Dining With the Saints

The Feast of San Sebastian

The image of San Sebastian, his young body riddled with arrows, is a strikingly familiar one to religious and non-believers alike. He was martyred for converting Christians, but has also become in recent times a symbol for the persecution of homosexuals, and his image is used in much gay art and literature.

He is a patron saint of athletes because of his physical endurance (he actually recovered from his arrow wounds), and for his energetic way of spreading and defending the faith. Saint Sebastian is also patron to all soldiers.

La Tamborrada is celebrated in the town of San Sebastian in Basque Spain on January 20th, San Sebastian’s feast day. This is a loud and exuberant affair where the people hit the streets to a crescendo of drum and barrel playing. The action starts at midnight on the 19th in the Parte Vieja (the old quarter) when the mayor raises the city’s flag in Plaza Konstituzioa.

People dress as soldiers and march around the town accompanied by their ear bending percussion. But the ceremony has also taken on a culinary tradition in more recent years. Nobody is completely sure why this connection was made, but people also dress as chefs and marchers representing San Sebastian’s gastronomic societies, most of which only allow male members, are always present. As you can imagine food has become the theme of this celebration and many Basque specialties are offered. One of my favorites is this traditional dish of braised tuna with potatoes and the region’s famous dried chilies. Many fine Basque wines are consumed during this festival. If you’d like to try one to accompany this lovely dish, see if you can locate a Txacoli, a crisp white DO wine from the province of Getariako Txakolina.


(Serves five as a main course)

2 dried ancho chiles

Spanish extra virgin olive oil (such as Nunez de Prado)

1 large sweet onion, such as a Vidalia, cut into medium dice

1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into thin strips

2 garlic cloves, very thinly sliced

5 or 6 large thyme sprigs, leaves chopped

3 large all-purpose potatoes, peeled and cut into ½ inch cubes

½ tablespoon Piment d’Espelette (Basque semi-spicy paprika)


1 ½ pounds fresh tuna, cut into 1 ½ inch cubes

A handful of flat leaf parsley leaves, lightly chopped

Place the chilies in a small saucepan and cover them with water. Bring this to a boil over high heat. Turn off the heat and let the chilies sit in the water until softened, about ½ hour. Now slit them open and seed them. Scrape out all the flesh with a sharp knife and set it aside (you’ll have a little pile of soft chili paste).

In a large casserole heat about ¼ cup of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and the pepper strips and sauté until they’re just starting to soften, about 5 minutes. Now add the garlic, thyme, potatoes, the reserved chili paste, and the Piment d’ Espelette. Season with salt and sauté for a minute to blend all the flavors.  Now add warm water to cover by about 2 inches. Cover the casserole, turn the heat down a bit and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes.

Uncover the casserole and add the tuna. Turn off the heat and let it stand on the turned off burner for 5 minutes (the residual heat from the casserole will cook the tuna through gently. Now add a generous drizzle of fresh olive oil.

Let the casserole sit, off the burner for another 5 minutes or so to develop flavor. If you like, you can mash up a few of the potato cubes to thicken the sauce. Add the parsley. Serve in warmed soup bowls with bread that has been toasted, rubbed with a cut garlic clove and brushed with Spanish olive oil.

Dining With the Saints is written by Chef and Writer, Erica DeMane. Find her at her website: EricaDemane.com

Painting:”Martyrdom of  Saint Sebastian” by Il Sodoma (Giovanni Antonio Bazzi) 1525

Bottom photo: Feast Day of Saint Sebastian as celebrated in San Sebastian, Spain.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s