San Sebastián is nestled on the northern coast of Spain, where the hills of Navarre tumble to meet the Cantabrian Sea. France is so close that I'm listening to jazz on an FM station in Bayonne. The harbor, just down the street from my hotel, is framed by twin hills, Monte Igueldo and Monte Urgull, and tamarind trees line the seawall. I've come to this city of wide avenues, tobacco-colored buildings, wrought iron and a Belle Epoque air with one goal: to eat as well as I can for five days. I'm in the right place.
Capital of the Basque province of Guipúzcoa, San Sebastián is a city of gastronomes. Statistics show that the Basques spend more than twice as much of their disposable income on food as we do in the United States, and they probably spend a greater percentage of their time on cooking and eating too.
Basques, wealthy and working-class alike, know how good fresh ingredients painstakingly prepared can taste. "Almost everybody is absolutely interested in gastronomy," says Luis Irizar, a cooking teacher and former restaurateur who is acknowledged as the father of modern Basque cuisine. "Bad restaurants don't survive in San Sebastián," he assures me. Good ones thrive. So do the city's private culinary societies, where Basque men cook for their friends, their wives, one another or simply themselves. (By tradition, women have not been allowed in the club kitchens, but that is changing.)