Gastronomika – a whirlwind of infinite flavours and textures, obscure ingredients and dazzling techniques – all framed by the dreamy seaside backdrop of San Sebastian – Donostia. Now in its 24th year, the congress sets the bar high in terms of Spanish – and particularly Basque – gastronomy. This year the guest chefs hailed mainly from the UK making for some interesting contrasts. Of course pintxos are still alive and kicking in the bars of the old town – see my older posts here and here. Also this vintage piece in the Guardian. But sadly no time to update them on this trip.

The Bay of Biscay – breaking waves in all senses

Azurmendi’s Eneko Atxa

One pioneering Basque chef is Eneko Atxa – how I miss his eponymous Basque restaurant in Covent Garden which failed (uncharacteristically for him) partly due to Covid, never to re-open. 45 years old with three Michelin stars at Azurmendi, garlanded with awards, notably related to sustainability, he constantly strives further. Ambition is hardly the word.

An Eneko creation – the metamorphosis of squid

Atxa wowed the audience by talking us through lobster smoked with kelp served with sea anemone emulsion while simultaneously galloping through the history of his enterprise. In 2012, the uphill move of his first restaurant to a more glam eco-building left vacated space which soon morphed into Eneko. A shorter, less elaborate menu, informal setting, friendlier prices – it aimed to attract younger, local people.

This is what we sorely miss from him in London though that same formula succeeded in Tokyo, Brussels and Lisbon. Atxa’s latest venture, Nko, in Bilbao and soon Madrid, fuses a Japanese approach with Basque pintxos – two culinary forms he declares are particularly close. The man never stops. 

Eneko Atxa in full flow at Gastronomika

Mycelium – the magic mushroom root

More interesting still is Atxa’s collaboration with NASA using mycelium, a root-like structure at the base of mushrooms which, when heated, becomes a light, bio-degradable wood.  This is now being used to make tableware and furniture. “What food will there be on Mars?” he asks. The answer: Mycelium, as it’s almost 45% protein and weighs little – a perfect substitute for meat. Another badge of honour for Azurmendi as this was the first restaurant to collaborate with NASA.

Pedro Subijana – still up there, ever since his restaurant Akelarre gained its third Michelin star in 2006

Pedro Subijana – granddaddy of Basque cuisine

A protagonist of the avant-garde generation of Basque cuisine, 73-year old Pedro Subijana brought experimental Basque cuisine to the world back in the 1980-1990s (together with Juan Mari Arzak, slightly his senior). He’s a charming man with a big moustache whose restaurant, Akelarre, has occupied the same spectacular coastal location since 1970, although now much modernised and extended into terraces as well as a sleek hotel. 

There’s admirable modesty in Subijana – few top chefs publicly thank their staff, for example. In his words: “When I was young, being a chef was looked down upon. That changed, then sommeliers gained more attention, now it’s the turn of the waiting staff. Diners must respect everyone in the profession, be less demanding, less arrogant. If you don’t like it, don’t come!” The response? Wild applause from the audience – probably sprinkled with quite a number of waiters and maitre d’s.

Potato straw – with a texture like pork crackling served with pancetta in a sauce

Something I wasn’t keen on in Subijana’s presentation was his constant use of clingfilm and sous-vide. Haven’t sustainability and health concerns ruled those materials out by now? Plenty of alternatives exist. However Subijana’s onging ode to the potato (despite the cling-film) – produced a deliciously crunchy potato straw served with panceta in a sauce. Beguiling simplicity, and most of us got to taste it too.

Country chef: Merlin Labron-Johnson

Merlin Labron-Johnson (left) explains his ethos – helped by assistant Bruce

No cling-film on the prep table of Merlin Labron-Johnson, an intense, 32-year old prodigy who earned his first Michelin star aged 24, at Portland in London (I went there at the time & loved it) and is renowned for his sustainable ethos. Being a country lad from Devon, after opening another restaurant (Clipstone) nearby, equally successful on the London scene, he decided to quit the big smoke and move to the cleaner air of Somerset.

Much of his rural inspiration came from Kobe Desramaults at the Belgian’s iconic restaurant, In De Wulf. Here Labron-Johnson worked with this inspired chef who has long been at the forefront of ecological cooking and sustainable practice. I met him some years ago at Spain’s other influential food congress, Madrid Fusion, and was knocked out by his approach, very innovative at the time. The 42-year old Michelin-starred chef has now hightailed it to Sicily, no doubt lured by sunnier climes and fresh Mediterranean produce. 

Ready to roll – Merlin’s ingredients for his complex California (sushi) roll

Labron-Johnson meanwhile has expanded his tiny Dorset restaurant Osip into an organic farm, ensuring that all his ingredients are ultra-fresh; it’s farm to table within the day. 80% of the menu is vegetarian but he makes an exception for aquaponic trout entailing a brilliant loop system of ensuring nutrient-rich fish. According to Johnson, it’s tank to table in 10 minutes – and he even brought one in his suitcase for his demo.

Dazzling combinations followed – apple, turnip and trout, herb creams, dashi broth from the bones, plus smoked tea (Lapsang Souchong), shaved radish and nasturtium leaves – the latter is something I’m addicted to for their peppery flavour and delicate texture. More intricacies followed to eventually produce a magnificent version of a California sushi roll. 

The final touch… nasturtium leaves, shaved radish and mustard leaves

It left me oh so tempted to sample this unpretentious country restaurant. No menu exists and you just have to trust the chef’s choice of seasonal ingredients on your chosen day. Light years from the preciousness that many of the Basque restaurants have developed. Congratulations to the Gastronomika team for digging Johnson out along with others like Simon Rogan and Isaac McHaye (The Clove Club) as well as London’s hyper-active Spanish star, Nieves Barragan – another of those genius Basques, now reigning supreme over the Charing Cross district at Sabor.

Meanwhile, on the beach

Goodbye San Sebastian! The Playa de la Concha, looking across at the pintxo bars of the old town