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Food & Wine February 26, 2013

Gourmet Pub Grub – San Sebastian Style

With seven Michelin-star restaurants in the region, San Sebastián attracts foodies from far and wide. But it’s not all about highbrow dining at this seaside haven – some of the best local offerings can be found in the everyday pub gourmet, where finger food reigns supreme.

Nestled in a small corner of Northern Spain near the French border, San Sebastián is part of the fiercely proud and independent Basque region. With its own language, traditions and history, the Basque country feels vastly different from the rest of Spain, and that’s exactly how the locals like it.

While the rest of the country have tapas, the Basque people have pintxos, (pronounced pin-choss). Far more than a simple bar snack, pintxos are engrained into San Sebastián’s culinary history and are a local way of life.

Every day as the lunchtime rush begins, bar-tops across the city are transformed into colourful buffets of sumptuous platters. Traditional pintxos are tasty morsels served on thick piece of bread with a toothpick through the middle to hold it together. The flavour combinations are endless, and include a range of meat, seafood, vegetables and cheeses, topped with a variety of sauces, spices and garnishes.

When it comes to pintxos bar etiquette, it’s best to take your lead from the locals. In some places, you simply point to whatever takes your fancy. In other bars, the custom is to ask the bartender for a plate, and you help yourself before returning to the till where the cost of each item is tallied. Other places will glance at the number of discarded toothpicks left on the plate to work out the bill. Either way, the good-natured bar staff are usually happy to help awkward-looking tourists learn the ropes. In most bars nobody bothers with tongs and the best places are often so busy it’s standing room only.

The old part of town, with its cobbled streets and charming traditional buildings, is one of the best places to find lively pintxos bars. Visitors can simply follow their noses on a self-directed pintxos crawl, drifting into wherever looks and smells most delicious. In the evening, the pintxos come out again for round two and the food often keeps coming till midnight.

No pintxos tasting is complete without a glass of traditional Txakoli, a sparkling dry white wine that is dangerously easy to drink. Txakoli is traditionally poured holding the bottle above the head to ensure maximum aeration in the glass. This makes for a great show behind the Bar and, miraculously, they never seem to spill a drop.

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