We’ve started a little tradition of visiting cooking schools on our travels and picking classes that offer a tour of the local market—or in this case—the mercado. After some sleuthing on the Interweb I picked San Sebastian Food, located in the basement of the beautiful Hotel Maria Cristina, offering a cooking school and numerous food tours around the area. Our class promised us a tour of the La Bretxa Market followed by a hands-on class, culminating in a multi-course meal created using the ingredients we selected on our shopping spree.
First off, the cooking school itself is beautiful. Gleaming, new and shiny – and kitted out with high-end Neff appliances. It’s all the things a commercial kitchen is not, and a great space to spend the better part of a day. There are also two lovely dining areas which we go to enjoy.
Once we’d all gathered, our guide, Arantxa, took us to the borders of the old town of San Sebastian where there are two magnificent stone buildings which housed the original markets. One for meat and the other for fish, with fruit and vegetables sold outdoors by local farmers and producers.
Arantxa explained that due to EU regulations, sadly, the nature of La Bretxa market has changed. One of the buildings was shutdown and a much smaller fruit and veg market is now held outdoors in the morning, with a combined meat and fish market in the basement of one of the buildings. During our tour she pointed out the local produce and delicacies and described how the mainstay of Basque cooking is using seasonal produce along with the gifts of the Atlantic ocean.
While there is a huge array of cured jamon, salami and other delicious dried sausages, including chorizo, none of the curing process actually happens in the Basque region because the air is too humi meaning the product would mold rather than cure. The label bellota means the pigs were fed acorns in the last months of their life – this meat is the most prized and more expensive than regular old jamon.
The Basque people are very proud and you’ll see stalls featuring red, white and green ingredients packaged together to represent the color of their flag. We saw dried beans with green peppers and tomatoes for instance, and lots of greenery around the fish on display. Many of the vendors will cut up your vegetables for you to save you the time at home.
The fish market at La Bretxa was a wonder. Bonito, or tuna, is in season and you can see huge whole fish and steaks for sale. It’s a local favorite with no end of varieties preserved in oil in cans or jars.
And one of the more bizarre looking items on sale were the barnacles, which have to be cut from the rocks by hand. Apparently this is a dangerous endeavor with a number of ‘harvesters’ losing their lives each year to the treacherous oceans. They look like the toes of a creature from “Where The Wild Things Are” and I have to say, I wasn’t tempted to eat them at all.
Having purchased apples, squid and a few other items, we stopped by a gorgeous small grocery store on our way back to the school to pick up some fresh mushrooms for an appetizer we were going to make.
The sheer freshness and abundance of the produce is enough to make you want to emigrate immediately. It’s a feast for the eyes, long before it’s a feast for your stomach.
La Bretxa Mercado is on Plaza de la Brecha in Donostia-San Sebastian.