“You MUST try Pintxos in San Sebastian!” You’ll hear it over and over when you arrive, if not before. Yet, trying the best Pintxos in San Sebastian also requires a local education as to their origin and importance.
We are on “the street where everything happens”, according to Gabriella Ranelli, whose apartment we have taken over for the afternoon to try our hand at making Pintxos with a local chef. This humble-abode turned Tenedor cooking school is on the same Fermin Calbeton Street that we had previously toured by the way of Pintxos bar-hopping.
This Old Town Street is San Sebastian’s avenue of food.
We learn that for a modern country, Spain has still kept its traditional methods of harvesting in abundance during a short period, then salting, pickling and preserving it to enjoy for the rest of the year, cooking it all up with creative flair. “Basque country is all about specific flavours and specific combinations,” Gabriella explains, with San Sebastian, in particular, being the very pinnacle of a miniature food culture known as Pintxos.
Pintxos themselves as are culturally significant in Basque country as are landmarks, monuments and a very old language.
Not only is San Sebastian the chosen European Capital of Culture for 2016, but it has also long been a worldwide gastronomical acclaimed city, which includes an accolade of 16 Michelin stars, signature restaurants, straight-from-the-barrel cider houses and members-only ‘gastronomic societies’.
Yet the concept of Pintxos in San Sebastian goes deeper in a city where gastronomy is expression. Making them is an art form; eating them is a social event. It’s criminal to call these delicately pieced together portions tapas, for they are in no way one and the same, but exquisite bites layered on top of a small piece of bread and held together by a single cocktail stick.
The Pintxos bar in San Sebastian’s old cobbled streets brings everyone together in one place – the atmosphere created by the excitable hovering around the bar where the cocktail sticks peak from the trays, ready to be plucked out in the ravenous decision.
Cold Pintxos adorn the bar, and hot options can be ordered directly from the waiter. Seafood and red meats combine with savoury delicacies like peppers, olives, potatoes and eggs, with the jewel in the crown being the national pride that is Jamon (which we were informed is an absolute crime to put in the microwave).
The idea is to choose one or two of the Pintxos and pair with a small serving of the local cider or the fruity Txakoli white wine which is poured with precision skill from a great height (in order to preserve the bubbles). You then collect your sticks to pay at the end, before moving on to the next bar. Drinks are simply small measures to go with the small food, for the purpose of extended indulgence.
We listen as the onions sizzle in the pan before peppers and garlic are added, as we each prepare a Piquillo pepper, which has already been charred peeled and packed in olive oil (post-harvest), ready to stuff it full of a tuna-based mix. Peppers are used in more or less everything and are available already roasted, peeled and even frozen.
We cocktail-stick loops through a salted anchovy three times in an attempt to make it look like it’s own curving art form as it delicately sits atop if a pepper-like a flag. We coat fresh prawns in a dusting of flour and egg, before lighting crushing tiny pasta sprinkles onto it so that it can puff up and crisp in a pan of oil and turn into a heavenly texture mesh of crunch and delicate seafood.
Gabriella talks about ‘her shepherd’ who makes the sheep’s milk cheeses we are tasting up in the mountain in his own hut – a variety of pale yellows and creamy whites with not too overpowering a taste, accompanied, naturally, by more Taxkoli.
Pintxos are meant to be eaten in one bite. Devoured slowly, an exquisite moment of enjoying the carefully chosen and handcrafted combinations of fresh flavours of the region, in true farm-to-table fashion.
Pintxos bar-hopping in San Sebastian is the end game of this culinary journey. As we dig into our own hand-made creations we reminisce about the multiple stops; of peering into doorways and perusing the entire length of the bar, lost in the conundrum of how to narrow down 30 options to a hearty three. Such an event is a visitor rite of passage here in San Sebastian, to indulge just as the locals do.
Only then can you understand the unique and long-standing gastronomic culture of this city.
Mouthful by tiny mouthful.
Things to Know about Pintxos in San Sebastian:
- Learn to make Pintxos in San Sebastian: Tenedor offers a variety of cooking classes in San Sebastian, suited to any and all levels of culinary expertise and includes private markets tour and a personal chef
- How to Plan Pintxos Bar Hopping in San Sebastian: Go Local San Sebastian offer dedicated Pintxos bar tours (alongside other activities), taking you to some of the most favourite hangouts and explaining the food culture. The tour lasts 2.5 hours and costs €25. We had Iñigo as our guide, and he comes highly recommended.
- Pick up the “Gastronomic Guide Map” from the tourism office which details on a map the 70 key bars and restaurants, 3 pintxos routes and food shops
- For further information and trip planning: visit sansebastianturismo.com
This trip was organised in conjunction with iAmbassador and the Spanish National Tourism Office to highlight San Sebastian’s offering in light of it being the European Capital of Culture for 2016. I’m still not a good chef, but I’m trying.