The Pintxos, Cuisine, and Specialities of the Basque Country. Wondering what to eat in San Sebastian? There is a lot.
San Sebastian is often quoted as one of the new culinary capitals of the world. The food here influenced the likes of David Chang, was spear headed by the likes of Ferran Adria and Juan Mari Arrzak, and plays an instrumental role in both the field of Molecular Gastronomy, as well as, in the best kitchens around the world. San Sebastian is known to have the highest concentration of Michelin stars outside of Tokyo, making it one of the top culinary scenes of the “Western” world.
This culinary culture was born from both Spanish and Basque cuisines. As any chef knows, the quality of produce is one of the most important aspects and the produce and markets here are spectacular which enables the restaurants to do what they do best. It has also been that ability to recognize the traditional cuisine, BUT continue to advance, research, and create new dishes and techniques that makes the cuisine here so influential.
And through nothing else than walking the Parte Vieja and eating your hearts desire in Pintxos you can get a sample of the amazing cuisine here–and it’s combination between traditional and modern. And in deciding where and what to try is where I come in.
“Opa” = Hello!
You might be more familiar with the word Tapa, but a Pintxos is more or less the same thing–a couple bite mini-course that is eaten between meals, to start a meal, or as a meal. As legends go, Tapas were born in Southern Spain, but traveled, evolved into Pintxos and were perfected in San Sebastian (or the Basque country as a whole). I did my share of Tapas tasting in South Spain, and while there are some great options and specialities down there, the Pintxos of the Basque Country are in a league of their own.
There are too many pintxos to cover, especially given the advances of modern, fusions, variations, etc. But here are some of the traditional ones or most commonly eaten ones (my map above as the best places I went to, what they specialized in, and recommendations!):
- Hilda – considered the first pintxos, this is is simply olives, anchovies, and a pepper on a toothpick
- Croquettes – béchamel creme and other stuffings on the inside, and a crunch y exterier
- Bocadillas – mini-sandwhiches
- Jamon Iberico – one of the best known specialities on Spain is this cured ham, which is also usually a pintxo option served on bread or in bread
- Bite-sized seafoods – such as bacalao (cod), chipirron (calamari/squid) or pulpo (octopus)
- Foie – duck liver, most commonly seared
- Pimientos – grilled green peppers
- Morcilla – blood sausage with rice
- Pimiento Relleno – red peppers typically stuffed with bacalao
- And many many more, over bread, in a sandwich, smoked on a plate, elaborately prepared, traditionally prepared, etc.
Some certain staples or customs of a Pintxos spot are as follows–get a plate, select pintxos that are on the counter, as well as, check the menu for hot or prepared pintxos. It’s good custom that the guys behind the counter know what you took, but you usually tally up your bill at the end. I tend to try to get the best 2 pintxos in a spot so that I can save space for “Pinto-hopping” or txikiteo by going to other spots to fit in 3-4 places for the night.
Before heading to a table or shoving yourself between people at the standing counters, you can grab a drink:
- Kalimotxo – wine + coke
- Txatxoli – a light white wine (that is served from a distance to add carbonation/open up the drink); traditionally drunk fast
- Rioja – a Basque area red wine, a bit more sour
- Cidre – Cider, another Basque specialty which is different from it’s American cousin
- Mosto – a non-alcoholic grape drink
- Cana – small sized beer serving
A variation of “Pintxo-hopping” is the Pintxopote (Pintxo + Drink). This is a night, typically a Thursday, where restaurants will have a pintxo + drink special for about 2 euros. You unfortunately don’t get the best quality pintxos (and most of the restaurants that are starred on the map don’t have this option), but it is still an excellent night out.
At the end of the meal, it is completely normal to leave your dishes and napkins lying around (or on the floor) before tallying up.
“Agur” = Bye!
I decided that it might be a good idea to be a bit more productive than to just shove myself full of Pintxos and maybe try to learn a thing or two as well about the Basque Cuisine. Thanks to a friend I met in Peru, I had the remarkable opportunity to stay with her family in Vittoria to learn a few dishes.
Firstly, let us discuss some of the local ingredients. As discussed above, the farmers and vendors focus on really high quality, local products which are very seasonal–always providing the best ingredients.
- Seafood – calamari, squid, shrimp, and octopus; along with a myriad of fish such as bacalao (Kokotxas or cheeks being a speciality), anchovies, and tuna; one of my favorites was percebes or barnacles
- Meats – nothing too strikingly different, except for the popularity of cured meats such as Jamon Iberico, and sausages such as Chorizo or Chistorra; Chuleton is a grilled meat that is very popular at restaurants
- Mushrooms – very popular here and seasonal, during April-May Perichicos are very popular
- Vegetables – garlic, red onions, leeks, carrots, peppers (red and guindilla) and tomatoes (different types for different purposes)
- Legumes – alubias (red or white beans) and garbanzo beans
- Cheese – Idiazabal cheese is a household staple, either fresh, aged, or smoked
A great way to get a taste of Basque cuisine and culture to visit a Sidreria or Cider house. These are cider producers outside of the cities–orignally for locals to try out the ciders, they expanded to become restaurants where a typical menu will include many of the below options.
- Bacalao Al Pil Pil – bacalao in garlic and oil
- Chipirron en su Tinta (pictured above) – calamari in ink sauce
- Tortillas – a spanish “omelette” with various stuffings
- Alubias con Chorizo – beans with chorizo
- Porrupatatak – leek and potatoes
Day Trip to Vittoria
If you find yourself with a bit of extra time, I would recommend a day trip to Vittoria. I had the chance to spend 5 days here and absolutely loved the city. Only an hour by bus, it is a great city to visit if you find yourself bored of the lively beaches, beautiful architecture, and amazing food of San Sebastian
- Center – the center or historic part of Vittoria is a great walk for a few hours. It is very interesting to see the contrast of the modern design and architecture that has been interpreted among the historic buildings
- Lunch at El Rincon de Luis Mari – make a meal of the tapas here, including serranito and antxopi with a gatxua for dessert
- Coffee at Bar Aldapa – I recommend the Jamaican one
- Market – the indoor market in the center of Vittoria is also amazing to walk through, fresh produce and seafood
As a special, here is some great Basque food porn.