One of Heston Blumenthal’s signature dishes is “Sound of the Sea”, for which diners are given an iPod to listen to waves crashing onto the shore as they eat a concoction of oysters, razor clams, baby eels and seaweed. Watching him in full flow at the Gastronomika conference in San Sebastián a couple of years ago, with the choppy sea of the Bay of Biscay churning around just outside the venue, it struck me that this elegant town in northern Spain might well have inspired that dish.
Blumenthal will also be appearing at Gastronomika this year, alongside quite a few other British chefs, as London is the guest city at the festival, which takes place from October 6th to 9th. There will be presentations and workshops by Fergus Henderson, Clare Smyth, Tom Kerridge, Anna Hansen, Jason Atherton and James Knappett, to name but a few. Spanish chefs who have restaurants in London will be there too, including José Pizarro, Alberto Criado of Cambio de Tercio, César García of Ibérica and Iván Ortiz and Neftali Cumplido of Hispania.
Blumenthal is a regular visitor to the Basque Country, where he has been involved in research projects with his Michelin-starred counterparts for years. “I feel very comfortable here and am really struck by the friendship and generosity of the Basque chefs”, he says. The pioneers of Basque cuisine, who include Juan Mari Arzak, Pedro Subijana and Hilarion Arbelaitz, always refer to themselves as a family and are indeed a very warm, welcoming bunch with no snooty cheffiness about them at all. Blumenthal is now very much a part of this group, as he is on the board of the Basque Culinary Center in San Sebastián, a gourmet university where the lucky students take courses by the best chefs in the world in a fabulous new building fitted out with state-of-the-art equipment.
Gastronomika also takes place in a rather spectacular building, the Kursaal, a slanted glass structure designed by Rafael Moneo. One of the many events that take place during the festival is a steak grilling competition, which I was lucky enough to help judge in 2011. Although we associate San Sebastián with creative cuisine, the Basques are very keen on great slabs of meat too, and are really fussy about its quality and how it is cooked. Huge grills had been set up out on the terrrace. With the waves crashing against the sea wall just yards away and seagulls squawking and circling overhead, it was Blumenthal’s Sound of the Sea with added sizzling. While there is certainly a lot of fancy food in San Sebastián, sometimes the simplest things are the best. I think even Heston Blumenthal would agree with that.