Everyone in San Sebastian seems to be crazy about food–Basque cuisine specifically. Even experienced travelers may find it hard to get their heads around this cuisine savored in coastal northern Spain. Is it the pintxos, the beautiful artistic mouthfuls offered at countless eateries in the city? Is it the Spanish tortilla or the burnt cheesecake praised by almost every tourist guide? Is it perfectly grilled fish paired with the fizzy local wine, Txakoli?
Our inquiring minds and palates were eager to learn. A cooking class, we decided, would be a good way to start.
Chefs and foodies from around the world travel to San Sebastian to learn some of the magic conjured up by its world-famous chefs.
They have a couple of options. You could enroll in a school like the Basque Culinary Center, which awards advanced degrees in Gastronomy after several years of study at a mere $25,000 a year. Or, for those with limited budgets and time, a great cooking class for about $140 is the next best thing. We opted for option B, and when we learned that Devour, one of our favorite food-tour companies, offered a Basque cooking class, we jumped on it. (devourtours.com)
The meeting point was in the city’s old town, the culinary heart of Basque country cuisine and home of several Michelin-starred restaurants. We joined five other eager students, visiting from as far away as Tokyo, London, and Vancouver. Our geographically diverse group reflected the international appeal of San Sebastian as a magnet for food lovers.
Our Devour host, Chef Carlos, originally from Venezuela, guided us down the narrow streets of the old town to a restaurant closed for the day. He ushered us into a large professional kitchen, outfitted with professional kitchen appliances. Then he introduced us to Saul, a colleague, and chef from Argentina, who would be our hands-on kitchen guide.
Dressed in cool embroidered Devour aprons, we lined up along a stainless steel table, facing our friendly chef-teachers. In front of us were the kitchen tools we’d use, including a sharp knife and cutting board. Right away, we knew this class would be hands-on–just the way we like them.
We would make – and eat – a complete Basque meal, including three savories and a dessert. Four dishes were ambitious and surprised us. Most classes we’ve taken focused on only a couple of items. Clearly, we were in for some serious cooking fun!
As we prepped each dish, Carlos shared its history and importance and showed chef techniques and tips. Both chefs were affable, professional, and very, very patient. The class bonded immediately into a team, laughing and cheering as their fellow students joined the chefs in some high-wire moves demanded by the menu. Though out the evening, Carlos coached and encouraged us with his slogan, “Easier done than said.”
Up first was the world-famous San Sebastian or Basque Burnt Cheesecake, which is much more appetizing than it sounds. Carlos explained that Burnt Cheesecake was created in the early 1990s by chef Santiago Rivera at his now-famous old-town restaurant, La Viña. Rivera’s quest was for a home-grown cheesecake that rivaled New York’s dense and creamy version.
After much trial and error, Rivera finally perfected his recipe, which included a local sheep’s cheese and no crust. Baking it at a high temperature gave it a slightly burnt caramelized exterior and a gooey, custard-like center. He called it “Tarta de Queso.” Soon, people from around the world were lining up in front of La Viña to try the Burnt Cheesecake.
As our team watched, Chef Saul added orange-yoked eggs to a large metal bowl, followed by cream cheese, heavy cream, small chunks of Idiazabal goat’s milk cheese, sugar, and cornstarch. Manchego is an excellent substitute for the Idiazabal cheese.
What followed proved that cooking, even for pros, can be like a live animal act–you never know what will happen. Chef Saul plunged an immersion blender so big that it could have powered a boat into the bowl. When he turned it on, the batter erupted, showering bits on him and his student helper.
All were amused except the chef. After fine-tuning his blending technique, the mixture was ready to ladle into individual serving bowls lined with parchment for baking.
While it cooked and cooled, we moved on to the rest of our menu. At the end of the evening, we capped our meal with cheesecake, paired with a Basque-country-made honey-sweet cider. It may look like a dessert gone terribly wrong, but it tasted superb, rich but not too sweet. No wonder it can be can found in restaurants all over the world. And soon, on the dinner tables of our team.
Our first savory dish, Spanish Tortilla, was one familiar to anyone who has traveled to Spain. Although we have sampled the potato-egg dish several times, we’ve never made it at home as part of Spanish-night paella feasts. As we quickly learned in class, to the amusement of all, doing it right can be challenging, especially if you’re not particularly coordinated.
The origin of the Spanish tortilla is a bit of a mystery, but likely followed Spain’s New World explorations that introduced potatoes to Europe. Carlos speculates it became popular in Basque country among working-class people struggling to stretch their food budgets. Eggs went further when combined with the less expensive and plentiful potatoes. Today, the Spanish tortilla is a popular pintxos, and the measure of a restaurant, Carlos believes. An eatery that doesn’t do tortilla right probably doesn’t do much else right, he said.
We peeled and chopped the potatoes – using knife techniques shown by the chefs. Then we watched them piled into skillets to cook. It may be a shock to the health conscious, but they are boiled in oil (canola or sunflower), then drained. Carlos explained that any other cooking method wouldn’t give the potatoes the right creamy texture essential for a great tortilla. We also didn’t add onions – a tortilla ingredient heatedly debated. Carlos likes to include them; Chef Saul did not.
Once eggs and potatoes are combined, our team faced its major challenge – flipping the tortilla from a sizzling hot pan onto a dish and sliding it back into the pan to finish cooking. No one wanted his or her tortilla to land on the floor, so we nervously practiced the move. Following Carlos’ instructions, Four classmates took turns doing the tortilla flip, each with their distinctive style, each cheered and applauded by fellow students. All succeeded, except Ron. He hesitated mid-flip, dumping a small clump of egg potato mixture on the worktable. Chagrined, he managed to follow through, slipping it back in the pan, and miraculously ended up with a lovely tasty tortilla.
With this dish, we had another skill to master. The chefs paired the tortilla with a Basque favorite drink, crisp dry cider. Tradition says the cider is poured with a flourish into the glass from on high – at least arm’s length – to bring in lots of air bubbles. Carlos demonstrated. Then it was our turn. Amazingly, everyone who tried it didn’t spill a drop. Except Ron. He declined to try, still chagrined by his botched tortilla flipping.
Our next dish starred dried, salted cod or bacalao. This is a familiar ingredient for us because of our many visits to Portugal, where it’s much loved and savored. We didn’t know it is just as important in Basque country, with its long history of fishing and cod consumption. The protein-rich fish is a staple here, especially valued during times of food shortages.
On our class menu was Bacalao al Pil Pil, one of the most popular Basque cod dishes. The chefs had already desalted the cod and cut into serving-size pieces. Chef Saul poached the fish, seasoned with garlic and dried guindilla chili, in olive oil to release the fish’s substantial gelatin, essential for the pil pil sauce. While it looks creamy, it’s made only with the olive oil. Chef Saul turned the cooking pan in a circular motion to combine the cooking oil and cod gelatine into a silky emulsion, with the consistency of mayonnaise. He spooned the finished pale-green Pil Pil over the cod, transforming the simple fish into a luscious dish.
All of us could cook the final menu item, a seared aged sirloin steak with red piquillo peppers. Key to this simple dish is aged sirloin, a prime cut in Spain that is the equivalent of rib eye in the U.S. Carlos showed us the huge side of beef, aged two to four weeks, that was cut to yield serving pieces for our class.
The meat is seared and generally served rare, but we could order medium rare if preferred. Mary prefers steaks cooked medium but enjoyed her flavorful serving, even though it was still deep red in the middle. Per Carlos’ instructions, we salted the meat once it was on our plates. Salting before cooking would draw out water and lessen the caramelizing sear, he explained.
We plated the steak with piquillo peppers, small, sweet red peppers native to Spain that combine smoky and fruity flavors. The season for fresh piquillos is short, so they are most often found canned or jarred. For our meal, they were simply heated in olive oil for a surprisingly bright contrast with the steak. What a simple, tasty addition to grilling season at home.
After almost three hours of on-our-feet cooking, we had a new respect for chefs who stand in hot kitchens for hours on end. Before our class adjourned, we raised our glasses in toasts to our chefs, Carlos and Saul. Topa!- that’s Basque for “Cheers!” And Topa! to each of us. After all, we were chefs for an evening in San Sebastian- the gastronomic capital of the world.