• The Basque country's take on tapas is often threaded onto cocktail sticks or skewers. (Instagram)Source: Instagram
The Basque-style tapas is the perfect recipe for a good time.
Mariam Digges

6 Jun 2017 - 10:46 AM  UPDATED 28 Oct 2020 - 5:48 PM

Depending on who you ask, pintxo translates to ‘spike' (hence the use of toothpicks through foods), small plates, or the one we subscribe to an excuse to socialise.

The Basque country and Navarre's take on finger food hails from the north of Spain, with the stunning coastal town of San Sebastian arguably its HQ.

For the transient tourist, pintxos (pronounced peen-tchos) could easily be mistaken for tapas, but the bite-size, flavour-jammed morsels vary slightly from their southern counterparts. The town’s strong fishing history means seafood is a star contender, with salt cod (bacalao), octopus, mussels, anchovies, lobster and hake all abounding. 

In San Sebastian particularly, Spanish chefs have applied French nouvelle cuisine techniques to their tapa creations, lending more time to presentation.

The Basque country is dotted with bars where jocular locals and tourists elbow it out to swipe small plates off the counter. The floor is a sea of crumbs and napkins; beer and wine is swilled with loud conviviality. Pintxos is not a meal to be savoured – diners usually move onto the next bar after a few plates for the next round: it’s the ultimate progressive meal.

While we save for our next trip to the land of siestas and sangria, we do so without abstaining from this laidback fete par excellence. Here’s everything you need to know to throw your own pintxos party - sans the view. Sorry.

You don’t eat pintxos alone

Squeeze in as many people as you can to really recreate that stuffy, sweaty San Sebastian pintxos bar vibe. If you’re feeling game, add a few neighbours or folks you’re not so acquainted with to the fold – pintxos bars are always teeming with people just off work, hungry and keen to chat. You’re almost certain to walk away with new acquaintances at best; this is not a romantic meal for two.

First, get rid of the furniture

This is also not a sit-down dinner. Bar tables are the order of the day and if you don’t have those, make use of any counters or bench tops, which will house all your lovely, overcrowded raciones (plates to share). Put the dining chairs away, too; your home will never look so spacious.

There are no set rules

The only limit is your imagination! Go with piquant flavour pairings, plenty of seafood, and food on sticks. A gilda (a skewered, oily, olive, anchovy and pickled chilli combo) is one such Bilbao hit, as is the bacon and sausage fry-up, the cazuelitas. Slider-like buns also appear on many pintxos menus, so don’t be afraid to give yours a Spanish flavour injection with help from pimiento and paprika. We love Mate in Spain and Encasa Deli in Sydney for stocking up our Spanish spice and smallgoods rack.

A Banderillas is a must

Spain’s answer to the grazing board is crammed with marinated artichoke hearts, Piquillo peppers, white tuna and anchovies, pickled herring, jamón, food skewered onto toothpicks and bread with garlicky, tomatoey smears. Banderillas encourage mingling faster than any icebreaker - what’s more communal than dropping squid juice on someone you barely know?

Finally, the menu!

As we mentioned above, there are no hard and fasts, but should you need a little pintxos inspo, look no further:

Spiced pork skewers (pintxos morunos)

This speedy, skewered barbecue pork is the ultimate no-fuss party food. The zingy roast capsicum mayo (salsa de pimiento) on top will have guests lifting their elbowing game. Recipe here.

Spiced pork skewers (pintxos morunos)

Catalan flatbread

While seafood is usually the star of pintxos, prices can quickly add up. Frank Camorra’s leavened flatbreads are the Catalan answer to pizza. Don’t stick to the toppings in this recipe – be guided by the season. Recipe here.

Squid croquettes with green sauce (croquetas de calamares con salsa verde)

Croquettes are always great party grub as they can be shaped ahead of time and fried at the last minute. This one uses squid rather than the more traditional cod, which is cheaper and easier to work with. Recipe here.


Serve the chilled soup in little shooter glasses on a tray, topped with your choice of garnish (hardboiled eggs, Jamon Serrano, or diced cucumber are all crowd-pleasers). Recipe here.

Salt cod with cabbage and piquillo pepper vinaigrette

Crunchy, bready little morsels are a pintxos bar mainstay – everyone has their own version. This one features flake bacalao, or salt cod, which you can buy in many forms, but the easiest to handle are the pre-sealed packets from your fishmonger. Recipe here.

Lead image by GoldCoastOnly.

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Paella with Soller prawns and grilled vegetables

This isn’t a simple, carefree kind of paella; we’re talking a bit of time, commitment and enthusiastic energy here. But let me tell you a little secret, I had a little helper with me on this trip, Sarah, who actually helped me prepared all the veggies and then grill them, one by one. When you make this, get yourself a little (or big) helper; it’s always nicer to work in a group and the result is quite something.

White beans braised with tomato (alubias blancas con tomate)

These hearty white beans are the perfect accompaniment to crusty bread and a glass of sangria. The combination of jamón and sweet paprika delivers a salty, rich flavour to this Spanish side dish. Soak the beans for three hours before starting this recipe.