Food writer/journalist Rachel Lebihan* wrote in the Australian Financial Review last month about her visit to ARZAK, San Sebastian’s Michelin three-star restaurant. She mentions going into the kitchen with chef Elena Arzak for a lesson cooking hake’s throat.
Reminded of my first accidental trip to San Sebastian in northern Spain in 1983, I promised her some anecdotes – and a tenuous Italian connection.
After boarding a train in southern France, my travel companion and I set out to find the owner of the sweet trumpet notes wafting through the carriage. Californian musician Doug was heading to San Sebastian to join its new Basque National Orchestra and he made it sound appealing. The city wasn’t on our itinerary but two weeks later we were in Basque country.
On the way to our friend’s concert on the city’s outskirts we passed an inconsequential restaurant with killer fish fumes coming from the kitchen. We’d arrived too early for Spanish dinnertime but that didn’t stop me enquiring about the possibility of eating during siesta. A combination of no English on the restaurant owner’s part and bad Spanish on my part was getting us nowhere. Body language saved the day and we politely elbowed our way into the kitchen to taste test what was on offer.
Something dark, thick and shiny was bubbling in a large pot. Blacker than a Basque’s beret. The two plates of inky stew (chipirones en su tinta) delivered to us in the deserted dining room were exceptional. We ate the cuttlefish (which is more unctuous than squid or calamari) with chunks of bread washed down with the local Txakoli wine.
We enjoyed San Sebastian’s pinxtos bars, nightlife, food markets and beaches so much we stayed longer than intended, ditching yet another town for this privilege.
I’ve been back since 1983 and eaten fancier meals (including an 11-course extravaganza at the media launch of the 1997 San Sebastian Film Festival), but this adventure is the one that resonates. I’d be very keen to try the ‘taste before you dine’ idea here in Sydney. Hah! Imagine that … asking the chef if you can have a look-see into the pans he/she is rattling.
Which brings me to this post’s Italian connection. Italians love their cuttlefish, and in the north they’re cooked as a stew with polenta (sepe in umido co la polenta or brodetto di seppie) but it’s not always as black as the Spanish version. Cuttlefish is not easy to find in Sydney and testing for freshness can be tricky. My mother used to ask the fishmonger for a poke of the flesh, testing for springiness and iridescence. Once cleaned at home, the interior chalky bone went straight to the budgie cage.
This luscious recipe for chipirones – or calamares – en su tinta is from Elizabeth Luard’s cookbook ‘La Ina Book of Tapas’ and includes cleaning instructions. But beware. An industrial strength plastic apron is essential – cuttlefish ink is indelible.
Buen provecho. And buon appetito!
*Rachel Lebihan blogs at thefoodsage.com.au
Top image: R.Stacker