Our last day in Donostia-San Sebastian just happened to fall on my birthday… and my husband who is usually incapable of keeping a single secret from me succeeded for the very first time. Upon realizing I was turning 27… Mind you, I had thought I was 27 for the past year… I grumpily started to rearrange my luggage so that I had enough space for an over abundance of wine from Rioja that we would be returning to Chicago with the next day. Once packed, I was informed we had one last stop before we had to pick up the Renfe train and head back to Madrid. Armed with my camera, we wandered the Parte Vieja towards the circle our receptionist at Hotel Parma had convienently drawn upon our map. But even with a circle drawn my sense of direction can be off and as I casually walked into an all male, private dining club, I wasn’t sure exactly what type of birthday surprise I was in for. Luckily, a gentleman approached us and kindly showed us the way to our proper destination. At the top of a small hill behind the church we reached the Gastronomic Society and our interpretor, Biki.
We followed her to the kitchen where we met our chef and instructor, Haritz. My birthday gift today was a Basque Country cooking class! After our introductions, the fish monger arrived carrying a bag of proteins to be used over the next 3 hours of cooking. This included hake fish filets, clams, and kokotxas. So what is hake or kokotxas? Ok… Hake is the a member of the cod family, a mild-flavored fish used often in Basque cuisine. This fish has been integral to Basque Country cuisine and its history; however, over-fishing has now seriously threatened its population. We are told that consumers should be aware that some fisherman will try to sell the immature fish. These fish taken young will never have the chance to mature and replenish the population. Ok… so off of my save the hake soap box… The kokotxas(cocochas in spanish) are the chin of the hake and a costly delicacy that would be served with our hake fish filets. Haritz explained what we would be doing over the next few hours and then put George and I to work chopping up onions and popping the seeds out of Cubanel peppers that would provide the basis for Arroza Txirlekin(Arroz con Almejas Plato/Rice with Clams Dish). As our chef flew around the kitchen in a calm organized chaos, I strained my novice ears trying to keep up with his rapid spanish. I gathered dessert was next as he pulled out some dough, and a quick look to Biki confirmed we were going to make a pantxineta. The pantxineta is a traditional dessert of the Basque Country, and its creation starts with milk and a cinnamon stick on the burner which will be used as the filling. My next task was to roll out the puff pastry. As George watched me unsuccessfully roll the dough due to my light touch and constant fear of an unrisen dessert, Haritz came to my rescue, efficiently completing an almost failed mission. Since I had been distracted by dessert I hadn’t noticed that our clam and rice dish has been completed. What an amazing chef!
The final step in my birthday meal was the Legatza Saltsan (Merluza en Salsa Verde/Hake in a Green Sauce). This classic dish of Basque Country started with rinsed and seasoned hake fish filets placed in olive oil, and garlic in a beautiful brown casserole dish. Now, salsa verde may sound misleading for those of us more familiar with the Mexican version. But in Basque Country, salsa verde is composed of olive oil, white wine, minced parsley, and garlic. It took some time for my feeble mind to wrap around the idea, but as the aromatic garlic and parsley began to overwhelm my senses I thought… who needs tomatillos anyways… The chef added white wine, clams and kokotxas to the casserole dish completing the sauce and letting the flavors mingle. If you are in San Sebastian and looking for a good local white wine, txacoli is what you’ll need for cooking or drinking. As the finishing touches were added to the dishes we ventured upstairs into the dining room where we began our meal with a glass of txacoli poured from high into our glasses in order to introduce oxygen into the naturally carbonated libation.
This meal was perfect. In fact… it was my favorite meal of the whole trip. And the pantxineta happened to be the best “birthday cake” I’ve had in a few years… It even beat out my Jean George’s birthday cake in Bora Bora. Thank you, Haritz, Biki and A Taste of Spain for teaching us traditional dishes that have a place in the hearts and homes of the Basque people.