Spanish Cuttlefish with Italian Attitude

November 27, 2013


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.

The Fish Stall, 16th century. Oil on canvas

Bartolomeo PASSEROTTI – The Fish Stall (late 1500s). The woman is questioning the fishmonger about the fish. As she should be.

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




  1. This is one of my favourite dishes – eaten on some creamy polenta. Would kill to be eat it in San Sebastián some time soon

  2. San Sebastian is a great city Paola – I’m sure you’d love it. You’d have a gorgefest! Btw, one interesting thing I found when travelling in smaller Spanish towns where English is not spoken much, is that the dialetto triestino got me through! For some reason, Spanish seemed more closer to it than the general Italian. Strange.

  3. Superb anecdote and traveller’s tale and intricately woven Italian connection! I love the fact that you asked to have a ‘look-see’ at what was cookin’ – and after hearing about your mother asking the fishmonger if she could prod the cuttlefish, i can see where you get it from! The pit-stops off the planned itinerary are often best, aren’t they? Sounds like a lovely time was had. I loved the cuttlefish stew i had in San Seb – thanks so much for including a recipe. I will have to try it this summer. Will report back. Top work!

    • Thanks. I’ve now got San Sebastian withdrawals. Please do try the cuttlefish recipe I’ve included. I’ve had that Tapas book for many years and only recently discovered how interesting its author – Elizabeth Luard – is. She’s written lots of cookbooks and lived in Spain for many years. Wiki her.

  4. It’s amazing how far hand gestures and body language can get you when the spoken word is of little use. Nice writing style and to be honest I didn’t even know you could eat cuttlefish. Thanks. Tim

    • Thanks for your comments. Yes, cuttlefish are great – they’re a bit ‘meatier’ than calamari with a more unctuous texture. Good for braising especially.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: