Peña, Andoni Luis Aduriz, Eneko Atxa… What a delight! I look up after studying the schedule, overwhelmed by so much data and I find myself face to face with Joan Roca. He has just come into the press room and there is already a cohort of journalists around him, speaking to each of them in turn. At that moment, Berasategui passes by. They greet each other cordially as if they were part of the same team. Around him, another group of photographers, cameras and young people with notebooks in hand, take note of everything he says. Everyone wants to take a selfie with them. They are the stars of today’s show and know it. Suddenly, we hear murmurs. I turn to look at where they’re coming from and Eneko Atxa appears. His restaurant, Azurmendi, has three Michelin stars. A child. With his jeans and his earring. A humble look, a shy smile. Anyone would believe that this guy does not know what the word failure means. His career has been meteoric since he left his School Lejoa 18 years ago. He greets everyone, gives kisses, sits down, talks to everyone, wants to please everyone. He’s a nice guy, someone you’d have as a friend. Another commotion. This time it’s Dani García. At 42, he’s another child. Two Michelin stars, successful businessman and also a student from Berasategui. With a perennial smile. Jeans, jacket, airs of the South. An accent from Marbella. Selfies, photos, questions. Another nice guy.
Inaugural act of Gastronomika
I’ve been here for about three hours and I’ve barely seen anything yet so I decide to leave the relative calm of the press room and walk around to check out the vibe. I walk downstairs and head towards the exhibition area. The exit door is behind me. Through the glass I see a large crowd crowding around something. I don’t want to miss a single thing, so I leave the premises and join the group, peering over them on tiptoe to see what has caught their attention; I then I realise why there’s such a commotion: Arguiñano, Subijana, Aduriz, Eneko Atxa, Joan Roca and a group of people in ties (presumably municipal and provincial authorities). It is the inauguration event. Someone says something that I can’t understand and then a boy dressed in traditional Basque clothes dances an Aurresku. Someone cuts red tape and everyone turns around to continue the act in the auditorium. Flashes and selfies everywhere. Here, in San Sebastian, chefs are like movie stars… and this is Hollywood.
A walk among the “gastronomikos” exhibitors
I retrace my steps and enter the centre again. This time I make it to the exhibition hall. These spaces aren’t very big at all. I suppose that the organisers of Gastronomika probably have a tough job of allocating so many.
At the entry, there is a stand that is exhibiting impressive charcoal ovens and grills. The exhibitor is Josper. Those of us who know a little about cooking know what that means. This brand is probably one of the best (no offence to others intended) manufacturers of this type of machinery. The charcoal is lit, and a few cooks are applying themselves to the fires, demonstrating how the grills and oven work. The smell of roasted meat makes my stomach twist with envy.
I go further into the exhibition space to continue to peruse the stands. Kursaal is completely full now. Countless people from San Sebastian and all over Spain and abroad fill the centre. Many visitors have come only to see the different presentations given by the culinary stars, occurring one after the next throughout the day without interruption.
I pass through the access control doors and enter another exhibitor area. The first thing I see is a stand that shows red tuna loins bred in the Mediterranean; they are a pleasure to look at. A cook fills sashimi a tray that empties more quickly than the time taken to cut it. Right next to this is David Ramos’ stand, an old friend that I come across here every year. As always. His company, Klimer, distributes furnishings and materials for catering companies and restaurants. His exhibition has marvellous culinary tools. A little further on I see a crowd gathering around a stand. Behind a glazed, white glass bar there is an impressive exhibition of oysters, placed perfectly on crushed ice. Two people are continuously opening them and offering them to the public to try. I keep walking and I come across Aquanaria. Another leading company. As part of the fishing sector, they breed sea bass in Atlantic waters. They have exposed their results: impressive specimens on the counter waiting to be gutted and cleaned with exquisite care by a chef. One becomes hypnotised with the delicate way he works.
My attention is drawn to something else of interest… Hams, wines, preserves, smoked cold cuts… And the latest developments in food research, Plancton Marino. A project led by Ángel León to grow and lyophilise this product, making the most of its high nutritional value and its impressive sea taste.
I head back to the press room to see if I can catch any of the stars that are here today. I’m lucky; Joan Roca has just appeared and is happy to talk to us. Sincerely friendly and tremendously cultured. He speaks with a soft voice and a frank look. It is a pleasure to chat with him. When I finish, I realise that Martín Berasategui is next to me. I patiently wait for him to finish talking to the journalists he is with. He chats freely with me, even though he is on a very tight schedule. He is a nice but blunt. He speaks in a quiet voice and you can feel the hamlet inside. A tireless worker A success story. I ask for a selfie and he smiles, clenches his fist and screams out: “Garrote [stick]”, his war cry.
Tribute to Juan Mari Arzac in Gastronomika
It’s got late. I still want to find Elena Arzak. Gastronomika itself has arranged a tribute to his father which has just been held, for being “the creator of everything”. However, the merit of this woman, of any woman in a world that, yes, is a man’s world, is worthy of praise. At last she is here. She is a very nice woman. A Basque through and through. She speaks quietly and with a smile. Cultured and endearing, even familiar. However, I would bet my sushimi that behind this façade there is a strong character. After all, she’s Basque. The matriarchy here in Euskadi is a fact. After a long talk we said goodbye. Two kisses, a selfie and all that. I feel like I’ve been hanging out with a friend.
It’s 8 at night. It’s been an intense day. Emotional, sensational, pleasantly smelly, flavoursome. The Kursaal is about to close. More tomorrow.