Grazing in San Sebastián

Of all the ways I can think of to eat – and I can think of many – I love grazing the best. Forget lengthy, white-tablecloth, rigidly structured meals with silver cloches and fawning waiters. Give me tapas, or raciones, or montaditos, or cicchetti or mezze any day.

I just got back from a few days in San Sebastian, where they’ve elevated eating on the hoof to something of an art form. This is the land of pintxos – small stacks of deliciousness arranged artistically on slices of baguette, or sundry morsels served sizzling from the oven. They make up the mood music of the Basque Country and over the four days (in between judging at the World Cheese Awards which took place in SS this year) I put away as many of them as I could squeeze in (timewise and waistwise). We did have two sit-down/restaurant meals, which were great – more on these and on the World Cheese Awards later. For now, I’ve got pintxos on my mind.

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Pintxos and people at Bar Sport

So what’s so great about them? First off, it’s not just the food itself, it’s also the social aspect. I love the buzz, the noise, the energy, the camaraderie: everywhere you go, the bars are thronged with locals (okay, tourists too) greeting one another, chattering away nineteen to the dozen, buying lottery tickets, howling approval (or disapproval) at the footie match that’s playing on the big screen and scoffing pintxos in between. One minute it’s standing room only at the bar and you can barely see through the forest of bodies and legs and discarded paper napkins to the food arrayed on the counter and the specials chalked up on the blackboard. The next minute it’s emptied as they’ve all had a better idea and moved on to the next place, leaving you to move in and order something yourself. Coming from a part of the world where stand-up eating is rare, and dining out is a rather hushed, formal affair, it’s just so much fun.

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One minute you can barely see through the forest of legs, next minute the place empties and it’s your turn to order at the bar

Below is a selection of the ones we particularly liked and would go back to. You can find recommendations galore on the net and on foodie forums such as Chowhound, plus – as you’d expect in such a foodie place as San Sebastian – there are many food/pintxo tours on offer. When we’re visiting a new city we tend to go our own way, preferring to go at our own pace and make our own selections (and mistakes) – see my pieces on tapas in Seville and Cordoba, for example. BUT if you’re up for a tour, Gabriella Ranelli of Tenedor Tours would be my pick for two reasons: first, though born in New York, Gabriella (pictured below) is practically a local, resident in SS for 27 years, married to a Basque and teaches at the Basque Culinary Centre; what she doesn’t know about the Basque country’s food and wines (and politics, and history, and geography) may not be worth knowing. Secondly, she’s a warm and wonderful human bean, someone with whom you’d be happy to spend time eating around the town (or visiting cheesemakers in the lush green Basque countryside – she does both).

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Our first stop was at Bodega Donostiarra in Gros, the neighbourhood just across the bridge from the old town and close to the Kursaal conference centre. We fetched up at this classic place at 4 p.m. (unlike many, Donostiarra is open most of the day), right off the plane and starving. This is the place to go for good ole’ ensaladilla rusa (potato and veg. salad with mayonnaise) or gildas , an apparently unlikely but successful combo of pickled guindilla peppers, anchovies and olives on a stick, supposedly named after Rita Hayworth (don’t ask me why), washed down with a tumbler of Txacoli, the piercing, slightly prickly, local white or a glass of young Rioja. Doniostiarra’s gildas perch on a gorgeous chunk of tuna plus slivers of spring onion (pictured below).

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Bar Sport in the Old Town was another great choice, both for food and atmosphere: super-busy, loads of paper napkins on the floor and full of locals. Everyone had one eye on the pintxos and the other on the telly which, as it happened was screening England (us) vs. Spain (our hosts), which added spice to the evening and gave rise to plenty of good banter with our bar neighbours. We lurked for a few minutes, ogling the pintxos arranged artistically on plates and surveying the blackboard, until someone moved on (there are also a few tables and chairs). The cold pintxos looked terrifically tempting – dramatic black/red/green morcilla with red peppers + pimientos padrón, jamón ibérico twizzled up long sticks and perched on sundried tomato and goat’s cheese, fresh raw anchovy fillets on ham and green pepper, smoked salmon on potato salad etc.)

We steeled ourselves against the cold offerings – they looked stunningly fresh (not always the case) but they tend to be a bit same-y from one bar to another – and headed instead for the hot specials from the blackboard: creps (crepes) folded in small triangles, some filled with crab (txangurro), some with ceps, and an order of gambas gabardina, 3 piping hot plump prawns in crisp batter (“cuidado: muy caliente“, warned the waiter). Good pintxos, fairly classic, beautifully executed.

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A high spot was Casa Urola, also in the Old Town on Fermin Calbeton, where we met up with Gabriella. The young chef, she explained, took over what was an uber-traditional place a couple of years ago and has skilfully managed to combine elements of the old with plenty of new. His pintxos are cutting edge (there’s also a restaurant upstairs). By way of illustration, Gabriella steered us in the direction of his quartered artichokes with salty nut praline and pimiento, followed by spanking fresh fried anchovies, then miniature broad/fava beans (double-peeled, the size of my pinkie fingernail) with artichokes again + crunchy dice of ham + toasty soldiers for dipping into the raw egg yolk + potato foam. A-ma-zing.

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At Gandarias, still in the Old Town on 31 de Agosto, we feasted first on tiny tartlets of mushrooms and prawns – not two foods I’d ever have thought of combining but they seemed to enjoy each other’s company just fine. Then a mouthful of perfectly pink beef fillet (solomillo) perched on toast and ditto treatment for seared foie gras, both sublime. I loved the vibe of this place with its spacious feel, chic-modern black/white decor and classic, perfectly pitched pintxos.

Next day, after a quick visit to the market with Gabriella to check out the fresh produce, we crossed over Boulevard, dived into the Centro district, nipped into Antonio Bar on Bergara for a chat and a Txacoli, and successfully resisted temptation from a range of eggy, mayonnaise-y, hammy offerings on the counter.

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Final stop of the week was at Zazpi on Calle San Marcial where we caved in and snaffled up a chunk of roast turbot with a seafood sauce and  arroz verde (rice cooked with spinach and parsley) with strips of algae and plump mussels.

Restaurants? Menus? Who  needs ’em! Bring on the pintxos!

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