Imagining the sights and sounds of a small town brimming with parades can be a bit overwhelming…
Now attempt to picture this type of phenomenon occurring over a duration of 24 hours, and you have somewhat of an idea of what is known as Tamborrada in San Sebastian. However, it is more than simply just about the parades; this is a celebration of the annual San Sebastian Day and even a tourist such as myself could feel a sense of great pride in the air. Although my writing generally revolves around food, and there were two phenomenal meals on the evening before and afternoon of San Sebastian day which I will describe, I am mostly concerned with the culture of the Basque country and hopefully communicating the various sensory experiences of the Tamborrada.
A feast on the prior evening:
I followed the dining habits of the majority of adults and was invited to an amazing dinner on the evening of January 19th, 2013, in one of the sociedades gastronómicas (“gourmet clubs”). Feeling like a tourist, I was astonished by the lavish multi-course meal featuring two different kinds of soup, hake cooked in green sauce, T-bone steak, and even more excellent food. It is difficult to say that one dish stood out, I was just overwhelmed with the energy of the crowd and the large quantities of very well-prepared Basque cooking.
This experience was again a representation of more than just food. Diners were eventually handed packages containing a cook’s hat, two drum sticks, and a flat round piece of wood which can be used as a sort of drum. At midnight, a television was turned on so that we could see (and hear) the commencement of the celebration, and many people started banging their drumsticks on the wooden rounds. I felt out of place at first, but after a while the environment felt very comfortable and I joined in on the drumming and good spirits of the crowd.
January 20th: Tamborrada!
The streets of the Basque city of San Sebastian particularly come alive during one day each year; these 24 hours feature the remarkable celebration of the day of Saint Sebastian. During my trip to this town, I was fortunate enough to learn firsthand about this fascinating ritual known as Danborrada in Basque or Tamborrada in Spanish: Each year, on the evening of January 19th, the Constitution Square in the Old Part of San Sebastian is filled to capacity with a crowd who are prepared for the Tamborrada. As midnight strikes on January 20th, the mayor raises the blue and white flag of San Sebastian. People of all ages dressed as cooks and soldiers start marching around the city, and for the next 24 hours it is filled with the sounds of drums. (Some people even carry barrels which are played like drums!) Unlike parades in New York City, the whole town partakes in these activities, which wind through several neighborhoods. I was told that each corps of marchers represents one of many gastronomic societies in San Sebastian, and the competition is fierce for both dress and musical quality. As someone who experienced hours of these fascinating parades, I can say that the air was electric with excitement and celebration, and the streets were constantly flowing with a plethora of delighted people; something which you must experience for yourself in order to truly understand.
The incredible lunch:
Perhaps I was swept up with the magic and excitement of the Tamborrada, but even upon further reflection I still affirm that lunch on San Sebastian day was one of my best meals in the Basque country. I enjoyed a three-course prefix meal, featuring an extremely flexible menu, at a restaurant called Txokolo. This was my fifth incredible day in San Sebastian, and I had sampled a few soups up until that point. However, the fish soup which was my first course at Txokolo was far superior: it must have been the combination of many chunks of fresh local fish in the soup and an extremely authentic broth. My second course, translated as “grilled hake in embers”, was truly the best piece of fish I ate during my entire trip! (Do you notice a pattern yet?) I was blown away by the amazing char imparted by the grill, which left the top of the fish crisp and gave it a bit of a smoky flavor. Of course, it was very fresh, and by this point I had learned about the importance of local fish to the Basque cuisine. The more time I spent in this charming town, the more I discovered about local ingredients and cooking techniques that make the Basque culture so special, but which can also seem quite foreign to a born and raised New Yorker.
And then there was dessert: As a food critic and someone who likes to write, it is difficult to state that any dish is “beyond words”, but the following creation certainly comes close. I was presented with a “tambour”, which is the name for the drum used in the parades on San Sebastian day. On the plate in front of me, I discovered an object that truly resembled a miniature version of one such drum; it was actually composed of cake on the outside and a mixture of chocolate mousse and raspberry jam on the inside! This flavor combination was absolutely sensational: I don’t honestly like jam very much, but all of these textures and tastes melded together to perfection and I was blown away. To top it off, there were two mini dark chocolate drumsticks placed on top of the tambor. They were great of course, especially for someone who is obsessed with chocolate, but as much as I generally downplay the element of presentation, I was forced to give Txokolo credit for this marvelous concept and a job well done.
For people from San Sebastian, Tamborrada is the most celebrated festival of the year, and after my journey there I can certainly understand why. I hope to return some day to relive these adventures!