As of today I have been in the Basque country for a total of nearly two weeks, San Sebastian=Donostia to be exact. I have learned some very important things not only about Spain during my time here but about about the people that refer to themselves as Spanish. Spain for many Americans seems like a unilateral identity.
My friends you could not be more wrong. During my time in Spain I have inhabited two different cities, but more importantly two different cultures, neither of which identify themselves as anything but Basque and Catalan.
While we could get into a debate about cultural differences and the cross cutting cleavages of Spanish society, I would like to forgo that for the moment and focus on the food. San Sebastian is a food mecca. Everybody knows it and the city knows it too. Per capita, it has the most Michelin stars of any city in the world besides Tokyo and you would be hard pressed to walk into a place and find disappointment in anything that you are served.
San Sebastian and the Spanish Basque for that matter are specialists in the art of small food. Pintxos are not tapas, lets get that straight. They are something in a league of their own, adapting to Spanish tastes with a Basque flair. They are quick and they are slow, big and small, subtle and bold. They characterize the sea, the land and the region all at the same time while being approachable and affordable.
Here´s how it goes. You walk into a bar, and there are many. Parte Vieja, the old town of San Sebastian notoriously sits atop the worlds bar scene with nearly 200 of them tucked tightly together in the ancient narrow streets. You seriously can’t go wrong no matter where you end up and its hard to find a place that doesn’t immediately suck you in while walking by.
Gaze through any window of a restaurant in the old city and you will see a bar, people and pintxos. Sitting upon seemingly every bar in the city is an array of pintxos, big and small and they are waiting for you. They are reminiscent of the Italian crostini but with many, many more options.
The specialities that you can find here include Gambas (baby fish), Txangurro (Spider Crab), Txipirones (Squid) as well as artichokes which happen to be in season right now. Pintxos are intoxicating, addicting and for only two to three euros per, hard to pass up. Add a glass of sidre, a local Basque apple cider or a glass of the house wine and you are in business.
While the cold bar holds various ways to satisfy anyones inner foodie, many places don´t stop there. Tons of bars up the ante plenty by adding hot items cooked to order as well. Many places are known for their veal cheek in red wine sauce, grilled octopus and the omnipresent roasted foie gras. While each bar has their own take on it, the classics are the classics, and they are not to be messed with.
Many places, especially the famous ones get packed to the brim with hungry patrons as soon as the doors open. You fight your way to the front and you order that pintxo, you have too. While people are often turned off by large crowded places, the Basque people seem to thrive in it, a whirlwind of the serving and the served, hungry and full. Another glass of wine? Sure…I can and will swim through the hoards for it, because it is simply that damn good. And most importantly, I´m happy to do so.
Pintxos are like life, many good options, many great options and a list of regrets. You can’t try them all so you have to be satisfied with what you got, and there is a lot to be said for that. As for now I will continue to enjoy what small bite comes next in a land built for a foodie.