There's a local saying about San Sebastián residents that says they think that they are the belly button of the universe. If that's true, then you are looking at the end of the world, where the sidewalk ends. Needless to say, everyone skirts this fence at least once. And what happens beyond is anyone's guess.
Yesterday I ran, and it felt like Alabama.
This morning I surfed, and it felt like California.
This evening I can't stop sweating and it feels like Louisiana. That means off to one of San Sebastián's nicest cafés to just be, Botanika. Barrel-aged negronis, fresh juices, and the place a homesick American can go for an assortment of dippy foods in summer and special themed menus in winter.
What do you get when you mix a striking geographic beauty and lovely ancient monuments? You get something more or less exactly like San Juan de Gaztelugatxe.
This jutting piece of land outside Bermeo remains connected by a single file bridge, whose 237 steps end in a lonely hermitage that can’t help but provoke fits of imagination and fantasy, at least in your author. Who lived here? What did they do when those inevitable Basque storms that come out of the nowhere? How did the wind sound on lonely nights? Et cetera et cetera.
The temple that sits on the top of the zigzaggy stairway is rich with local legend and religious rites. Have a headache? Leave a bobby pin or beret as an homage to Saint John! Your kid pee the bed? Take him at a certain phase of the moon and watch the sheets remain dry forever! Sleepwalking? Pray and ring the bell and recite this ancient prayer (three times, though):
Doniene Gaztelugatxeko (Saint John of Gaztelugatxe)
geure Zerutar Zaindaria (our holy guardian)
zeugana nator, ni, jauna, (I come to you)
zeure laguntza eskaztera. (in search of your help).
Nire ames txarrak kendu (Take away my bad dreams)
ta nire gaba baketu. (and give me a peaceful night).
Stuttering, bunions, desire for a good catch, you name it…this island was viewed as a holy solution to it all.
Nowadays it is a spot unlike any other I have ever seen, a gorgeous stop along the Basque coast of Bizkaia.
If you make the visit on the 31st of July, there is a romería from the town of Arrieta where you can follow the Virgin Mary and the whole town up the steps, carrying out a promise they made many years ago to her if she would rid their village of a cholera outbreak.
And there is something magical about this place, something supremely beautiful and even spiritual. Looking out on the ocean that seems endless, knowing it was an embarkation point for ships that traveled around the world, that the horizon really was full of unknown promise…with your two feet planted on the rocks and pebbly cobblestone, it feels all now. A blending of past and present and supernatural.
Having an rough-around-the-edges oasis in the desert of perfection is worth its weight in indie bands. The neon-lit pallets of Dabadaba serve as the backdrop for bands from Japan to America. I recently found myself listening to surfy pop rock from Seattle group Zebra Hunt and thinking I was back at the legendary Birmingham venue Bottletree or down in the Marigny of New Orleans. That's a Monday feeling I like.
This weekend, there's a big old festival in San Sebastián. It hasn't reached the heights of the jazz festival or Zinemaldi (yet), but it's growing every year: the surfilm festibal.
Apart from the crazy lineup of surf and ocean-related films, along with Chile as the invited country, Plateselector has organized a Food Truck Tour that's making a stop through San Sebastián (after a scary successful weekend in Zaragoza).
I'm lending a hand to these über cool people, organizing a series of chats with some of the people I most admire on the Donosti foodscape: Edorta Lamo, Pablo Loureiro, Kevin Patricio, the chefs from Elkano....and the list goes on. We've also managed to snag Kimi Werner, whose video about swimming with a great white almost brought me to tears.
The schedule is below.....a don't miss for this weekend in Donosti, people!
Where am I, the Amalfi Coast? Crete? Nope! San Sebastián.
Seeing the city from a different point of view. Swim if you dare, boat if you don't, out to the Island of Santa Clara. Think French Riviera meets Panama City Beach, with an abundance of magical shady paths whose vibe is spontaneously disrupted by the smell of feces, dead animals, and weekend picnics. Love it.
The red, black and cream tiles are stuck in my mind. An immediate attraction, somehow, to the row of apartments on the cliff of Guethary. The tiles of the balcony are framed by red railings, but the building itself is a drab cream concrete with only a number above each door. And it immediately caught my attention.
Guethary lies not far from the Spanish border. On the surface it seems to be one of those generic seaside towns on the at-times-white-trash, at-times-breathtakingly-beautiful lower French côte. But I found something drawing me to it—a rugged Basque sensibility, combined with a wide open rocky beach. An old tavern with a few rooms above it and seaside resorts whose better days have seen better days. Old Basque dinghies so photogenic it was almost tacky.
An intense love affair with what was, originally for us, just a stop on a road trip.
I would love to say we stumbled upon Heteroclite by accident. And we sort of did, but I had heard talk of a restaurant built into the side of the beach in Guethary. I was looking for something special, and I knew I would know it when I saw it.
Some places are so French. And some places are just so perfect. It doesn’t matter that the menu is ridiculously simple, consisting only of a few snack plates like paté and hummus and a dish of the day. What matters is the location, the surprise, the perfect thrown-together aspect of it all.
For lunch it was a plate of cured ham, topped with delicate shavings of red onion and pickled guindillas. Octopus with potatoes and paprika, in a nod to southern siblings. I found myself concentrated on scraping clean the plate of paté, however. Maybe it was the obligatory Lillet, maybe it was you, maybe it was me…or maybe it was just Guethary.
It’s so hard to sum up the feelings I have about this place in words, so I thought maybe leaving this picture with you would work. This building appears in my dreams. It suggests history. It hints at mystery, even horror. Falling apart and overrun with spiderwebs on the bottom, the top clings to its last shred of Havisham dignity. This place, mes amis, has a story to tell.
And I'm going back, even if it's just for another chapter.
It's the Concha's fault. Blame it on that beauty of a beach, sitting there soaking up all the glory, all the Instagram shots, all the tourists' footprints. While everyone else is 'dando un paseo' along the promenade, I sit in this quiet, somehow isolated enclave. It's a "where am I" moment, complete with faux grecian urns. And a spot where I'll bet 50% of residents have never stepped foot.
It's where the road ends. First you pass the tranquil promenade, wave at the tennis club. You go and you go and you pump your legs until you think they are going to fall off of your body. It's a trek back in real estate time...first come the HEINOUS villas that sell for HEINOUS prices, their only nod to architecture a half-assed mansard roof. Then things get a little more blockish, although with plenty of sculptural garnishes— a nod to times when techniques weren't as sophisticated as tastes. And then you are back about a 100 years, country homes that used to actually be in the country. Then you hit the security checkpoint, and you're finished. (Hint, look to your left).
“Say that you only ever eat beans with ketchup.”
Unthinkable for an American. And there I was, a 30-year-old female from Alabama, the spokesperson for my country and my under-represented and often maligned state on a Spanish national cooking competition show, Entre Dos Fuegos. The set, with its opposing stoves and dramatic wood-fire background, was packed with teams and audience members from two neighboring Basque villages, Tolosa and Gernika. They were preparing one of the most classic basque dishes: babarruna.
These blackish beans are cooked über simply, then garnished with blood sausage, pickled green peppers, cabbage, and pork fat. It’s a dish with a strong cultural link, a cause for celebration in the cold winter months of this region. And I was supposed to judge the merits of each version, seated alongside my fellow judge, Mari Tere from Berriz.
For those watching the television, underneath my face and its feigned confusion were the words ‘Princesa de Alabama’. This was the pseudonym given to me by the producers of this season, a competition spin off of the wildly popular show No Es País Para Sosos (No Country for Boring People). And this was the introduction shown before the beginning of each show.
The hosts of the program were Ander Gonzalez, a San Sebastián-based chef, and Ramón Roteta, one of the members of the Arzak-Subijana-Arguinano clique that runs the cooking culture around these parts. Ander’s lovable teddy personality formed a comic counterpart to Ramon’s one-moment-goofy, one-moment-serious role as the paternal figure.
During our run, a little bit over three months’ worth of shows, we would try some of the Basque Country’s most iconic dishes. One week it was bacalao al pil-pil, the next was sheep stew. One week it was two crazy pirates from a seaside village making sukalki, and the next would feature women well into their 80s letting an irrintzi rip before radiating a deep blush and settling back into their seats.
For a food lover and Basque-obsessed person like myself, it was a dream. Before each show, a spread of incredible ingredients lined the surfaces of the set: gigantic fish, produce ready for its closeup, even live snails at one point.
I soon grew more comfortable with my part, from relaxing in the green (but actually blue) room before shows, to caking my face with unspeakable amounts of stage makeup, to memorizing my prompts just a few moments before filming.
I got used to going out at night and having people ask me if I was the girl on TV (and, in true too-honest Spanish nature, telling me I was either better or worse looking in person). I never will get used to heading out to the countryside, to one of the 24 villages that took part in the show, and having random people ask my for a picture.
I got used to sparring with the other three, giving my opinion as we would debate off set on the best of the two dishes. Unlike other reality shows, we really decided off set the winner, based almost solely on the merits of each pueblo's plate.
Most importantly, I made some super new friends and some incredible memories. Ramón, Mari Tere, and Ander are wonderful, funny folks. The whole crew…Andoni, Jon, Carmen, too many to name….they will always have my love.
And did I say the thing about beans and ketchup? Bai. Rather than fight out a lesson on the finer dining differences between Brits and Americans, I said it—but not without adding in a line about frijoles with tacos. Just to keep it a bit real.
Michelin stars for may be for Europe and James Beard awards for America, but there's a little ranking out there that transcends international boundaries: The World's 50 Best by San Pellegrino.
Shrouded in mystery and hype, it's an award system that started with the best of intentions but has evolved into a controversial and seemingly arbitrary assigning of rankings. As best as I can personally tell, it is directly correlated to public relations force and features in the hip food magazines du jour.
But hey, maybe I'm cynical. And here's why I'm even talking about it: FOUR restaurants in this tiny region in the north of the Iberian peninsula have the made the Top 20 of this prestigious list. A geographical zone with the same population of Chicago is literally dominating the thoughts and stomachs of the world's food illuminati. That is crazy. It's even crazier for me, running in the same circles as these chefs, running into and talking with them in their kitchens, on the streets, at parties. I can honestly say these are some of the REALEST people I have ever met. So, good on them, and here's a quick breakdown of the big four:
Mugaritz : #6
who: Andoni Luis Aduriz
what: intellectually challenging Basque food
why i like it: Andoni is a thinker. He runs a tight ship with a lot of talent, spending several months out of the year in R+D mode. Every single plate may not be the best you've ever tasted, but they are enthralling tastes and sensations. Here are a couple of my previous visits.
Asador etxebarri : #13
who: Victor Arguinzoniz (<-I can spell that without looking it up. Boom.)
what: seasonal, sophistcated Basque grilling
why i like it: Ugh. Everything. The place. (So gorgeous, in the middle of Basque nowhere) The chef. (Victor is gruff and grizzly, until you get to know him) The technique. (Grilling perfection with bespoke tools designed by the chef) And the satisfying flavors. (Real food...butter, cheese, steak, seafood, soufflé....but all so very Basque) I have a couple blogposts about this one.
arzak : #17
who:Juan Mari and Elena Arzak
why i like it: It's a classic. You get the family vibe upon entering, and to frank, the dishes are just delicious. Perhaps a bit over the top, a bit too playful at times, but they bring a strong game. The local's favorite, by far. Here is a post from one of my visits.
azurmendi : #19
who: Eneko Atxa
what:globally focused sustainable Basque cuisine
why i like it: I'VE NEVER BEEN. FAIL. It's high on the list...stay tuned!
So many times zooming around this corner. It takes on a different life according to the season, and this very month it is at its most beguiling. It's so Donosti. The perfect line of trees, in fullest bloom yet manicured to be a cartoon's idea of a tree. On the left a row of houses, to use the term loosely, that defy you to ride by without imagining the privileged lives of their inhabitants.
You can see more Monday spots here.
On my blog, I've always covered whatever I want—from the days when I used to post about cooking in my tiny Alabama kitchen to now, writing about all things Basque as I go on five years here in San Sebastián. Five years is a long time, a sixth of my lifetime, and it recently hit me that this will be the place I've lived the longest in my adult life. It makes sense, then, that I have seen a lot of changes here in San Sebastián. Old, wood-covered bars closing and turning into mini-Ikea outposts; tourists beginning to cross the bridge into Gros; the birth of pintxo pote; the importation of cocktails, brunch, and cupcakes; and a general awakening, for better or worse, to the existence of an outside world.
This, along with the emergence from a nationwide recession, means a lot of new businesses opening, many of them restaurants, cafés and bars. If there's one thing I'm short on, it's time. And I've always written my blog with an eye for excellence, insisting on covering only spots that really blow me out of the water. But that means I miss a lot of coverage, and I feel like I am letting my readers and visitors to San Sebastián down.
With that prologue, I would like to introduce the Donosti Dining Update, a semi-weekly collection of new(ish) spots in San Sebastián just to keep us all in the know.
san sebastián restaurants & how i rate them
Since this is my blog and I can do what I want, I have curated a strange group of criteria that summarizes the way my brain breaks down a restaurant experience. Ratings are from 0-5 and highly subjective.
$€$€ : Tuning in to how I felt looking at the check. The general price to quality ratio, the relation to how good it was to how much I paid.
Vibeyness : I'm super sensitive to ambience. Love low lighting and textures. Don't like virtual Pinterest reality.
Gobackability : How likely is this place to be somewhere I make a regular haunt?
WIFI: 👍 or 👎, self-explanatory, ¿jyes?
Martimeter : The general feeling I have about the place, an unexplainable rating yet perhaps the most important of all..
That said, here goes the first-ever Donosti Dining Update:
Gerald's Bar comes to San Sebastián straight from Australia, bringing with it the Anglo-Saxon sensibility that is, fortunately for them, just beginning to catch on in San Sebastián. The menu marks its differences in the enthusiastic presence of seasonal vegetables, herbs and spices. Think Australian restaurant that serves its idea of European food opens branch in Europe serving a cuisine twice-removed.
We had quite a few plates....stewed garbanzos, salmon with dill, lamb shank with eggplant and potato, and a citrus mousse. All familiar plates if you read English-language foodie glossies, but for the locals of San Sebastián I think there is a bit more of an exotic air. For me, the vibe, the charcuterie and cheese plates, and the longer-than-average wine-by-the-glass list are the main attractions. I appreciate the foreign touches, like a bit of luxurious butter with bread to start and tunes from *gasp* a record player. ¡Qué guay!
$€$€ : ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Vibeyness : ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Gobackability : ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
WIFI: (look for in future editions...i forgot to ask, ok?)
Martimeter : ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Calle Iparragirre, 13 (GROS)
Okay, Ambigu isn't all that new— I think the first time I went there was a year ago. However, it's been on my longstanding list of new places to blog about and I wanted to get to it. Housed in the former parte vieja branch of Iturrioz, it was one of the first bar-cafés to inaugurate the trend of "different" design, of paying attention to details and doing so in a way that is not typically Basque.
Ambigu has a menu made for sharing. Don't expect pintxos...the only consistent offering is a croqueta. These are full and half raciones, and they are not your standard San Sebastián fare: green salad with strawberries, bacalao ravioli, pea and scallop risotto....
We had a wrap and their patatas bravas. They fell somewhere between normal bravas and excellent bravas. A pinch of salt could have made the difference.
Apart from their dinner menu, Ambigu is notable for its brunch and breakfast offerings. A rare find in San Sebastián, that's for sure.
$€$€ : ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Vibeyness : ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Gobackability : ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
WIFI: (look for in future editions...i forgot to ask, ok?)
Martimeter : ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Calle Aldamar, 12 (VIEJO)
No sooner than a street or plaza is made pedestrian-friendly, you can count on a few coffee-shop/bakeries to pop up. Chocomint, with its oh-so-cutesy logo and branding, is one of these. First feeling: happiness. Not another bakery chain. First feeling checked upon our visit....the majority of the baked goods sold there are from a larger, locally based chain.
As far as homemade goods go, you can look for the mini- and regular-sized cupcakes, as well as the layer cakes. They were cute, but the one we tried was over-soaked with an over-watery simple syrup and honestly just barely adequate, nothing special enough to write home about. Sigh.
$€$€ : ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Vibeyness : ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Gobackability : ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
WIFI: 👎 (supposedly, but it didn't work)
Martimeter : ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Calle Usandizaga, 5 (GROS)
I have a list going for future updates, but if there's somewhere you want me to checkout, leave it in the comments!
Another Monday spot....if you follow me on Instagram then you probably saw that I was high above the city of San Sebastián this weekend. Monte Urgull, right in the heart of San Sebastián, has to set some kind of record for the most freaky and charming corners on a single tiny mountain.
Seriously, I don't really want to elaborate on the crazy things you can find at any turn on Urgull, if only because I don't want to spoil the surprise for you, dear reader. But...secret coffee, shooting galleries, crazy tight views, museums, Haysoos, hidden homeless camps, etc. And this peaceful little shaded sitting area. Find me here next weekend with my book.
Until next Monday...maybe.
This is how it all began, in a container. The brainchild of three guys in San Sebastián, brought to life by their friend the Spanish architect and their acquaintance the English baker...The Loaf.
I've been waiting for the perfect moment to talk about my work at The Loaf, where I have been baking everything but bread since this pop-up bakery transformed into a bricks-and-mortar store last July. Turns out the perfect moment must be now, since after nearly a year of baking, I'm moving on to other endeavors here in San Sebastián (more on that later).
So, now becomes the perfect moment. I could go on and on about the techniques and ingredients and behind-the-scenes at the bakery, like a good blogger. But honestly that makes me feel lazy. I suppose I am just too close up, to deep in, to really step back and do it from a hipster foodie POV.
This is where I stood, every day for many hours, cutting butter into flour, whipping cream, melting chocolate, and doing all the other things that bakers do. The major risk that Andoni, Nacho and Xabier took (along with the architect, Javi) was placing the obrador at street level, making a strong statement that baking takes precedence over the client. What that meant for me was beautiful views while I mixed my sweets. And being the star of curious onlookers' Instagram accounts.
One thing I can say is the real star at The Loaf would have to be the bread.
I can declare without bias that it is the best bread in the whole city. Made like bread should be made, all natural and from sourdough starter. With a lovely crust, dense crumb and a tangy flavor.
But my domain was the sweet stuff. I mixed a lineup of perennial favorites (carrot cake, banana bread, scones, muffins, brownies) with ever-changing special items. Show-stopping layer cakes (my favorite was a brown-butter buttermilk cake with brown-butter honey frosting), tarts made with whole grains and various fruit-nut combinations, and seasonal desserts (like that time I got a tiny bit strawberry crazy).
One of my favorite items to perfect was, of course, The Cookie. Chocolate chip, peanut butter, sugar, oatmeal raising, double chocolate, molasses spice and corn-blueberry were some of the perfect cookies I served up to the hungry customers. UGH, I LOVE COOKIES.
Sometimes I got a little fancier, like eclairs filled with pistachio pastry cream, which I made by soaking and blending up my own pistachio milk. Followed by about a million more steps.
And, you heard it here first...I invented the croissookie, a croissant stuffed with cookie dough.
The bakers, along with all the cooks and staff in the bistro and the store, make The Loaf what it is. Without them, this extremely exciting, extremely difficult, and totally worth it journey wouldn't have been possible.
Special thanks to La Salsera and everything they have done for me.
¡ADIOS THE LOAF!
Thanks to my wonderful friend Stefani, a perennial visitor to San Sebastián, I finally got to eat in the dining room at Martín Berasategui, one of San Sebastián's three-Michelin spots. Please, nobody ever tell her that I would let her stay at my apartment indefinitely even without being wined and dined.
We had the tasting menu, whose fourteen dishes are all preceded with the date in which they were created in the Martín kitchen. It should be mentioned that I spent the better part of two years of my time in San Sebastián organizing a project whose major component was a stage in Berasategui, so I had spent my fair share of time in the kitchen (as well as comforting stages at the end of their young, American rope).
Visually, the meal got off to a strong start. The sea crunch tempura with txakoli mayonnaise and citrus gel was lovely to look at, if a bit muddled when it came to flavors. And a kumquat filled with potato firewater, olive and anchovy was a nice partner.
During my meal, I tried my best to erase my knowledge, to judge my waiters, sommeliers, and cooks as if I didn't know they were young and in training. Once you do know this, it certainly goes to explaining why there are so many staff members at Berasategui. Overall, though, I have to say they did quite well for youngins.
The meal began with a heavy hitter, the oldest dish on the menu (1995): mille-feuille of smoked eel, foie-gras, spring onions and green apple. A delicious sweet, creamy, fresh combination. Though smoked eel always has and always will remind me of grilled hot dogs. (Look ma, I'm sophisticated!)
Then it was time for a delicious, tender version of shrimp royal, with dill and venta del barón oil.
Beautiful award could very well go to this dish. A slightly warm, lightly marinated oyster sat in its shell, with icy cucumber and txakoli slush to contrast with a bit of spicy apple purée.
One of our favorite dishes of the meal was this colorful mess. Sauteed black garlic in Alma de Jerez oil with beet ceviche, ice radish and raifort cream. How often do you get to eat pink and black shit? Pretty much never. Seriously, though, the earthiness of the black garlic was amazing against the beet in its various forms.
Gorgeous dish of raw seaweed and seaweed cream on a sea urchin curd with fennel salad. However, be warned. Of the three tables in the restaurant, I literally heard each table tell their waiter they didn't quite love this one. Is sea urchin really that controversial?
A vegetable lover's dream: golden crispy swiss chard stems with scallops in their own aniseed-flavored sea juice. The scallop was too fishy, though.
Another goodie: Gorrotxategi egg resting on a liquid herb salad and dewlap carpaccio. In cases like this, I regret not getting the Spanish menu to know what the heck dewlap is. Creamy, rich, and delicious is what it is.
This vegetable hearts salad with seafood, cream of lettuce and iodized juice was the second oldest dish on the menu, dating back to 2001. It would also have to be my favorite. I am such a veggie sucker, and this was a plateful of different textures and tastes.
I think I was too busy praising the vegetable plate to take a picture of the next dish. Unless, that is, it was a subconscious antiestablishment gesture, refusing to photograph Martín's famous red mullet. The legendary red mullet that Spanish chefs say he carries around in his suitcase on the food conference circuit. Sorry, mullet lovers.
At this point, I actually felt a tinge of regret. This lamb chop was BOMB, and I was wishing I had laid off the former dishes to be able to accommodate this more readily in my stomach. The tenderness of the lamb was amazing. Served with parmesan whey, fritters, and asparagus in a citrus dressing, it was a show-stopping way to end the meal.
Dessert time: saffron veil with melt-in-your-mouth macaroons and tea flower ice cream. Ice cream amazing. Colors gorgeously bright. Rest, just fine.
Blurry End of Meal picture syndrome. This smoked sponge with cocoa crunch, frozen whisky cream, crushed ice, green beans and mint had a strange, futuristic gaseous taste to it, unfortunately. As much as I loved the crunchies, it was impossible to ignore. So...we downed the rest of our delicious wine and bantered a bit with our neighboring table.
Stefani and I agreed that our Amazing Meal Ranking would be 1)Mugaritz 2) Arzak and 3) Martín. She hasn't been to Akelarre, but that would probably hover around Martín. So, there you have it, your complete guide to booking stars in San Sebastian.
In Antiguo, there is an uncelebrated park with an evocative name: Zubimusu. It lies below ground level, amphitheater style, and nobody does much in it. It's often empty, but I love its subterranean vibe. Designed by the Donosti architect Joaquin Montero, it's sparse in a Japanese way, but plays host to a curious sculpture of children by Francisco Lopez Hernandez.
Recently, in the name of the International Society for the Preservation and Enjoyment of Vermut, I made an excursion to one of our favorite vermouth makers, Bodegas Martínez Lacuesta. Founded in 1895 by Félix Martínez Lacuesta, it is one of only three Rioja bodegas that were started in the family and are still totally run by the family. When it was founded, the focus was red wine, as is to be expected in this famous region. At ISPEV, however, we are friends with Luis Lacuesta, one of the latest generation of the bodega who is responsible for the modern day Lacuesta vermouth.
The addition to the product line was welcome, but in the middle of the century the bodega ceased production. The generations continued churning out high quality Rioja reds, but Luis Lacuesta had an idea in the back of his mind. He wanted to bring the vermouth tradition back. When the operations were handed over to him, he put the process in motion, and in 2006 started testing and perfecting the old Lacuesta recipe.
This move turned out to be quite prescient—it positioned Martínez Lacuesta perfectly for the current vermouth boom.
In the vermouth world, there could be said to be two types of vermouth. There are those that are flavored with extracts of herbs, drop by drop, to achieve a certain taste. This is considered cheating by many folks, considered to be a shortcut, a deviation from artisanality. Which is a word I just created. The second type of vermouth is the one made by macerating fresh or dried herbs in one of the vermouth components, be it the wine, the fortifying liquor, or even the sweetening agent. This is Lacuesta’s secret.
The Lacuesta bodega was previously located smack dab in the middle of Haro, which, as you can imagine was very picturesque—and very bad for business. So, about five years ago, the family sold the restrictively small property and constructed a new bodega from scratch. The construction coincided with the financial recession in Spain and dragged out over 26 months.
But now they have a beautiful space to show off (highly recommend a tour ending with a lunch in the secret dining room...), which Luis graciously offered to take us around.
Lacuesta currently has three vermouths: Rojo, Reserva, Gran Reserva and Acacia. In May, they will launch their new white vermouth, which Luis told us has been nearly a year’s worth of experimenting and perfecting in the making. The first attempts were too sweet and yellowed in the bottle, taking on aspects of a Moscatel. The final version is more in line with the standard of quality that Lacuesta is used to, made with herbs cold-macerated for nearly two months.
Lacuesta macerates its red vermouth base, “la conzia”, for an amazing three years, with a selection of 24 herbs, which are on display in the bodega. Luis isn’t afraid to share the ingredients—he is convinced, and rightly so, that the other factors in the vermouth process are more important than which herbs they use, factors such as quantity, time, barrels, wine, etc. The macerated mixture is then added to wine, citric acid, caramel and a fortifying alcohol. The white vermouth has a varying list of herbs and no caramel added.
The bodega is huge— one of the biggest in Rioja with 75,960 barrels. A sleek wooden balcony looks out over it all, but it’s not for safety monitoring or for Luis to have existential look-at-my-kingdom moments. Low benches with white cushions are strategically placed to make this spot an ideal chill-out zone for bodega events, which are hosted nearly every month.
After the bodega tour with Luis, we were led to our private lunch session with the maestro himself!
Chit chat about history, Rioja gossip, and vermouth across the world ensued, overlooking some of the vines. Like any good Riojan lunch, it included a tomato-y sauce with a slight peppery kick, which Luis would not allow us to call a la riojana, because in the Rioja, it’s just sauce.
I wish we could say this was the wine Luis opened for us. But that would just be the too-perfect end to an already so-perfect day.
Can't thank Luis and his family at Bodegas Martínez Lacuesta enough for their hospitality and endless support! Also can't wait to drink the sweet limited edition Felix Martínez bottle of red we picked up....
I never tire of talking about this spot. How all I have to do is walk about fifteen minutes from my doorstep and San Sebastián fades quickly from memory, replaced by dramatic cliffs, seagull colonies, and gorgeous hikes both familiar and new every time. Alone, for some meditation; with a friend, for sitting on rocks with; or with many friends, those special enough to be shown this impressive hike all the way to a nearby fishing village. Mount Ulia, I'd take you over the best pintxo bar any day.
You can see the rest of the Lunes Lekuak, my weekly installment of spots I love in my town, here.
This Monday's spot is a curiosity that not many people know about in San Sebastián. Each week, when I drop Buckley off at hip-hop dance class, if it's sunny I go sit in the grass of the long thin park next to her school. Sun, birds, dogs, passers-by, and the feeling of being on the periphery of the city.
Right above the crest peeks out one of San Sebastián's few examples of modern architecture. (That somewhat pretentious statement is a shout out to the San Franciscan hipster on his European Tour that gave me a lecture about San Sebastián and its architecture and gastronomy randomly in the street a couple summers ago.) The iglesia de Iesu is a curious, minimalist church that seems cold and Ikea-y at first but is actually quite interesting when you focus on the careful, simple details, such as the modern take on a catedral's cross-shaped nave. And it's a beautifully ironic-without-trying-to-be piece of social commentary—the basement houses a gigantic supermarket.
You can see the rest of the Lunes Lekuak, my weekly installment of spots I love in my town, here.