I’ve been writing the company Christmas card this week. Without boring you with all the design and marketing ideas, the basic concept revolves around using single words related to Christmas. After I’d written about 12 of the 20 I needed to come up with, I recognised a theme evolving. They were all about food. Turrón, rosco de reyes, cava, Christmas lunch, wine, marzipan. I could go on. So I emailed DonostiLass, who hails from these parts and is a Catholic, and asked her to come up with some to see what cultural and religious nuances I may be missing. She came up with tinsel which was good. The rest were Turrón, rosco de reyes, cava, Christmas lunch, wine, marzipan. Bloody Basques, one track mind.
I’ve always been a fan of Christmas generally. I love the lights, the cold, the dark nights, the decorations, the tree and of course all the family get togethers over a table. My contribution, apart from eating and drinking, is to make up a Christmas album every year, which I’ll need to get on with soon come to think of it. It sounds as if people ask me to do this, actually I just insist on doing it and to hell with them all. Comments such as “You make this place feel like the fourth floor of “El Corte Inglés” are pretty common.
Now anything that anyone has ever done, ever, chances are the Basques did it first. Official! Democracy, sailing round the world, whaling, spoken language… Yep, been there, done that, got the beret to prove it. So obviously they also had the first Santa Claus first in the shape of El Olentzero. He is a mysterious man who turns up from the hills on the 24th of December bringing gifts for the kiddies and then disappearing off again into the snow once delivered. He’s been doing this since pre-christian times so Saint Nick must have copied his style sometime in the 4th Century. Probably while on a trip for pintxos in the old part.
One of the advantages of living in Spain generally and specifically in San Sebastián is that Christmas goes on forever. Add to the evening meal on the 24th, lunch on the 25th, an evening meal on the 31st and lunch on the 1st more lunch on the 6th. Kings Day! Long live the Kings! And it’s better than Christmas Day because, ironically, you don’t have to make the effort to avoid the Kings Speech, which is broadcast in Orwellian fashion on every single television channel. You get more presents, more food, more cava and more chances for a welcome nap after it all before going officially back to work on the 7th. Hooray for Christmas.
So much of Christmas is based around food. But here there’s no turkey, no stuffing, no cranberry. When I first started living here I must admit I found that really odd, and I did miss it. It just didn’t seem right not to be carving open some great beast and smothering it in gravy. And I must admit that almost even more I missed the family fish and chips from the 24th, which we had so we didn’t have to do any cooking on that day. But anyway, the most important tradition of there being 50% more food than you could ever possibly eat is upheld. Here Christmas meals are dominated by seafood and fish. And now I wouldn’t change that for the world. The queue round the block at the fishmongers in the Boulevard on the 23rd and 24th are traditions in themselves! Gotta buy fresh, so that means last minute. That means more queues than for Santa giving away free Xboxes. And my mother-in-laws fish pudding (a true classic, invented by JuanMarie Arzak I believe) is unmissable.
And it wouldn’t be Christmas without Rosco de Reyes and Turrones. I was never a fan of Turron, still amen’t really, but there are things you eat just cause of the season and cause its, well, there. I don’t know any family household that doesn’t start the festive season eating what was left over from last year. After all, you don’t eat turron in June or July, that would be too weird!
There’s one brand, however, I would heartily recommend– San Luis. It’s particularly good. And unless you’re going to go for real artisan stuff, which I find reallyexpensive for what it is, it´s the best out there that I´ve tried. And Rosco de Reyes, the ubiquitous, overpriced oval pastry , filled with cream or custard, and with dried fruit on top. They used to shove a broadbean in it, and whoever got that in their slice, had to pay for the Rosco. Now they put stupid things in, like you’d get in a cracker, but you still have to pay!
Another Spanish Christmas classic is the Christmas company hamper. Everyone gets one. Well, unless you’re self employed! Every year I receive a dozen hugely glossy brochures, on about 800gsm paper, filled with the various tempting alternatives on which they must spend an absolute fortune to print up. Some of the hampers can be ridiculously big, with everything imaginable in them from full legs of 5J ham and vega sicilia wine to tins of white asparagus. Just getting it into the car can be tough! And what a pleasure unpacking it and laying it all out on the table. Placing all the cavas together, cracking open the chorizo for a few sneaky slices, putting the asparagus on the top shelf of the cupboard along with last year’s and wondering how to fit all three full cheeses in the fridge. And of course having the typical debate about what to do with the hamper, cause it’s such a shame to just chuck it out, but we can’t use it for clothes cause it smells of cheese and chorizo, and it’s making the flat smell, so oh just get rid of it, but that´s a shame cause it´s lovely…
And there’s of course no better way to finish the year than with grape juice running down your face trying to kiss everyone in sight. The tradition may be 20th century but, it’ll last another few hundred years I’ll bet.
As I said, I’d recommend San Luis. Of all that I´ve tried, it is by far my favourite. If you can’t get your hands on that try Gorrotxategi or Casa Eceiza which you’ll get in most delis and is really good quality. Or if the purse strings stretch, Otaegui in the old part makes some great artisan stuff.