Dusk in San Sebastián, and in lieu of a dinner reservation I’m in need of fulsome vocal chords, sharp elbows and no small degree of Basque charm if I’m to eat tonight. Lacking all of the above, I’m relying instead on Eli, my tour guide of the “pintxos” bars of this venerable city.
“Forget everything you think you know about tapas,” she tells me as, with a flick of her glossy black hair and a deft weave in among the throng of diners standing at the bar counter, she locates a table the size of a doormat for us to lean on while consuming one of Spain’s most exquisite and rapidly evolving culinary experiences.
“Tapas is really just small versions of a main dish,” Eli elaborates as two bijou dishes of off-the- bone lamb – artfully arranged on top of a duvet of creamed potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes and samphire – are placed in front of us. “Pintxos dishes, on the other hand, are created explicitly to be this size,” she continues as we mournfully scrape our spoons around the empty-all-too-fast bowl. “So the flavours are often much more bold and rich, as you’re only going to be eating a few mouthfuls of each one.”
Velvety sheep’s milk cheese with shiitake-mushroom risotto, lusty and spicy piquillo peppers, and “torrija”, a Basque take on the ancient British dessert of bread-and-butter pudding, are just some of the dizzying array of dishes we consume while hurtling in and out of the bars lining the cobblestone alleyways of the Parte Vieja, or Old Quarter.
A private food tour of Spain requires not only reconciling oneself to gaining a few pounds, but also burying a few stereotypes; chiefly, that Spanish cuisine is ubiquitously rustic and simple fare. A certain Ferran Adrià changed all that with his late restaurant elBulli, in the seaside town of Rosas. Described by Juan Mari Arzak (another game-changing chef at the vanguard of the new Spanish cuisine) as “the most imaginative cook in all history”, Adrià, though not preparing typically Iberian food, did more than anyone to propel the notion that Spain is now more innovative and dynamic in its native cuisine than anywhere else in Europe.
Spain’s moment in the global culinary sweet spot didn’t end with the closure of elBulli. And flying from San Sebastián to Seville opensup another element of this Spanish culinary odyssey for me, namely the sheer bonhomie that is concomitant with any meal taken after nine in the evening. For a nation that regularly takes its evening meals close to the midnight hour, the diners of Seville are perhaps the latest diners of all, owing largely to the furnace-like heat which make dozing, not dining, the preferred option until the fierce sun abates.
As the pale yellow sun finally dips behind me, I shuffle into the doorway of La Artesana de Triana, a caravan-sized grocery store in the centre of Triana, the proudly blue-collar neighbourhood where flamenco was created by gypsies and freed slaves five centuries ago. After the culinary experimentalism and organised chaos of the pintxos bars of the Basque region, this is a profound contrast. Serene and contended, customers in this Lilliputian hideaway laugh and chat sonorously while sipping glasses of sherry, each glass passed over the counter with a silky pink sliver of Iberico corn-fed charcuterie resting on top of the rim.
Bartender Felipe explains to me, leaning against the bar with a rack of hams hanging on hooks behind him, that this combination is the very oldest of tapas dishes, the ham laid on top of the glass to stop the flies getting into the sherry.
Simplicity, clearly, is still present and still revered in Spanish cuisine. But to see how the innovations of San Sebastián and the classicism of Seville have coalesced, I take a short flight to a mountainous olive grove on the north coast of Mallorca for the final part of my tour. The Son Moragues estate has been harvesting olives since the 14th century. With 80 per cent of the olive groves along this coastline abandoned in favour of more economically viable flat-land groves, the trunks of these trees still display pruning marks made by farmers centuries ago.
Joe Holles, an Englishman who has lived almost his entire life in Spain, takes me in an ancient, open-topped Citroën to a tiny “caseto” mountain hut where, in days past, shepherds and labourers would stop for their lunchtime jug of wine. Without using any chemical pesticides or fertilisers, Joe and the team are slowly reviving the groves by combining ancient and modern techniques.
“Look at the way Picasso painted,” Joe comments as I dip a hunk of bread into a small dish of the olive oil, which is redolent of spices, lemons and smoke. “Not everybody fell in love with his work instantly. He had battles to fight in order to gain recognition. Spanish food is exciting. But sometimes you have to be patient. Real love does take time.”
Scott Dunn offers gastronomic tours of Spain from £2,200pp. To find out more, call 020 8682 5080