The San Sebastian Cheesecake is the main attraction of the best pastry shops and cafes in Istanbul. Customers form queues to buy a portion, they shake it and before tasting it they take photos and selfies to immortalize it on social networks. Donostiarra cheesecake triumphs in Turkey. It is a replica of the well-known cheesecake that the La Viña restaurant in the Old Town of San Sebastian has been preparing for more than three decades. The creator of the original cake, Santiago Rivera, is surprised by the international projection that his gastronomic jewel has achieved: “We are very grateful. We have never done anything to make our cake so successful. Fame has grown as the public has wanted.
In the busiest and most touristic streets of Istanbul, those that lead to the Galata Tower, posters advertising the San Sebastian Cheesecake proliferate. In the establishments where they serve it, they have a very vague idea of the origin of the recipe. They don’t know how to place San Sebastian on the map. They do not know when and how the rage for this cheesecake arose and they are not aware that it is a copy of the original San Sebastian formula. Apparently, confectioners from the Turkish capital comment, everything has been the result of a fashion that has been feeding the influential people and that in a short time it has gone viral on the internet. On Instagram there are dozens of photos of the San Sebastian Cheesecake with the Galata Tower in the background. The notoriety could have come in large part, Rivera believes, from the praise that the New York Times dedicated in 2021 to the La Viña cake. The author of the dessert defines it as follows: “It is a small wonder that has given me a lot of joy”.
“La Viña cheesecake created a style and later variants have been made all over the world. Turkey is a social phenomenon. In Japan it is also very well known. It works fine in the US too. They tell me that it has reached Australia and that the French are cheering up”. Santiago Rivera (62 years old) took three years to find the formula. He began testing it in 1987 and included it on the menu in 1990: “Over time, the clientele has made it famous,” he says. At first two cakes were prepared a day, then six, later 10… Now an “unspeakable” amount is baked. At seven in the morning at the restaurant there is already a consignment of 20 cakes underway.
At mid-morning this Thursday, before opening the restaurant, a line of Japanese, tour guide and mobile phone in hand, has formed at the gates of La Viña. They wait for the store to open to ask for a wedge and photograph it from all angles. A guide walks with a group of tourists along Calle 31 de Agosto and says as they pass by La Viña: “Here, on the left, the well-known cheesecake…”. La Viña cheesecake is sweet and creamy, trembling, has a golden surface and is about 10 centimeters thick. Its elaboration has no mystery. The recipe is very simple and Rivera has never hidden it. Only five ingredients are needed: a kilo of cream cheese, half a liter of cream, a tablespoon of flour, seven eggs and 400 grams of sugar. The restaurant displays on its shelves about fifty cakes, ready to serve a clientele who, tirelessly, ask for wedges to take away: 5 euros for a portion and 45 euros for the whole cake.
In Istanbul there are specific guides published that collect the addresses of the establishments where you can buy the San Sebastian Cheesecake. They classify it as a “special” cake that “melts on the palate with its unique texture.” Its elaboration, it is read in these publications, “requires mastery to maintain the consistency of the cake and its ambitious flavor”. Just as the furor over this sweet has spread in Turkey due to the impulse received from social networks -in this country it is sold for about 20 Turkish liras, a little more than one euro in exchange-, the popularity of La Viña’s sweet has reached in a more traditional way, through word of mouth. Famous chefs have extolled it, chefs such as Hilario Arbelaitz and Dabiz Muñoz have interpreted it in their own way, and the media have taken it upon themselves to give it an international shine. The New York Times distinguished it as the “flavor of the year 2021”, Japanese televisions have broadcast reports, El Comidista chose it as “number one” from a selection of four cheesecakes. “For ease, for being practical and for being done in a jiffy. It’s amazing”, says Mikel López Iturriaga.
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Rivera has not tried any cake from abroad, but he is convinced that “it does not taste the same” as his because “they all coincide in 85%, but there is 15% that depends on small details”. The type of oven, the batter, the room temperature he needs to cool down… “There’s no trick. We always serve it clean, without any accompaniment so that it does not lose the flavor of cheese”, says the person in charge of La Viña. In Turkey, on the other hand, customers tend to take it with a bath of melted chocolate, also with dried fruit jams. In this country, the San Sebastián Cheesecake began to be served in street carts, says Rivera, but now it is in practically all pastry shops and many restaurants in the Ottoman capital.
In La Viña, a restaurant opened by the parents and uncles of Santiago Rivera in 1959, when in the Parte Vieja then only wine and anchovies landed in the port of San Sebastian were served, the increase in orders has forced its owner to install a workshop in a nearby location that will open in Christmas 2023. Until then, they will continue to produce cheesecakes in a tiny kitchen with a single oven capable of cooking five pieces in one go. Regardless of its repercussion abroad, the La Viña cake in San Sebastián has a long life because Rivera does not forget what his father told him many years ago: “For something you have done well, never stop doing it” .