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Bar-hopping, Basque style

Article first appeared in Cibus March 2014 edition

Off bar-hopping in San Sebastián, but not for drinks

Whilst researching on my planned trip to San Sebastián I came across an article from a food and travel magazine which quoted that:  ‘Kids in the rest of Spain want to be footballers; here, they want to be chefs.’ I can now understand why.

Donostia, the city’s name in the Basque language, is a breathtakingly beautiful city embraced by its shimmering, golden beach, La Concha, and fenced with green mountains. This natural beauty is paired with the prodigious and evolving food culture making this city a food lover’s odyssey. It is a fact, that this Basque city has the highest concentration of Michelin star restaurants per capita in the world, but eating well is not restricted to expensive dining in starred restaurants. San Sebastián is the terra firma for pintxos, the tapas of the North, which provide a cost-effective gourmet experience.

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With a meticulous list of pintxo bars in hand, we headed to the old quarter of the city looking for the so-much-mentioned streets like Calle 31 de Agosto and Calle Pescaderia. These pedestrian avenues are dotted with tiny pintxo bars clustered together making you feel unanchored. Crowds, of all kinds, are hanging at the counter, on high tables outside, or squeezing in to reach the few tables and chairs available in some of the bars. However, savouring pintxos is a stand-up-and-go way of eating. The custom for locals is to meet for a txikiteo – a bar crawling outing where friends hit a bar, gulp one or two pintxos, sip a drink and move off to the next bar.

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Slightly intimidated by this unknown custom and by the jam-packed bars, I was peeping in between the congregations to get sight of the counters. All the bars’ counters are populated with many plates holding colourful, bite-sized, piles of food. Mostly, slices of round bread topped with a melange of edible ingredients and secured with a cocktail stick. In fact, pincho literally means a spike. I excitingly read that each bar has a different speciality but this posed a problem – where to start from? The trick is to look at your feet and if the floor is a carpet of toothpicks and crunched paper napkins, then go in, choose your pintxo and order a txakoli. This is a local, fuzzy, crisp white wine which is traditionally poured from an unusual height into a wide glass by your barman to enhance the spritz.

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We sheepishly popped in and out of a few of the plentiful bars biting into chorizo sausage cooked in cider; jamon, goat’s cheese and caramelised onions on a slice of baguette; grilled morcilla sausage rounds, melt-in-the-mouth tortilla de bacalao; shiny skinned anchovies resting on oval pieces of bread and mayonnaise; grilled octopus; potato croquetas; and the original Gilda – threaded pickled guindilla peppers, green olives and anchovies on a toothpick, named after the popular movie Gilda starring ‘hot and spicy’ Rita Hayworth. Pintxos can be more elaborate and cooked to order like the ox cheek braised in red wine, the mushroom risotto with Idiazabal cheese, or the mini Kobe beef burger.

The bar hopping adventure in San Sebastián is a far cry from what we have, once in our lifetime or maybe regularly, experienced locally. In Basque country, it is a sociable style of eating where you can indulge in premium food and wine in modest taverns and bars as an essential part of everyday life and an affordable one too. These one or two-bite treats cost from €1 to €3 each, super innovative pintxos or specialities found on the blackboards might cost slightly more. Paying the bill before moving on to the next bar is based on trust. Customers are generally required to pay after consuming the pintxos which they choose from the display. It sounds foolhardy to me but it looks like it works absolutely fine in this country.

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Good ingredients make good food and this seems to be the motto of the people in San Sebastián.  The high quality of the produce animates simple dishes without the need for lots of seasoning. The pintxos are in fact a testimony of this philosophy. Pintxo bar hopping is a unique and exciting experience for anyone who loves food and who can appreciate the customs of a country where food is their pride and joy no matter at which level.

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P.S. When you eat your pintxo do not forget to drop your napkin on the floor, that is perfectly acceptable!

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