I’m in a restaurant dining room holding a spoon that’s cradling a deceptively simple egg yolk. Back in the kitchen, the chef had extracted a small portion of the raw yolk with a syringe, then re-filled it with a warm truffle-spiked consume, thus poaching the egg from the inside out. Once I plop the yolk into my mouth, there’s a burst of flavor, a marriage of creaminess and umami that washes over my palate. It’s revelatory.
I’m at Azurmendi, a Michelin-three-star restaurant in Spain’s Basque country helmed by talented 46-year-old chef Eneko Atxa. The food here is certainly cutting-edge, but here in Basque Country, that’s not particularly surprising.
In this region in northeastern Spain, particularly in and around the town of Donostia as the Basque people call it, or San Sebastián to the rest of the world, lauded restaurants are abundant. San Sebastian and its environs have the second most Michelin stars per capita than anywhere on the planet. In addition to Azurmendi, restaurants such as Arzak, Martin Berasategui, Akelare, Mugaritz, Elkano, and Extebarri have become dining destinations for food-loving travelers from around the world.
“You could make the argument that there is no better place to eat in Europe than the city of San Sebastián,” said Anthony Bourdain. “The love of food, the insistence on the very best ingredients, is fundamental to the culture and to life here.” He wasn’t exaggerating.
While tourists cram the centers of Barcelona, Madrid, and Sevilla, how did it come to pass that San Sebastian—a town of 200,000 people that is often overlooked by tourists—gained this level of gastronomic notoriety?