14 November 2011

San Sebastian Pintxos

It would probably take years of research to decide upon the best pintxo bars in San Sebastian. There are too many to count, crammed together down narrow streets, spilling out into squares, noisy, quiet, bright, dim, fish-heavy, ham-laden, old fashioned and nouveau. They are the culinary soul of this great food city, and its hard not to fall in love with their easy nature and extravagant tastes.
A “pintxo” is a small thing to eat with a drink, usually no bigger than two or three bites. Similar to a tapa, these Basque specialties are generally smaller and more complexly constructed than their regional relatives. But calling a pintxo (pronounced “pinch-oh”) a tapa isn’t really wrong, and the main difference is more philosophical than taxonomic. The amazing thing about pintxo bars, you see, is that they put everything right out on the counter, ready to be plucked off the plate and eaten.
The Basque people purportedly don’t eat whole meals of these treats, but there is absolutely no reason why one shouldn’t. In the heart of San Sebastian, it’s possible to wander all night, having one bite and sip here, a glass and nibble there. It’s said that there are more bars in the old town of the city than anywhere else on earth (actually, this is doubtful), and almost all of them serve pintxos. With a little time and alcohol, they blend together into one big bazaar of food and people.
On our first day in town we had this sea urchin, herb and cream creation, which was beyond delicious. Forgetting to mark down in which bar it had originated, we spent the next two days searching for it. Sadly, with such a multitude of places, it was like looking for a specific shell on a crowded beach – we never found it again.
A pintxo can be anything, really, but the name comes from the Basque word for “spike” (we already talked about this in Andorra). In theory, the toothpick “pintxo” thing that holds together the column of food is integral to the definition, but the form has evolved beyond the traditional into the radical and surprising. Spikes seem to be increasingly rare, and some of the more highbrow eateries prefer to compose their pieces like miniature plates, with size being the only classifying element. The popularity of another distinctive part of pintxos, the bread base, isn’t waning as much.
There are also things to order at most of these bars, either larger plates or special pintxos. At one modern spot, I ordered duck-liver morsels that came out almost drippingly tender. In another place, we got big plates of “hongas” mushrooms at the end of the night, served sautéed with coarse pepper and butter – perfect food to fill in the cracks. Also, warm green peppers softened in oil and draped with anchovies, octopus grilled and covered with paprika, oven-warm roast pork.
Spanish meals are notoriously taken late, and in most of the country this can be a cause for anxiety. In San Sebastain, you are free to eat whenever you like – and, if necessary, to drink too.
One of the most endearing parts of eating at a pintxo bar is the amount of trust the bartenders have in their patrons. At some establishments, each piece is accounted for when its taken. At others, the tally is made by how many toothpicks are on someone’s plate.
But in most places, one is asked afterwards about what they ate – “how many drinks did you have? How many pintxos? Okay, that’ll be nine-fifty” (or whatever). It’s nice because it speeds everything up, and you can eat at your own pace, without having to get the bartenders attention.
Again, it would take a great deal more time than we had to compile a worthwhile list of San Sebastian’s best pintxos – I won’t even try. But we did have a few favorites. Bar Diz, in the Gros district, was bright and welcoming during the day, and had great breakfast fare as well as sculptural later options. Edaritegia Txondorra is one of the best in the heart of the action, on carrer Fermin Calbeton – it has a superior selection, with a lot of lighter, less meat-heavy pintxos.
Probably our most beloved, though, was Gorriti Taberna, which was also among the most consistently full. On the market square just off carrer San Juan, it has very fresh food and a boisterous, workaday atmosphere that was instantly charming. Also, amongst the throng at the bar we recognized a few servers from other places – which is perhaps the best endorsement a place can have.

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