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The Flavours Of San Sebastian: Pintxos Bars and Michelin Stars

14th August 2015

San Sebastian is the crown jewel of Spain's Basque Country. It is a stunning seaside city that pulses to the beat of beachfront bars, sizzles beneath a bright Spanish sun and stirs the culinary curiosity of visitors and locals alike with superb gastronomic expression. San Sebastian's beauty is only surpassed by what's on its menu.

The Basque region's food scene is exhilarating. There are approximately 2,000 restaurants dotted around San Sebastian and Bilbao, with most of its edible flair attributed to the former. Some argue that San Sebastian is Europe's greatest culinary destination. Needless to say, the city is a mecca for any foodie.

 From the city to the sea; San Sebastian wraps around a stunning bay (image: Getty)

Spain perfected the notion of tapas long before the craze swept the world. The ever popular share-plate dining experience may have been invented in Andalucia, but gastronomes flock to San Sebastian's shores for its take on this progressive way of eating.

While share plates are designed to, er, share, pintxos are typically one- or two-bite morsels. The word pintxos literally translates into 'spike' and come in the form of a baguette round topped with a mix of ingredients and spiked with a toothpick to hold it all in place.

San Sebastian is home to over 200 pintxos bars and most are hidden within down cobblestone alleyways of Parte Vieja (Old Town). Stumble into any establishment, no matter how cosy or unassuming, and you'll find bars piled high with a selection of these tasty treats. The tradition is to sample one or two pintxos with a glass of wine, before moving onto the next bar.

Up your culinary immersion by pairing pintxos with local specialty, kalimotxo. While many would argue sangria is the perfect refreshment for a hot summer day, this concoction has become the poster child for Basque culture. What is it? An unlikely combination of equal parts red wine and Coca-Cola. It may sound strange, but it works.

 A typical pintxos bar spread (image: Getty)

The pintxos bar crawl is a serious sport in San Sebastian. No visit is complete without spending a day or two (oh go on, why not everyday?) working your way through classics such as tortilla de patatas, a simple, yet flavourful potato omelette, or more indulgent options like grilled foie gras or squid stuffed with morcilla, Spain's answer to black pudding.

You'll likely never pay more than €4 per bite, though most hover around the €1-2 price point, meaning pintxos are an affordable and unique way to fill up.

However, for something more substantial, San Sebastian shines even brighter when it comes to sit-down dining. Gastronomy is an art form and San Sebastian is quite the artist. Of the country's seven three-Michelin-starred establishments, three can be found within San Sebastian itself, bringing the total number of stars in the city to 15 across eight restaurants. The city holds the highest number of Michelin stars per square metre, a feat only beaten by Kyoto.

San Sebastian glitters with star-spangled fare, as bright as the surrounding turquoise ocean. It's not uncommon for hungry travellers to fork out nearly €200 for a degustation menu in some of these world-renowned restaurants. So, how to choose a Michelin star restaurant? Well, the most obvious answer would be to try them all – that is, have the deep pockets to indulge your fine tastes. Though for most of us, it really all comes down to planning and that pesky holiday budget.

You won't have to fork over your life savings for a meal at one of the one Michelin star restaurants such as Kokotxa. Here, Chefs Dani Lopez and Estela Velasco create seasonal menus of typical Basque flavours with Japanese and Chinese influences.

 One of Chef Aduriz's creations at Mugaritz (image: Mugartiz)

On the other hand, go all out with a multi-sensory dining experience at one of the three-star venues. Perennial favourite Mugaritz, sitting proudly on The World's 50 Best Restaurants List at number six, is your finest option for a truly unforgettable meal. No menus are given in advance, instead, you'll just have to trust the no holds barred imagination of chef-owner Andoni Luis Aduriz. A Heston Blumenthal of Spain, if you will.

In a stunning natural setting, diners are treated to a staggering 24 courses individually tailored to dietary requirements, wants and desires. Extras like edible cutlery and centrepieces add to the theatre where each and every sense will be stimulated, tantalised and delighted. Don't miss the signature edible stones, too!

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