San Sebastián (or Donostia in Basque) deserves to be famous for many things: beaches, greenery, architecture, history, geographical splendour, friendly people, number of well-behaved dogs and fabulous weather.
Yet its reputation for good food supersedes all that. Michelin-starred restaurants are in abundance, or tumble into any bar in the Parte Vieja and enjoy an incredible array of freshly prepared pintxos.
Last weekend was my third visit to the city. The first for pleasure, second for research and the third for a bit of both. Tread Softly is set in the Basque Country, one of the most beautiful, accommodating and colourful regions of Spain. Sitting in the main square on Saturday afternoon, we watched a political march for Basque independence, a lesbian wedding photo shoot and a Spanish male voice choir. All given respectful attention and at the bride’s insouciance when the heavens opened, applause.
As a harbour, San Sebastián boasts fresh fish as a unique selling point. Add to that the surrounding verdant farmlands and world-famous vineyards and you have the perfect combination of experienced chefs, the finest wines and ingredients you cannot mess up.
Friday night, we wandered round the narrow streets, crammed with families and tourists, browsing the mind-boggling selection of pintxos all laid out on the bar. We tried crab, tortilla, anchovies, egg, fish, chorizo, black pudding, mussels, tuna and certain things I couldn’t translate. All delicious and served with patient smiles at our amateur attempts at the language. Between courses, I zoned out, remembering why I set Tread Softly in this region. Here’s an extract to remind us of who, what and where.
The smell of flesh was giddying. Chorizo, sausage, cecina and air-dried hams hung overhead; pintxos arrayed on the bar looked like individual works of art, spiked anchovies, layered peppers, tortilla slices and salted cod vying for attention; and the glass of Txakoli, wearing a light coat of condensation, reflected the sunshine streaming through the windows.
Beatrice sighed with anticipation. It was very hard to make a decision. She gazed at the shoppers on Calle de Edouardo Dato and caught her reflection in the glass door. Good God, she looked almost happy! An involuntary smile; things must be improving. She showed the barman her snacks, although the quantity stretched the definition of the word, and settled into a leather banquette to enjoy her lunch.
Content to observe the patrons and eavesdrop on the intriguing sounds of Basque, she chose not to pick up her novel, her guidebook or her map. The bar seemed a popular location for workmen, who stayed mere minutes, washing down their tapas with beer or cups of wine. She enjoyed the respectful nods she received from each new wave of diners and began to feel quite at home.
Meal over, she lined up her toothpicks so the barman could count them and charge her accordingly. It reminded her of Go Sushi! in Hoxton, another ‘healthy’ place which cruelly tempted diners into over-indulgence. Thoughts of home swelled a dull yearning. Not homesickness. Not nostalgia. Just an ache for the familiar. How absurd. She’d only been in Spain a week.
She ordered another glass of rosé, picked up her phone and dialled the Classics and Ancient History Department of Exeter University. Hang the expense, she needed to hear his voice.