Pintxos, the Basques’ take on tapas; are best enjoyed in San Sebastián, as part of the traditional txikiteo, which is a nightly pub crawl with a few unspoken rules.
Basque cooking has become very popular in recent years, and one result has been an increasing prevalence of pintxos (“peen-chos”), or Basque-style tapas, in restaurants everywhere. From Barcelona and London, to Montreal and New York; foodies are crazy about the rich flavours and creative spin on traditional ingredients, like salt cod, anchovies, mushrooms, baby squid, hake, Idiazábal cheese and crusty bread, to name a few. But anyone who has travelled through Euskadi, or Spanish Basque country, will tell you that pintxos are more than just another deliciously innovative import.
Ingredients and culinary know-how aside, no city in the world can replicate the social art that is txikiteo, or pintxos bar-hopping, in Basque country, and there’s no better place to experience it than San Sebastián, in northern Spain.
The culinary capital of a food-obsessed region; San Sebastián is fat with Michelin-starred restaurants, but throughout this enchanting coastal city, appetites are first whet on pintxos. Delectable and lovingly made, the pintxos here are little gourmet works of art. These gastronomic marvels might be simple, buttery tortillas de patata (potato omelettes); sautéed pulpo (octopus) or anchovies; a hunk of crusty bread topped with Iberian ham, mushroom and melted cheese…or a hundred other things.
Txikiteo is a fancy word for a bar crawl, but with little aperitif bites included, and this pre-dinner ritual comes with some unspoken rules. Traditionally, the Basques go out with a small group of friends around 7pm, and they remain in each bar for 15 minutes or less; just long enough for everyone to indulge in one or two pintxos, down a short glass of beer (a zurito) or wine, have a smoke and perhaps discuss the latest in fútbol. Txakoli is the favourite among wines; it’s a tangy, fizzy local white typically poured with a flourish, from high above the glass to maximise effervescence.
The skinny cobblestone streets of the Parte Vieja (Old Quarter), roamed equally by tourists and dapper old Basque men; boast the most pintxos bars in the city, so that is where your lesson begins. To make like a local, and weed the good bars from the great; follow those tidy old men into their watering holes. Then here’s what you do:
Approach the regal display of room-temperature pintxos on the bar. Hot pintxos and small-plate raciones (rations) are heated or cooked to order.
Help yourself to a pintxo and order a drink; Don’t even think of sitting down.
When you’re finished, tell the barkeep what you had. Be honest; an important tradition of txikiteo is the self-serving honour system, and you have no excuse, anyway: Most pintxos cost very little.
Toss your napkin on the floor and head for the next bar. Nobody uses the garbage receptacles; you know you’ve arrived late when you enter a bar and find more crumpled napkins on the floor than pintxos on the bar.
The real challenge, of course, is knowing when to stop. If you stuff yourself silly with pintxos, you’ll miss out on San Sebastián’s world-class restaurants. But that’s another story.