This blog by Hannah Fenton, GFO Manager, describes her experiences visiting San Sebastián in Northern Spain, to present the work of Good Food Oxford and learn about similar work in San Sebastián and Madrid.

You can find the slides for her presentation here and the full video of the talk here – some in English, some in Spanish, and a little in Basque.

I wasn’t expecting to visit San Sebastián (known in Basque as Donostia) in a snowstorm. When I was greeted at the bus station by Manu from the Cristina Enea Foundation, he showed me a video of residents skiing on the beach that morning – this was a phenomenon that happens only once every 15 years. By the following day, temperatures were 18ºC and locals were back to their usual routine of a morning dip in the sea.

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San Sebastián and Oxford are not quite as different as we first appear. San Sebastián benefits from a largely sunnier climate and an enviable coastline, a dynamic food culture and an international outlook. Whilst Oxford has a somewhat colder climate, an impressive cultural history, but often quite a conservative approach which is slow to change.

But our populations are similar in size, and I find that interesting in terms of how to effect change in a city region, and how to pull together local actors from across the food system – businesses, local authorities and community groups. I find both cities manageable in terms of size.

Both are seen as wealthy cities. Oxford has far lower levels of unemployment than San Sebastián, which itself is performing better than the rest of Spain, but child poverty levels are similar – at 40% in San Sebastián, and somewhere between 25% and 36% in Oxford, depending on where you are in the city. What we in Oxford suffer from is in-work poverty, where people are working many hours with very low wages, or are on zero hour contracts with no certainty of work.

Health issues resulting from poor diet and lack of exercise are worse in Oxford than in San Sebastián – a few times I was part of discussions about what needs to be done locally to preserve their celebrated “Mediterranean diet”.

The UK has a strong allotment culture and Oxford has a network of well-used allotments; San Sebastián is just developing communal growing spaces – even more important when few people have back gardens – and has opened up more than 250 sites – but has struggled with contamination on some sites due to the city’s industrial heritage. Oxford does well on food waste collection with about 50% of food going into food waste caddies; whereas San Sebastián has no municipal collection and there is nothing but low-level individual action on composting.

For my presentation, I presented evidence from Oxford-based research consultants 3Keel on the shortcomings of the prevailing food system, the value of a relocalised city region food system, and the benefit of “FoodPrinting” a city like Oxford, as well as the initiatives we have delivered in Oxford which were shaped by this thinking, as part of the Sustainable Food Cities network. My co-speaker Nerea Moran presented her experiences of setting up a community garden in Madrid, and developing Madrid’s new sustainable food strategy, which was signed off by Madrid’s City Council during the course of our visit.

It was fascinating to get questions from the floor about the challenges of partnership working and getting grassroots initiatives recognised, as well as an interesting question about the scale of the response compared to the massive scale of the problem. All I could offer was the observation that many, many small-scale local activities carried out by lots of different actors create the pathways for others to take action, which provides the framework for an alternative system which is ready and waiting to scale up as and when the opportunity arises. We are currently seeing this with refill campaigns around plastic waste, and are starting to see it with our SUGAR SMART campaign at the moment.

After the presentation and an apple juice tasting of Tiddly Pommes apple juice from Oxford, we were taken out to a Gastronomic Society to get a sense of what the Basque food culture is really about.

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My guide Manu transformed into a chef, complete with chef’s whites, to serve us traditional Basque dishes including anchovies, broth, mussels and hake – all washed down with local cider and wine. The Gastronomic Society is one of the cornerstones of Basque culture – essentially a men’s club complete with commercial-scale kitchen, where members get together for lunch or dinner. Only the men are allowed in the kitchen, and they cook traditional Basque dishes with local ingredients. Women are only allowed by invitation. After eating, the costs are calculated and split between everyone eating at the table. These costs include the right to use the kitchen and its utensils and the cost of all products taken from the pantry or cellar. Given that this is a system based on trust and self-management, gastronomic societies have a very strong family feel to them and tend to be considered by the members and their guests as a place mid-way between their homes and a restaurant. Whilst some members of our dining party were dismissive of the men-only culture of the society, I was transfixed. I explained to my hosts that in the UK, sometimes older men really struggle if their wife passes away and they don’t have much experience of how to cook – this is not the case in San Sebastián.

sdrWhat was striking was the intensity and colour of the city’s Basque food culture. The morning after the presentation, before attending a technical meeting in the City Hall, we looked round the daily local food market, held in the centre of the city. Txema and Leire from the Cristina Enea Foundation were clear to tell me this had reduced in size by about four times since 15 years ago – but I still found rows and rows of local farmers selling their produce direct to the city’s residents, including plenty of walnuts, beans and peas which were in season. Lots of people were picking up their shopping just for that day, with the aim of also shopping tomorrow. The underground fish and meat market had the same atmosphere as Oxford’s Covered Market, but with at least eight or ten different meat sellers and the same number of fishmongers. All of the fish caught locally had handwritten signs “de acui” (from here / from the region). Walking through the high-walled streets of the old city, you peer into bars and see arrays of pinxtos – tapas on a stick – on every counter. The wine is abundant and delicious and the cider is poured with a flourish. Food is a way of life, and food tourism is a massive part of San Sebastián’s tourist economy. I could have spent weeks taking part in tours to vineyards, cider houses and cheese producers, as well as dining in gastronomic restaurants and having a go at cooking classes.

It seems the messages that the Cristina Enea Foundation team and the City Council officers took from our meeting were as follows:

  • establish a way of measuring the impact of the city’s food requirements – as FoodPrinting Oxford did in 2013, which kick-stated the Good Food Oxford work;
  • and find ways to convene stakeholders from across the food system on issues of shared interest – whether community gardening, local sourcing and procurement, or preserving the enviable Basque food culture and heritage.

What I learnt from San Sabastián – celebrate your local food culture! And show people the hospitality the region has to offer. I hope we can start to do more of that in Oxford.

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