How else to explain the vibe? It sounds like a swarm of approaching bees, but it’s just the noise of people working up an appetite. An ordinary day like any other. This place enjoys itself all year round. It’s like this from morning till night, with a little nap in the afternoon to give everybody the energy to start again. Why is everyone so happy? Simple: the incredible food. And it’s not just hype, the place really does hum and fizz with anticipation and appetite.
Then there’s the way they eat: in egalitarian, casual conviviality. People stand shoulder to shoulder, six deep at the counter of pintxos (Basque-style tapas) bars the length and breadth of the city – from Urumea River down to Concha beach – irrespective of class or social status.
They say people born in San Sebastian, known as Donostiarras (the Basque name of the city is Donostia), rarely leave to live elsewhere. Unlike Spain, the Basque economy is booming. Life here is not too slow and not too fast. Its rhythms are determined by the seasons, not by the vagaries of foreign economies. The country has an enlightened health policy and, now that the ETA (a Basque separatist group) has stopped its terrorist activities, there’s a new sense of peace and unity in the air.
But back to the food. Pintxos (literally ‘spike’, hence the presentation on a toothpick) is the distinctive Basque interpretation of tapas and manages to pull off quite a trick: remaining authentic while evolving into something new but not gimmicky. It’s not food for tourists. Sure, the locals are willing to bestow their gastronomic charisma on visitors, but what they eat is not gussied up or dumbed down for other people’s palates or to suit the whims of fickle foodies grazing from one ‘hot’ destination to the next. Long after we’ve gone, they’ll still be eating like this.
Stand in a pintxos bar for barely a minute and someone will nudge you and point to something you should order, or attempt to explain the long list on the wall with the help of some uninhibited miming. They’re proud of their heritage and it’s all part of the fun and theatre of pintxos. This is not food for shy people.
The business of standing to eat has a nice sense of solidarity to it, but it takes a bit of time to get used to the frenzy, the amiable push and shove, the elbowing to get to the counter. And the locals are messy. They drop prawn shells and paper napkins on the floor, brazenly littering it with debris as proof of just what a good time they’ve had.
It’s a good idea to have a navigator with you to introduce the subtleties of pintxos because the choices can be overwhelming. You want an insider who knows which place is the best for mushrooms or anchovies, or who can tell you why bacalao (salt cod) is such a delicacy when it looks like a warped piece of old shoe leather. Enter Gabriella Ranelli. She used to work in the New York art world until she fell in love with a pelota player (a Basque ball game a bit like squash that dates back to the 13th century). Now she runs her own business, Tenedor Tours, which introduces visitors to the best food in the region.
We meet at the Bretxa market on Calle de Aldamar in the Parte Vieja (Old City), for an inspection of the dozen jewel-like fish stalls, before progressing to Gabriella’s favourite cheese shop to sample the locally made Idiazabal (aged, pressed cheese made with unpasteurised sheep’s milk that has a natural, slightly smoky flavour).
We then make our way to a charcuterie where the owner dispenses liberal slivers of meltingly sweet jamón Jabugo, also known as jamón Ibérico (cured ham from black-hoofed pigs. Those that roam the oak forests and have a diet of acorns produce the most prized meat, jamón Ibérico de bellota). I buy tins of squid in its ink and jars of premium-quality tuna belly at prices way below what they cost when imported to Australia by fancy providores.
But this is by way of preamble to the main event. Hopping from bar to bar, learning about pintxos on both sides of the river, it’s a mistake to think all the best bars are in the Parte Vieja, as Gabriella points out. The elegantly bourgeois district of Gros has some of the most famous and traditional establishments in the city and is less overrun by foreigners.
Politely, Gabriella tells me I’ve been doing it all wrong. “Locals don’t settle into one place and order several items. Instead they graze, ordering one or maybe two things at most before moving on,” she explains. She also points out that the counter food is just the preamble. The raciones (main dishes) are hot and ordered from the wall menu, so it’s worth pacing yourself accordingly – a real test when you eat with your eyes. Two unmissable dishes typical of the region are marmitako (tuna and potato stew) and txangurro (crab tart). Gabriella also solves a mystery. I’ve been wondering why all the guys behind the counter have the same flamboyant technique for pouring the locally made sidra (apple cider) and txakoli (a slightly sparkling dry white wine) from a great height. “Aeration,” Gabriella explains. Fortunately, the alcohol content of these two drinks is not punishingly high.
While most of the rituals of a txikitea remain unchanged, Gabriella has noticed that “many places used to run on an honesty system, but fewer do these days, simply because of the influx of visitors who don’t understand the system [they count up your used toothpicks] or don’t play [and pay] by the rules.” Despite that, the crime rate here is among the lowest in the world.
Some ingredients are so unfamiliar I need Gabriella to identify them. Percebes (goose barnacles) are just too sinister-looking. Angulas (tiny silver baby eels) are more about slippery texture than flavour, but considered a costly seasonal delicacy (beware gulas, the cheap imitation made from pollack, which is completely tasteless). And bacalao? “When cooked, after multiple desalting soakings that take up to 48 hours, it goes from salty to silky,
I promise you,” she assures us. She’s right. “It has to be cooked very slowly, hardly moving in the pan, so the natural gelatine from the bones comes out. Then you make a sauce emulsion of that with garlic and oil – no egg – to create bacalao al pil pil, one of our most famous dishes.”
Without Gabriella, I’d also miss out on the wit of pintxos names: that toothpick skewer of prized local anchovies and sweet pickled green guindilla (peppers) topped with a salty green olive? That’s called a Gilda, created at Bar Casa Valles and named after the fiery, sexy character in a 1950s Rita Hayworth movie. And, when pickled, those same anchovies are known as matrimonial. Perhaps an ironic comment on the flavour of Basque marriage?
At the unassuming Hildalgo 56, Gabriella urges me to try the aptly named volcan de morcilla (black pudding volcano). This blood sausage is flavoured with raisins and has a raw egg yolk nestled in its ‘crater’. She warns me to leave room for the feast of wild mushrooms at Ganbara, where the raw ingredients are piled up in a still-life display on the counter, then served simply pan-fried in butter and garlic.
Other bars seem to be awash with the sweetest mini slabs of foie gras stacked on crusty bread, then topped with glazed plum, peach, quince or apple compote and sometimes balanced on a piece of bacalao. Silver turns to gold when local anchovies and sardines get deep-fried and anchored to bread with a slash of red pepper purée and a slick of mayonnaise. The most tender txipiron (squid), sliced onion-fine and lightly pickled with green peppers, is a palate-cleansing finale to round one.
Passing large opaque windows that open onto the street, we get a tantalising glimpse of a kitchen full of men. “That’s a txoko, one of the all-male gastronomic clubs,” explains Gabriella. “The word means corner or nook. The first one opened here in 1870, and now there are about 200 of them here, all with an average of around 80 members, but some with as many as 200.
“Basque society is matriarchal; the women control the household budget and used to give the men money for cigarettes and cards. Eventually, these clubs started where men could enjoy cooking and eating together. The only rules are you have to be nominated by an existing member and you must not discuss politics or work. As the clubs do not come under Spanish law, you can smoke in them. They thrived under General Franco when they were the only place locals could enjoy Basque language and song. Some are famous for their choirs and drummers and they all have fantastic cellars,” adds Gabriella. Although the more conservative clubs do not grant women even the briefest access, others welcome them to eat and drink – but not to cook – on Saturday evenings.
We are invited briefly into one txoko. The kitchen is a professional stainless-steel set up with plenty of inter-generational action around the island stove – chickens are being roasted, prawns pan-fried and so on. One man interrupts his preparations to tell us, “We pick up fresh produce at the market, but everything else is already here – the oil, vinegar, rice, wine – it’s all included in membership fees.” He’s been a member since his bachelor days, but is now married. “My wife thinks I am a better cook because of coming here,” he says with a shy smile.
San Sebastian may be the internationally famous hub of the current pintxos craze, but an appetite for new tapas combinations and a desire to make their reputation have driven talented pintxos apprentices to strike out on their own, transforming the nearby sleepy fishing port of Hondarribia into a mecca for food connoisseurs.
Although the economic downturn in the 1980s affected the town’s local metallurgy industry, it has bounced back, restoring its historic hilltop foundations and shucking its reputation as a sanctuary for smugglers and other illicit trade. Today it is home to new-wave pintxos, but there’s hardly a feverish stampede and the few visitors I meet are mostly from France, visible across the Bidasoa River at Hendaye.
A walk to the commercial centre is a good way to build up an appetite. On the main street, Calle San Pedro, the Gran Sol is one of the more famous pintxos venues and proudly displays various awards above the bar. The menu features txipiron in sua tinta (croquettes of molten lava-like squid ink) and medieval, a wild mushroom stew with a quail egg served with ‘spinach air and mist’, a joke on the pretensions of molecular gastronomy. Then there’s the Señorita pepis, a shrimp ball with leek cream and pistachio powder, which comes with a disposable lipstick. No, you don’t apply it to your lips, as the waiter mimes comically for my language-challenged benefit. You smear it on the toasted crouton.
There’s a certain solemnity about some forms of gastro-tourism, an almost hushed reverence when faced with dishes elevated to celebrity status. Partaking in a txikitea, however, the main element that gives the food such flavour and excitement is simply fun.
Photography by Armelle Habib