El Calmio Downo!


The Trip To San Sebastian

In terms of languages, I’d like to think I buck the usual stereotype of the Brit abroad. Like most, I did a bit of French and German when I was at school, so can fudge my way through there. My parents have a little place in northern Italy, so again, I’ve picked up enough to get by. And I managed to (somehow) find a beautiful Norwegian girl who puts up with me, so off to evening classes it was for me. I’m not trying to brag here, I don’t speak any of them fluently (I struggle enough with English!), but at least I don’t feel like a complete tool when I go to the aforementioned countries.

Anyone notice the glaring error yet? The two most spoken languages in the world are Spanish and Chinese (well Mandarin if you’re going to be picky). I tried a bit of Mandarin during my postgrad year in Edinburgh with my classmates, but my inability to get the accent right was a problem. When it comes to Spanish, other than “La Bamba” and “Xabi Alonso” I’m struggling.

So as much as I was looking forward to my stag do in San Sebastian, I was getting a bit funny about not being able to make myself understood. Luckily enough, if you’re British and you’re going abroad with a group of mates, chances are someone’s shitter than you are. Now this particular mate shall go unnamed, but I think he deserves special mention. His pissed belief that people will understand him if he put “-o” at the end of his words was bordering on genius. So when he went to break up the mother of all cat-fights at 5am on the way home from the club, he waded in, arms aloft, reassuring smirk on. “Hey girls, El Calmio Downo!” Only bloody well worked and all!

Cat fights and awful language skills aside, what a few days! San Sebastian is phenomenal. The pintxos bar culture is a God-send to any foodie out there. And the selection of wine from northern Spain is a great entry point to anyone, like me, who isn’t all that travelled in this wonderful region of Europe.

I took this one week ago with a raging hangover! Nice, huh?
I took this one week ago with a raging hangover! Nice, huh?

So are you ready for pub quiz fact of the day? Pintxos are small snacks available in bars in the Basque country. They’re roughly related to tapas, but usually held together with a skewer (pintxo is basque for “spike”). There are well over a hundred Pintxos bars in a tiny area in San Sebastian, and the night is just literally stumbling from one bar to the next to taste the next offerings.

It was as amazing as it looks!
It was as amazing as it looks!

Highlights for me were A Fuego Negro, La Cuchera De San Telmo, Gandarias, and the quite phenomenal Zeruko (coming to New York City in the near future). If you love your food, it’s amazing, you must go!

Charcoal smoked cod, with avacado crisp, and a cucumber shot, coming to a Big Apple near you
Charcoal smoked cod, with avacado crisp, and a cucumber shot, coming to a Big Apple near you

But what am I doing? This isn’t a food blog?! The night started each day with a trip to the only bar we could all remember the location of in the cold light of day. 8 of us, so 7 San Miguel, and one glass of Rosado from Navarre. Yes that was me. Well you see I’ve given up drinking lager and bitter, and unless there are very exceptional circumstances (all will become clear shortly) cider too. So you’re in northern Spain, some of the best rosé in the world available to you at every bar, what do you expect me to start the night with?

Northern Spain is the spiritual home of a grape called Garnacha (Grenache elsewhere in the world). It’s a fat grape, with lots of sugars, but thin skins. So you don’t get much colour or tannin (extracted from skins), but you get plenty of body and red fruit flavour (from the sugars in the pulp). Northern Spain is a massive producer of full bodied rosé. My mates might have been taking the piss, but they could go whistle for all I cared.

Next we head into the Old Town and hit the first Pintxos bar of the night. The drink of choice was, as ever, left in the dubious hands of the head barman on the first night. Pleased to say, he didn’t disappoint. I met most of the lads that were out there with me at uni in the West Country, an area of the UK famous for its magnificent cider. So when we found out that the Basque Country is Spain’s cider drinking nirvana, well what could we do?

They have a fantastic way of pouring this stuff though. It’s done with a thin but steady stream of Sagardo (cider), dropped into the glass from a great height to get plenty of oxygen in there, and give it a slight natural fizz. We all had a go, to varying degrees of success that got even more varied as more booze flowed. But a great laugh, and a great spectacle.

He's doing a lot better than I did!
He’s doing a lot better than I did!

From there we cracked onto the red wine. San Sebastian is a handful of kilometres from the northern border of the Rioja region. The main red grape in Spain is Tempranillo, which is often used with Garnacha in blends as they complement each other. Tempranillo is lighter in body, but has the colour and tannin that Garnacha doesn’t. But carefully handled and aged, the tannins can be controlled, and 100% Tempranillo wines can be fantastically smooth, with spicy red fruit flavours. We weren’t going to miss out.

It wasn't just  the focus on the camera that was getting blurred!
It wasn’t just the focus on the camera that was getting blurred!

Just before the nights (invariably) descended into chaos, there was just time to step the red wine up a notch. My favourite area in Iberia is the Duoro valley, mostly famous as the home of port production, as the Duoro flows through Spain and hits the Atlantic through the Portuguese city of Oporto. In recent times though, this warm, hilly, and majestic looking area has begun to produce outstanding red wines, mostly very full bodied (the heat and the choice of grape contribute). Our tipple of choice centred around a grape known as Tinto Fino. This is actually a very close relation of Tempranillo, but with slightly fatter skins, so adding darker colour to heavier bodies, giving it that subtle but distinctive difference to its brother from Rioja. We were drinking this stuff in Gandarias with some amazing flank beef Pintxos. I can close my eyes now and remember it all.

…Tinto Fino….with the flank steak…hmmmmm
…Tinto Fino….with the flank steak…hmmmmm

Sadly for me the same can’t be said for the whole weekend. It was my stag do after all. However I’d love to thank all the lads who made the massive effort to come out to be there with me. Was awesome fun. I’d also like to thank the staff at San Sebastian Food for looking after us, and lending us various items for my costume, they’re washed and in the post back to the office I swear!

Right, probably time to go before I say too much.

Waiter! El check-o por favor!




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