After our trip to the La Brexta Market, armed with groceries, we head back to the wonderful, gleaming basement kitchen of the San Sebastian Food cooking school where our chefs and teachers await. We don white overalls and black aprons, scrub our hands and each take a prep station, waiting to hear what’s on the menu.
It’s an ambitious and complex line-up, as you’d expect from a cooking school in the heart of Basque Country – a gastronomic wonderland. From simply but beautifully, prepared local appetizers, like local green peppers and uncured chorizo sausage, to a steamed vegetable medley and squid stuffed with lime infused apples.
Our guides in the San Sebastian Food kitchen are Agustín and Mateus. Both are experienced restaurant chefs who enjoy sharing what they’ve learned with wannabes like us, they’re generous with their knowledge and answer all our questions.
The kitchen itself is exceptionally well equipped, for the most part with appliances from European manufacturer, Neff. Induction stove tops allow for precision cooking. A steamer which looks like a regular oven. Blow torches, a blast chiller and more.
Here are five tidbits I learned during the day.
1. It’s Probably Time to Get a Vacuum Sealer
Vacuum sealing machines, are not only a prerequisite for using a sous vide machine, but also for infusing flavors, and keeping food fresher longer. As part of the preparations for our squid dish, we did an insane (to me) experiment where we packed julienned pieces of apple with fresh lime juice, vacuum sealed the packaging and left to sit for a while. After a short period of time, we tasted the apples. They looked like apples, but tasted like lime. Mind. Blowing. And yet so simple… which I came to discover during our time in Spain is what sets apart good cooking from gastronomy.
2. And You’ll Need A Sous Vide To Accompany That Vacuum Sealer
Chef Mateus is a firm believer that in just a short few years most domestic kitchens will have a sous vide – or water bath. On many menus around San Sebastian we saw dishes that incorporated the perfect egg – cooked to 62 degrees Celsius – so that both egg and white are perfectly coagulated. And it’s great for cooking meat to perfection too.
3. A Squid’s Backbone Looks Like Glass
I’ve never cooked much fish at home—although I am told the secret is a super hot pan—but now I know how to prepare and clean squid perhaps I’ll try this dish at home. We were taught how to remove the head and insides, along with the clear backbone, which looks like it’s made of glass.
4. Using a Blow Torch Is A Lot of Fun
The dessert on our menu is a local favorite: individual pieces of bread pudding, made with brioche and soaked in a milk custard, before being dusted in sugar and browned over a high heat. Extra sugar is sprinkled over the cut edges and then melted with a blow torch. Monkey did the honors and had a blast using this particular kitchen tool. We also used the blow torch to lightly brown the pancetta before warming the tomatoes in the oven.
5. It’s All About The Plating
I’ve been to more than my fair share of cooking classes and in retrospect, plating has never featured on the curriculum, but not so at San Sebastian Food. Ensuring that the delicious food we have cooked is visually appealing, the chefs showed us how to plate each dish before we sat down to eat. Small touches such as adding a fresh flower or micro green (using tweezers) to garnish the dish, ‘schmearing’ the plate with a sauce by using a silicone pastry brush, and using a pastry cutter to make for perfect rounds of tomato, all made for really professional-looking dishes.
Other invaluable tips we picked up, include cooling cauliflower before putting it in the blender to avoid a watery result; freezing tomatoes and then using the resulting ‘tomato water’ from defrosting them as a delicate base to a dish, and scattering a few crushed toasted nuts to a plate before plating your dessert. And, most importantly, how to pour the local wine: txakoli to “break” the bubbles and release flavor.
All in all, we had an amazing time with the gang at San Sebastian Food. Our class started at 10.30am, with the tour to the market and the prep time in the kitchen, it was going on 2.30pm before we started eating our appetizers: pan-fried green peppers, delicious sausage and garlic and parsley mushrooms. And then we got to work finishing the cooking for our four courses: delicious warmed tomatoes with pancetta; perfectly steamed seasonal vegetables with pinenut dressing; squid stuffed with lime apples on pureed cauliflower and the aforementioned carmelized bread pudding.
At around 4pm we stumbled back out into the sunlight, replete and full of knowledge. I definitely hope to return to San Sebastian Food in the future, and look forward to using my new skills at home.