The Basque city of San Sebastian has long been renowned for its fabulous food but now it is officially the best place to eat in the world, as judged by Which Consumer group experts. San Sebastian emerged as the favourite food destination with a score of 81%, beating the other well-known culinary capitals of Tokyo, Sydney, New York and Paris. The judges, comprising of restaurant critics, food authors and bloggers, were impressed by the standard of Pintxos around the city, whether in high class restaurants or street markets together with food produce and specialties and the creativity and depth of food culture displayed.
For a small city of less than 200,000 residents, San Sebastian certainly dazzles. Lauded for the quality of its food (with 16 Michelin stars to prove it) and famous for its beautiful coastline, it’s also known for its culture. Hosting an International Film Festival and an annual jazz festival, Jazzaldia, (the longest running festival of its kind in Europe), in 2016 San Sebastian will become European Capital of Culture.
Such is the appeal of San Sebastian that Guardian columnist and baker extraordinaire, Dan Lepard, together with a group of entrepreneurs, created a pop-up bakery in San Sebastian this summer – to huge success. Five ‘Boxes’ or shipping containers were transformed into a modern bakery, selling artisan breads and cakes. Queues of hungry patrons soon descended on the site to taste the speciality loaves (700 of which were baked daily), as well as to partake in regular bread-making workshops. The project has been an extraordinary success and I had an interview with Dan Lepard about how the project came about:
Louise: How did this idea arise and how did you get involved?
Dan Lepard: The group behind The Loaf, La Salsera, is run by three rather extraordinary entrepreneurs: Andoni Dorronsoro, Ignacio Fornés and Xabier de la Masa Aramburu. They are young, fearless and,most importantly, full of ideas and enthusiasm. They’ve had a yearning to set up a bakery for a while, and asked me if I knew of someone that could help them. So I said: “I might be interested”. We talked a little in London and I suggested we trial the idea in a small way, so they said, “Leave it with us and we’ll see what we can do.” They encouraged a group called TES (Techno-Emotional Spaces) to get involved, as they get companies to consider using public spaces more imaginatively and, together with Future City Jobs and Donostia 2016, they pulled every string in the city to ensure that The Loaf in a Box finally happened. I can’t stress enough the effort they put into it. They got local companies like Salva, who supply baking ovens and mixers, and Sammic, a kitchen equipment supplier, to help. And then it was July 1st in no time at all, and we opened very nervously!
Louise: How has the project gone?
Dan Lepard: Outrageously well! It’s been busy, quiet, calm, and chaotic; we’ve gone through all of those moments. Selling out often, but occasionally quiet – while the city suns itself or goes on a mass diet, who knows?
Louise: Would you do it again?
Dan Lepard: In a heartbeat! In fact, before the words had even left their lips, I’d be packing my suitcase to come to Donostia.
Louise: Apart from the early mornings were there any downsides?
You know, the mornings are typically so beautiful in San Sebastian and the bicycle ride from my apartment so magical that even the mornings are good (Xabier’s father had arranged a bicycle for me while I stayed here which was rather awesomely touching). And I love mornings and sunrises, being a baker. The only big downside was that two days before I left to come here I got married to my partner David, so no honeymoon as yet.
Louise: What was the highlight?
Dan Lepard: One highlight? So many, every day, and they tend to be words from local people who say things like, “Why is this only for the summer? Why can’t you stay?” You hear those words and it makes it worthwhile.
Louise: Had you been to San Sebastian before?
Dan Lepard: Once. And you know, I thought to myself back then, “I would so like to spend a summer here”. And it happened.
Louise: What do you think of San Sebastian?
Dan Lepard: It’s a big small city, if that makes sense. It has all of the charm of a small city, the friendliness, but also this grandeur and splendor. I hope it stays this way.
Louise: Does it live up to its famed food reputation?
Dan Lepard: Often. Not always, and it’s hard to discover the simple food that the Basque region is so famous for. But when you do have good food, it’s really good.
Louise: What were your favourite food and drink experiences here?
Dan Lepard: The torrejas at Barrenetxe, the croquetas de jamon at the Astoria hotel, the tortilla de bacalao at Vailles, there were so many. I love cider so I’m in the right city! And the bartenders in San Sebastián know how to make a good gin and tonic. If I get a yearning for England, then the beers at cerveceria Bar NeverStop are excellent.
Louise: Had you been to Spain before, if so, what is your favourite place? And favourite foods?
Dan Lepard: I love Madrid, I always have a good time there and now I have utterly fallen in love with the Basque people, so I want to see much more of it. You know, Spain is one of those curious countries where, for the most part, you get good food. So I’m usually relaxed eating anywhere, as the chances are it will be good.
Louise: Do you speak Castilian/Basque? Did you learn any of the language?
Dan Lepard: A few words in Basque, simple phrases in Castilian. And my understanding is improving every day.
Louise: If I were coming to San Sebastian for the weekend, what would be the unmissable things to do?
Dan Lepard: In summer, swim at La Concha. In winter, walk along the beach in the evening. Hire a bicycle – this city is a cyclist’s friend. Go taste the pinxos in the evening, then go for a coffee and a gentle walk in the morning. This is a city to relax and unwind in.
Louise: What will you do when the bakery comes to an end?
Dan Lepard: The bakery closes forever on September 30th. Don’t miss it.
Louise: You’re a great tweeter, what do you like about Twitter and other social media sites?
Dan Lepard: They quickly put me in contact with people who want to share their experiences. They make the world a friendlier place.
Louise: Finally, what do you think of TES and what they have done?
Dan Lepard: It is terrific! The TES project is driven by Donostia/San Sebastian 2016, the office of the European Capital of Culture. It was the winning project of Future City Jobs, a European initiative headed by the British Council and it aims to showcase new opportunities through creative industries in an area of the city that is often overlooked. That has got to be a good thing!
The Loaf is located at the Paseo de Francia, between the River Urumea and the Norte station and ends on September 30th. You can follow Dan on Twitter @dan_lepardand see more at: The Loaf in a Box