Don’t even dare try to order tapas in San Sebastian. There are no tapas there (unless you happen to be in an Andalucian restaurant). In the Basque region and San Sebastian it is all about the pintxos (pronounced pincho). Small bites, served on sticks and piled high on the bars that line the San Sebastian streets. When finished you present the sticks to the bartender, and that is how they calculate your bill. Different sticks denote different prices where there is variation.
A little about San Sebastian first. A small city in the Basque country of 200,000 people straddling a long beautiful bay, San Sebastian is near the French border and is home to three of Spain’s seven 3 michelin star restaurants. It is second only to Kyoto for the number of michelin stars per square metre. This is pretty impressive but there is much more to this city. There are the many pintxo bars, the cider houses and all of the lovely local Txacoli wine. If you have not had it, I suggest you seek some out. It is lightly sparkling, dry and fruity. It is also way too easy to drink, but at 11%, that is ok (up to a point!). The cider in San Sebastian is very tart and dry. Both are poured from a height, which is an art in itself.
The original pintxo is the gilda, created in the 1940s in Bar Casa Vallés in San Sebastian and named for Rita Hayworth in the film Gilda. There was censorship in Spain at the time, and San Sebastian residents would hop across the border to France to watch banned films. The gilda, with olives, guindilla (a green pepper usually pickled in vinegar, and sometimes hot, but not usually) and an anchovy is tall and spicy, which reminded them of Rita. Swit-swoo. There are many different types of pintxos now, often served on bread or in bread, but not always. Men would have them with a drink after work before they went home, and for the locals they are still treated as an appetiser before the meal that follows.
I went on a pintxos tour in San Sebastian’s old town with Iñigo from Go Local San Sebastian on the Saturday lunchtime that I was in town, last weekend. We went to the two best streets for pintxos, 31 de Agosto and Fermín Calbeton. It was a perfect introduction to San Sebastian pintxos culture, the locals were all out enjoying a tipple and pintxos. The streets were buzzing. Iñigo is a passionate and enthusiastic local, and he has terrific knowledge.
Pintxos at A Fuego Negro
We started as we should with the gilda at A Fuego Negro, it was my first one ever but I had many more over the weekend. They have a modern and stylised approach to the pintxo which was a nice contrast to the more traditional bars that followed. I followed this with a fried sea anemone served with tigers milk, which was I think the best way I have had it. They can sometimes be too squidgy for me but the batter was crisp and a perfect contrast to the anemone inside. It was lovely that they were sourced from the harbour too. The tigers milk on the side was great (a Peruvian addition, it is what ceviche is cured in although this was less tart).
Pintxos at Gandarias
Our next stop was Gandarias which greeted us with the traditional heaving pintxos bar. It was very difficult to choose, I tried some solomillo (sirloin) with green peppers, a plate of gorgeous fried porcini (which were in season), and then we had a choice from whatever was on the bar or having one cooked (there were seafood and meat skewers available). There was red peppers stuffed with crab and then deep fried, elvers (tiny eels) with peppers on toast, tortilla sandwiches, lots of jamon, jamon sandwiches, and I had a small open sandwich of red pepper, morcilla (Spanish black pudding) and a fried quails egg and one of bread topped with jamon and three mushrooms drizzled with Idiazabal cheese, a local cheese made in Idiazabal from unpasteurised sheeps milk.
Pintxos at La Cepa
Our final stop was La Cepa, a quirky spot where all of the tables showcase something within. Ours had artwork made of sweets. Again, the bar was laden with pintxos, many many pintxos. We started with a gorgeous platter of jamon, which was glistening as it had been at room temperature for a bit (as jamon always should be, that way to better taste it). There was a beautiful plate of fried fresh guindilla peppers, a few hot as with padron (and in Spain it is also common to eat the green peppers from Gernika). There was dessert and coffees too, but I skipped dessert as I was already full of pintxos.
What a great introduction to San Sebastian!
For more info on Go Local San Sebastian Tours, visit their site. I highly recommend them. This post was brought to you as a result of the #SeeSanSebastian blog trip, created and managed by iambassador in partnership with San Sebastian. I maintain full editorial control of the content published on Eat Like a Girl, as always. All of our lives are too short for any alternative!