The San Sebastian Tapas Challenge

What is your earliest memory?

Mine is a Pie and Mash shop.

A proper old fashioned East End one, with tiled walls, communal tables, wooden benches and big plastic bottles of vinegar, with or without chilli. Steam rising from vats of lumpy mash and the smell of slightly burnt pie crust in the air.

I remember being spoon fed tiny pieces of mince meat, mash and green liquor. That’s right, green gravy. Look it up. You’ll probably think it’s disgusting, or weird, or both, but seriously don’t knock it, until you’ve tried it. And FYI, it’s the parsley that makes it green, which yet again sounds weird, but it works. Especially with the vinegar.

So yes, my earliest memory is of food. In fact most of my memories, past, present and future, feature food one way or the other.

I am a big fan of the stuff.

So, when Alex said I could choose 40 days to spend doing whatever I wanted for my big birthday this year, I knew at least a few of them would be spent in one of my favourite eating destinations on earth, San Sebastián in Spain.

And me being, well, greedy, I decided that in honour of my special year, our challenge should be not just to indulge in a normal tapas crawl, but to attempt, in 48 hours, to eat 40. Enlisting the help of my mother, passport in hand and stretchy pants in the case, off we went.

Now we have been to San Sebastián several times, and there are certain dishes that just can’t be missed, and certain bars that aren’t open every day. So after landing at 8pm on a Saturday night, we had no time to waste. No sooner had we checked into our accommodation, then we were back out of the door, dragging my bewildered mother into a packed Borda Berri, a place full of laughter, empty plates and clinking glasses.

Their best dish from the chalkboard-only menu, is the risotto, a beautifully creamy and salty dish, where the traditional rice is substituted for pasta. The Idiazabal cheese, used in it, a wonderful Basque sheeps cheese, is slightly smoky in flavour, and my mum was sold at first bite.

That is until the Kebab de Costilla de Cerdo Ibérico arrived, or succulent, fall-off-the bone pork ribs to you and I. When the veal cheeks and salt cod turned up she nearly fell off her stool, or perhaps that was the Txakoli’s fault, a refreshing lightly sparkling wine, which you drink instead of Cava in the Basque region.

Next door to Borda Berri, is the equally popular Bar Sport, so it was only right that we should stumble here next, their tapas displayed in a more traditional style, which is on the bar on toothpicks, ready to be pointed at and heated up, or served cold. My mum could just about manage some warmed Foie on crunchy toast, and a nibble at some Patatas Bravas, before she called time. And knowing that we had a full day ahead tomorrow, I conceded that a respectable six out of 40 wasn’t too bad for our first few hours. Just the 34 more to go tomorrow…

Now if I carry on listing every single tapas dish we had over the course of the next day or so, this is going to be one hell of a long blog post. Let’s just say we did it, and the proof is in the pudding, or in this case, in the amazing baked cheesecake from La Vina, our final stop on our tapas marathon.

Do not miss this place when you need a little sugar pick me up, and don’t leave it too late in the day, as the cheesecakes do sell out, and when they’re gone, you’ll regret it. The couple next to us sure did when my mum nabbed the last two slices (yes they serve two slices to a portion, and yes you will want to eat both. Alex and I didn’t get a look in).

 I can also very much recommend the prawn skewers from Goiz Argi, three garlicky prawns grilled on a stick, before being smothered in a slightly picante sauce. Then there is the most tender octopus you will ever eat at Cuchara San Telmo, another blackboard only bar, or the salty sirloin steak pieces at Gandarias, served rare on a slice of bread, perfect for catching juices.

 Now, I really must give my rumbling stomach a break before I do something stupid, like book the next flight to Bilbao. But just before I go, I thought I would share with you some advice that I gave to Mum, before and during our trip, the rules of tapas engagement you may like to call them




A First Timer’s Guide To A San Sebastián Tapas Crawl


1. You will eat later than you do at home. This is not the time to be tucked up in bed with a good book and a cup of tea by 9pm. I have packed indigestion tablets so do not worry.


2. You will often be given a basket of bread with your knife and fork. Do not fill up on this. You will regret it when you are full, and I am still eating prawns.


3. Yes, that really is the price for the prawns. Yes, it is that cheap. Yes, I wish we could find them that cheap at home as well. No, we cannot stay in here for the rest of the weekend.


4. You must share. Unless it is a prawn skewer. And then we will have one each. Or maybe two.


5. The dirty napkins on the floor are not a sign of bad hygiene practice. It is tradition to show how popular a restaurant is. If you throw you napkin in what you think is the bin, you have just littered the umbrella rack.


6. You will get knocked about a bit, people will lean over you, and sometimes we will just have stand in corner, balance the plate on my handbag and make do. This may not be the way you usually eat roast pork, but this is San Sebastián, and it is worth it.


7. Don’t ask what it is, or for a menu translation. Have it anyway. Even tripe tastes good in Spain. Honestly. It really does.


8. You will be thinking of those garlic prawn skewers for months to come. You will attempt to make them, and it won’t be the same. You will visit a lovely, but very expensive tapas bar in London, and realise that they’re not the same there either. You will then drop hints into the conversation about how much you loved San Sebastián, and I will remember this while writing a blog post, and I will want the prawns too, and then think, that San Sebastián the return is a great title for another blog post…


9. Prawn skewers…mmmmmmmmm…

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