The art of pintxo






San Sebastián and Bilbao have elevated the humble bar snack to an art form. We discover the history of pintxo and meet the chefs reinventing a tradition.

The bar in the small, crowded space is piled high with food – trays of sliced baguette layered with glistening jamón ibérico, queso de cabra (goat cheese), anchovies, salmon roe, and exquisite purple flowers; golden balls of deep-fried Idiazábel cheese impaled on skewers and resting in pools of tomato-strawberry jam; plump figs stuffed with foie gras and drizzled with thick balsamic glaze; and more foie gras wrapped in jewel-like sheets of Pedro Ximénez jelly and spectacularly finished with lattices of bronze-painted grilled cheese.

I’m at Bar Zeruko, one of more than 200 pintxo bars in San Sebastián, and each decadent plate costs anywhere from €3-€6 (around NOK30-50). I choose enough to fill a table, and I haven’t even started on the made-to-order menu. I know I’m not doing the pintxo thing correctly – etiquette dictates you have one or two dishes and a drink in each bar before moving on to the next – but I’m finding it very difficult to decide on just one or two dishes. At least I’m accompanying my lunch properly, with small glasses of the lightly sparkling local wine, known as Txakoli.

I head back inside to order something sweet for dessert, picking out what looks like a deconstructed peach crumble in a miniature cast-iron pan, and some kind of nut-encrusted ball of cream. I couldn’t be more wrong. The “peach crumble” is actually a deconstructed egg and ham soup, with a soft egg yolk contained in ham stock gelatin on a bed of toasted bread crumbs that you mix into a delicious mess. I get closer with the second dish, which turns out to be whipped foie gras and fresh cheese topped with crushed nuts, shards of toffee, and flowers. It’s so creamy it could almost pass for a dessert. This is pintxo, but not as you know it.

Traditionally, pintxo is a type of Spanish tapa specific to the Basque Country – particularly Bilbao and San Sebastián – served on a wooden skewer alongside drinks in bars. While alcohol and snacks go hand-in-hand the world over, pintxo is a world away from monkey nuts and pork scratchings, elevating the bar snack to a form of gastronomic art. The art of eating pintxo is known as el txikiteo – a Basque pub-crawl in which a group of friends move from bar to bar, eating, drinking, and discarding skewers and napkins on the floor.

“In the Basque Country, we socialise at pintxo bars because our homes are very private places, just for close family,” says Arantxa Vivanco, a tour guide with San Sebastián Food, a multifaceted gastronomy company that offers pintxo tours with local guides around the old town, and has recently opened a cooking school and culinary shop at the Hotel Maria Cristina, one of the grandest hotels in the country. “If we want to celebrate something with friends or colleagues, we invite them to our gastronomic clubs – private dining clubs where members can cook and eat meals – or pintxo bars.”

As simple as it sounds, el txikiteo can be confusing for first-timers. “The first time I had pintxo was quite embarrassing,” says Jon Warren, founder of San Sebastián Food, who moved to the city on a whim in 2008, leaving behind a finance career in London. “Pintxo was so unnatural to me. It was like a party in every bar, every night. Even though I was living here, I was still nervous going into bars – I thought ‘How does anyone stand a chance if they’re just visiting?’” Working as a hotel bellboy, he started passing on tips to guests, and soon started giving guided tours. “I would take people » to three traditional bars and three modern ones, explaining the history and the social etiquette – people loved it.”

According to legend, Spanish tapas is said to have originated around the turn of the 20th century, when King Alfonso XIII travelled to the city of Cádiz, where he visited a famous tavern for a wine. The quick-thinking owner of the bar placed a slice of jamón ibérico over the King’s cup, saying it was a tapa (cover) to protect the wine from sand blown in from the city’s famously windy beaches. The impressed king soon ordered another wine “with the cover”. Before long, tapas – slices of bread topped with meat or cheese and placed over drinks to avoid dust and insects – became common across the south and centre of the country.

By the 1930s, aristocratic Spaniards had spread the tradition to Bilbao and San Sebastián in the Basque Country in the north, where they spent their summers. Here, the tapas soon evolved into small dishes of typical Basque food either held together with a small wooden stick known as a pintxo, or served with one instead of cutlery.

Head to one of the more classic pintxo bars – like Restaurante Gandarias – and you’ll find trays of Gilda, and sliced baguette topped with meaty crab or plump prawns, all displayed on the bar beneath hanging legs of jamon. Others, like La Cuchara de San Telmo, offer a menu of made-to-order hot pintxos, such as miniature sirloin steaks or luxuriously fatty slabs of foie gras. Then there are places like San Sebastián’s Bar Zeruko and the punk-rock inspired A Fuego Negro, or Bilbao’s Los Fueros, which are bringing pintxo into line with the Michelin-starred cuisine the area is famous for by giving tradition a clever molecular twist.

“Pintxo started out as something to keep you going until dinner,” says Jon Warren. “Since then, it’s evolved into a vibrant social culture. Here in the Basque Country, pintxo is a way of life.”

The original
gilda at gandarias
Gandarias is a favourite with San Sebastián’s foodies for classic pintxo. Think platters of paper-thin jamón ibérico, succulent solomillo (sirloin cuts), and creamy Idiazábel (sheep’s milk cheese) served with membrillo (quince paste) – and Gilda (pictured). According to legend, Gilda was the first true pintxo, invented in 1946, the same year that Gilda – the classic film noir starring Rita Hayworth – was released. Joaquín Aranburu, a regular patron at bar Casa Vallés, travelled to France to see the film (which had been banned in Spain under Franco’s rule), and on his return began to combine the bar’s snacks of olives, guindilla peppers and salty Cantabrian anchovies, on a pintxo (timber skewer) to be eaten in a single bite. He decided to call his invention Gilda, as it was green, salty and a little spicy – just like the film’s title character.

The hipster
potato skins at a fuego negro
This dark, punk-inspired bar in San Sebastián’s old town is run by siblings Edorta Lamo and Amaia Garcia de Albizu. The ready-made pintxos on the bar are fairly traditional, but their made-to-order menu is something altogether different. There are crispy potato skins served in a miniature graffiti-covered bin (pictured), their signature vermouth-stuffed olives, and the Fresa & Txokolate Zombie, a bloody-looking mess of strawberry mousse and ice cream hidden beneath a sugar zombie face buried in chocolate “dirt”. They also offer a pintxo-tasting menu in the restaurant behind the bar. “We’ve made a commitment to cultural activism,” says Lamo. “We care about the things surrounding the culture of pintxo – music, design, local art – and we pair food with our other passions: black metal music, B-movies, and comics.”

The experimental
la hoguera at bar zeruko
La Hoguera (which translates as “The Bonfire”) is a specialty at Bar Zeruko in San Sebastián’s old town. Diners smoke the cod themselves on a grill over a glowing ember, eat it with a slice of bread topped with micro-herb mayonnaise, and finish with a shot of “liquid salad” in a test tube. The rest of the food on offer from former innkeeper-turned-chef José Antonio “Joxean” Calvo is just as inventive, such as a rose made of foie gras tempura and dried strawberries stuffed with lobster, which is served in a shot glass vase filled with rose smoke; cream of sea urchin served in its spiked shell; and anchovy macarons that deceivingly look like giant Oreo cookies. Testament to the kitchen’s creativity, Calvo has won numerous awards, including the coveted  Gipuzkoa Championship pintxo award.

The Bilbaíno
grillos 2.0 at los fueros
Grillos 2.0 – a simple construction of potato, white onion and lettuce speared on a toothpick and drizzled with olive oil – is a classic Bilbaíno pintxo that has been something of a rarity in the past decades. It’s back on the menu at Los Fueros, however, thanks to head chef Paul Ibarra’s mission to revive Bilbao’s gastronomic traditions in one of the city’s oldest bars. Also on the menu are pintxos served in txikitos – handmade glasses with a solid bottom, traditionally used to drink small amounts of red wine – and, in molecular homage to the bar’s history as the go-to place for prawns, liquid prawns created by spherifying prawn bisque. “My inspiration comes from the traditional cuisine of Bilbao, which is based on the vegetable gardens and the sea,” says Ibarra. “Bilbao has its own recipe book and I adapt those traditions to the 21st century.”

The Michelin-starred
fualimotxo at etxanobe
Kalimotxo is an infamous cocktail, equal parts red wine and cola, that’s particular to the Basque Country. Chef Paul Ibarra takes the concoction to new culinary heights with the Fualimotxo, a decadent pintxo of foie gras topped with an emulsion of red wine and Coca-Cola. Halfway between sweet and savoury, it might sound strange, but it tastes delicious. Ibarra initially developed the Fualimotxo for Los Fueros (see The Bilbaíno), and the dish was such a hit that a version of it has been adapted for the menu at its sister restaurant, Bilbao’s Michelin-starred Etxanobe, where Ibarra was previously head of research and development. Also on the menu at Etxanobe you’ll find bacalao al pil-pil, a traditional Basque dish of salted cod in a thick, gelatinous sauce created by simmering the fish in olive oil over a low heat.

The classic
carrilleras at la cuchara de san telmo
One of the few pintxo restaurants without a bar stacked high with ready-made plates is La Cuchara de San Telmo, hidden away in a historic building next door to the San Telmo Museum on the outskirts of San Sebastián’s old town. Here, all the pintxos are made to order from blackboard menus behind the bar. The creative kitchen, which was co-founded by Iñaki Gulín (who’s since moved on to found nearby pintxo bar Borda Berri) specialises in miniature nueva cocina vasca (Basque nouvelle cuisine) – think braised veal cheeks over chickpea puree (pictured) and a luxurious foie gras with honey and mustard. “We learned this way of cooking from our mothers and grandmothers, and we interpret the dishes for today, for people who want a bit more,” says Gulín. ”La Cuchara de San Telmo is a place in the world with its own identity.”

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