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Discovering San Sebastian

Discovering San Sebastian

San Sebastian and the search for the perfect fish throat. 

San Sebastian had more Michelin stars per person than anywhere else in the world. This, the tapas culture, the sea and the seafood, make the city known as Donostia in Basque a perfect place for my annual eating holiday.

Over three days my mate Justin and I will eat at 3-Michelin star Arzak, 2-star Mugaritz and 3-star Martin Berasategui These magical chefs are great innovators and I can’t wait to be taken on their culinary adventures but there’s one taste above all that I want to discover:  Kokotxas Pil-pil. This weird and wonderful dish is said to represent San Sebastian more than any other.

Kokotxas are plump, gelatinous morsels cut from hake and cod jaws, like a double chin that looks like a pair of frog’s legs with no feet. Hake is prized in San Sebastian, and the fact that one large fish only produces one bite sized kokotxa elevates these fish throats to luxury status.  Their price soars in relation to their rarity, but must also include a massive labour cost.  I have since butchered piles of hake heads to go after their golden chins and as satisfying as kokotxas are to extract, it requires highly technical and time consuming knife work to get them off in one piece.

Our holiday is not exclusively for fine dining, one night is set aside for a slightly civilised, citywide pintxos bar crawl. Pintxos is the Basque name for tapas, and literally translates as “pointed stick”. The assumption is that pintxos began with several ingredients, impaled on skewers then stuck into a piece of bread to hold them upright and be moistened by any cascading juices. But the skewers are not essential, pintxos can be made of anything, served on anything and the variety is as bewitching as it is bewildering. We’ll eat everything from octopus and blood sausage stew served in saucepans to fried Porcini on paper plates and as many hake throats as we can find. As it turned out, we were given a sort of culinary GPS for our crawl when the chefs at Arzak and Martin Berasategui gave us lists detailing the best pintxos bars and the best pintxos to eat at each one.

But the day we two chefs look forward to most is when we will cook from the La Brecha market. To further illustrate the importance of good food to San Sebastian, the market is considered a major tourist attraction.

To get there, we walk along the famous golden arch of San Sebastian’s La Concha beach where an accordion player busking spots us as tourists then changes mid tune to “When the Saints go Marching in”. He will do this (and we will pay him) every one of the 8 times we see him so the song becomes our soundtrack to San Sebastian.

The underground market is incongruously near MacDonald’s.  We descend into an elegant cave where the seafood is lit from above and sparkles like giant jewellery in beds of ice. Justin picks Venus, razor, and palourde clams, scallops and oysters. I get the scarlet prawns known as Carabinero, (oddly also the word for policeman) and kokotxas of both cod and hake. The hake are by far the more expensive. At this point in my Hake’s head education I thought kokotxas were cheeks or tongues, so I puff out my cheeks then poke out my tongue as sign language to ask the laughing fishmonger for the definitive answer. She pulls a hand out of a fish she’s gutting, waves her index finger no, then runs her pinky down her throat.

We rented the apartment for its kitchen with a view of the sea. We prise open the oysters, heavy and full of juice, delicious. The Venus clams are next, first raw, slimy and briny, chewy after the oysters. The small palourde clams are sweeter and more tender. We boil the large and small clams in separate pans with a splash of water, no other flavours, they open in a minute and are better cooked than raw.  The long thin razor clams need great care because they have a bag of grit inside their shells, so just as they open in the heat, Justin peels the grit away in one movement then bathes the long clams in their juices. Glorious. We taste the juice, then we stir butter into it. The juice becomes smoother and rolls rather than runs into our throats, but the butter overwhelms the pure essence of the razor clams.

We steam two of the scallops in their shells and fry the others in butter, because of the different techniques, it is as if we are tasting two different ingredients. We roast the Carabinero prawns in their shells quickly and fiercely, burn our hands peeling them, eat the flesh then suck the sweet roe out of their heads, the flavour is as powerful and decadent as their scarlet colour.

It’s time for the kokotxas, cod on one side, hake on the other. We stew the throats gently in olive oil, leaving out the Pil-pil’s traditional garlic and chilli. We keep the heat at 75c so that the kokotxas’s natural gelatin leaks into and then emulsifies with the oil to build the sauce. We eat the throats from the pan with pieces of bread for plates, the cod is firmer, the hake jellied to the point of being slimy. We both prefer the cod.

I bought them at Le Brecha, I ate them as pintxos and I cooked them myself for the first time, but in the end, it was in the hands of the Basque expert that fish throats tasted like food for gods. The 3-star Martin Berasategui cooked Kokotxas Pil-pil for us with such perfect skill that their jellied texture made the throats appear alive in their sauce and made me blissfully understand why the sliminess is so sought after. My search was over.

By Alex Mackay, Merchant Gourmet Cook