After resisting planned tours for 25 years, I have finally found a company that designs a trip exactly the way I like it! I’m definitely returning for a future trip with San Sebastian Food. Tish Hendershot, San Francsico, USA.
For this first tour we had five guests, plus two more for the whole of the most important day. While we had hoped for a few more bookings – we can accommodate up to 15 guests – these numbers worked well and gave us valuable feedback from diverse national backgrounds – US, Australian and Irish.
From our guests’ testimonials, written responses to questionnaires, and their verbal comments, we believe the tour gave them everything they had hoped for, and everything we had intended to deliver.
Above all, they felt that they experienced parts of the Basque Country other tours don’t reach, in a context of comfort, great food, and good humour, with a dash of adventure.
Day 1 – Keynote presentation, gourmet dinner at Hotel Arraya
They were introduced to the culture, history and politics of the Basque Country with a keynote presentation by Basque specialist Paddy Woodworth, at the lovely Arraya hotel in Sara, one of the most beautiful villages in the French Basque region. Then, over a delicious dinner at the same venue, gastronomic expert Jon Warren outlined the characteristics of Basque cuisine – great local ingredients presented to maximise the impact of their specific qualities and flavours.
Day 2 – Village history tour and Basque cookery class
The following day, we visited the medieval Navarran village of Lesaka, where local historian Rafael Eneterreaga acquainted us with many aspects of its life down the centuries. These ranged from carvings used to ward the evil eye from houses, to a representation of the Trinity denounced as obscene and inappropriate by the Catholic Council of Trent in the mid-16th century, but which still stands defiantly above the old entrance to Lesaka’s magnificent Gothic church today.
At noon, we gathered in the village square (actually a most unusual triangular plaza) for the Chupinazo, the launch of rockets from the town hall balcony which announces the opening of the San Fermín fiestas. Afterwards the mayor, Juan Fermín Mitxelena, invited us for photos in the council chamber and balcony, and then for drinks in a local bar.
The tour remains one of the standout memories of my entire month in Europe. I haven’t stopped raving about it to anyone who stands still long enough to listen. The partnership of Paddy and Jon and the itinerary they developed is something quite unique. Never have I had such a close personal encounter with people involved in a fiesta and learned so much about the culture and the food and the people. Naomi Bickley, Australia
We drove through the steep green pastures and forests of the Cinco Villas region to its most remote destination, Arantza, a village whose huge stone houses seem to grow directly out of the earth. There we had a long table which was heaped with local produce, simply prepared and delicious including local tomato salads, wild mushroom pies, carpaccio of Duck, all carefully selected for us by Jon and the Aterpe restaurant. After a short walk in the village, including a visit to the pelota court and town hall, we returned to our hotel for a rest.
That evening we drove to the port of Paisajes San Pedro, where we took a ferry across the harbour mouth to the sister village of Paisajes San Juan. There we entered the kitchen of Ziaboga restaurant and met Alex Barcenilla. He has over 20 years’ experience as a chef including 3 years at Akelarre, one of San Sebastian’s famous 3 Michelin star restaurants. Alex showed us how to prepare a whole line-caught bonito tuna fished from local waters and prepare it in a variety of classic and modern styles. These ranged from marmitako, the fisherman’s stew very popular in local fiestas during the tuna season to marinated tuna (using lemons), and an escabeche where it is preserved using olive oil, white wine and vinegar. Guests participated enthusiastically in every aspect of the cooking lesson, from filleting the fish (a rather bloody task gamely undertaken by our youngest traveller) to chopping peppers and preparing sauces.
We then ate all seven dishes we had prepared, on the quayside of the lovely harbour, sipping the locally produced Txakoli as well as red wine from the restaurant owners’ vineyards in Penedes north of Barcelona. There was a complication returning home, as Jon navigated the very narrow medieval street that is the town’s sole exit, and found that our van was, on at least one occasion, marginally wider than the street. Such moments, one guest assured us, were often the most memorable of any trip.
To enjoy the beautiful Basque countryside while gaining understanding of the culture, cuisine and complicated history of its people, we highly recommend the guidance of Jon Warren and Paddy Woodworth. They not only arrange delightful accomodations and all in-country transportation, they also provide insider access to community leaders, magnificent meals in authentic Basque restaurants and cooking classes with Basque chefs. It is an intellectual and sensual experience not to be missed. Siobhán & George Nicolau, Ireland.
Day 3 – San Fermín fiesta, tasting menu dinner in San Sebastián
On Wednesday, the feast-day of San Fermín, we returned to Lesaka and encountered the danzaris (dancers) who give the patron saint’s fiesta its unique quality. They were breakfasting on red wine and tortilla de patatas in the Kasino bar and restaurant. They discussed details of their extraordinary costumes with us (scapulars of saints, tiny bells) before leading the town council to a sung Mass at the church. The singing by the local choir, in Latin and Basque, entranced our guests.
After a councillor ‘danced’ the town’s banner outside the church in honour of the saint, we followed the dancers back to village centre. A very kind citizen, José Ignacio Goya, invited us to join his family on their balcony overlooking the Onin stream, on whose stone banks the dancers gave one of their most spectacular performances, the Zubigainekoa. This vantage point gave our guests an exceptionally privileged view, as only a handful of other balconies overlook the spot, and most people have to watch from street level.
Exhilarated by the morning’s spectacles, we retired to the Asador Basque in neighbouring Etxalar where we feasted on classic dishes such as Alubias, Txistorra and local lamb which had been specially chosen. After a brief visit to the unique collection of solar headstones, whose structure may be pre-Christian, beside the church, we drove to the pass of Palomeras. This is the one point in the Pyrenees where migrating pigeons are still hunted by an ancient technique involving nets and a kind of boomerang, which the birds think are attacking falcons.
Perhaps because of the volume of lunch consumed, some of us stretched out beneath the shade of an oak-tree – we enjoyed superb sunshine throughout the trip — while others climbed a nearby hill for slightly hazy views of the French Basque coast, and the start of the Cantabrian range on the Spanish side of the border. A griffon vulture and a black kite put in dramatic close-up appearances as they rode the thermals. Closer to earth, the air was rich with the scent of the flowering wild thyme – curiously rarely used in Basque cuisine – that we had crushed beneath our feet as we strolled.
Paddy and Jon made an excellent team of tour leaders, and their knowledge, interest and points of view complemented the other’s very well. Paddy’s local contacts and knowledge of the area got us access to some amazing places – and we got to speak to some very insightful and articulate Basques. Jon’s familiarity with the cuisine of the region – and access to some cracking chefs and their kitchens – meant that we always ate extremely well, and always learned about what we were eating.
Our French hotel was perfect: quaint, a bit quirky, very French, lovely little rooms with ample rural charm. And being part of the Lesaka festival (and meeting the mayor beforehand, and getting to know Rafael, and having those spectacular coveted views of the whole procession) was reason enough to come on the trip. Dinner on the last night was a perfect ending to a very memorable trip. Roger Norum, writer and photographer for Cara Magazine.
For our final evening we drove to the Basque gastronomic capital, San Sebastián (Donostia in the Basque language, Euskera). After a sunset walk on the Paseo Nuevo around the base of Mount Urgull, we sat down to dinner outside the Bokado Restaurant for our last supper. Sitting around a perfectly laid table with sparking wine glasses, we enjoyed an 8-course tasting menu paired with 2 magnums of Grand Reserva Rioja wines. As we drank the final toasts, we felt more like old friends than new acquaintances, tour guides and clients, as stories were swapped in an atmosphere of unforced intimacy.
Day 4 – Farewells and Departure
We had breakfast the next morning outside the Arraya, enjoying the hotel’s crisp homemade cherry jams and tart marmalades, before some of us parted for a visit to the Guggenheim museum en route to the airport, while others took a final stroll around the village before parting for other destinations.
Our guests questionnaire responses show that they give the tour top marks in all the categories we listed.
Above all, they feel that they got behind the scenes, both at the fiestas, and at the kitchens of the restaurants where we ate, and had a unique and intimate experience of the multiple aspects of the Basque Country, which was for us the main target of the tour.
However, they also gave us some useful feedback, which we hope will guide us towards making the next tour even more enjoyable. Several of them thought we had tried to pack too much into too short a schedule, though we had trimmed it back radically just beforehand. Two-three great experiences, including dinner, are probably all most people can absorb in 24 hours. So we are considering expanding the tour to four nights and three full days, to give people more time to rest, or simply wander around on their own, between events.
From the charming B+B to the drives through the Basque region to Lesaka, the afternoon “hike” and the San Sebastian dinner, it was all blessedly free from tourists, tourist traps, mass produced anything, kitsch, tacky souvenirs, or anything that smacked of the inauthentic. It was a day I will treasure. Michelle Sharon, USA
Our 2011/12 Adventure Tours
Jon Warren and Paddy Woodworth believed passionately in this project when we planned the first event, but with this experience, and the testimonials from our guests, we now know how well it works. With more long-term marketing, we are confident that we will fill our full quotas in future. We really hope you will feel moved to join us. Visit our website for more information: www.sansebastianfood.com
San Sebastian Food and Paddy Woodworth will be offering at least four more cultural adventures in 2011. Bookings are already being taken for an expanded version of the Lesaka festival trip, including an extended tour of Pyrenean villages, in part following the fabled French Basque cheese and wine routes: 5 – 9 July. Adventures still in preparation at the time of writing include: a visit to the carnival in Lantz from 7 — 11 March, featuring spectacular traditional performances including the ritual hunting and burning of the mythical figure Miel Otxin; a May adventure focussing on light hiking through coastal and mountain spring flowers meadows, but also including a village fiesta and the company’s signature fine dining, rustic dining and cooking classes; and, from 6- 10 September, a visit to the colourful and historic but controversial Alarde in Hondarribia.
For details, updates, bookings, and to sign up to the San Sebastian Food mailing list, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call Jon Warren on +34 634 759 503. Alternatively, if calling from USA: +1 917 675 4894, Ireland +353 (0) 1 442 8435 or UK +44 203 286 7777
Visit our website: www.sansebastianfood.com
Photo Credit: Roger Norum