My guide Lourdes Erquicia laughed out loud at my horrified response when she told me to chuck my napkin on the floor. “It’s not easy persuading tourists to throw their dirty napkins on the ground – but it’s how we judge a bar. A bar full of napkins is a good bar.”
I’m in northern Spain on a pintxos – also called txikiteo in Basque country – crawl with Mimo San Sebastián. We’re weaving through the crowded warren of alleyways in the Parte Vieja or Old Town. I’ve realised there’s no delicate way to eat pintxos, traditionally a slice of baguette teetering with food and speared with a wooden toothpick or pintxo – hence the name. The juices soak into the bread, run down your chin, coat your fingers and are smeared onto paper napkins, which are tossed on the floor.
Pintxos were born, Lourdes tells me, because “it’s not our custom to entertain at home. We meet friends for a drink and snack before dinner”. It’s one of the reasons that, originally, there were no sweet pintxos – these were pre-dinner snacks, not the main meal. You also went to one or two places not the string of bars we were working our way through.
There are over 100 to choose from, mainly in the Old Town, and so a tailored tour is a good way to narrow it down. Lourdes’ top tip: ignore the piles of pretty pintxos on each bar’s counter and order dishes chalked on the blackboard. These are cooked fresh to order and each bar has its own specialities. At Goiz Argi that means the brocheta de gambas, a juicy prawn served on a skewer, soaked in a sweet and sour garlic, pepper and onion marinade. The mari Juli baguette with salty slivers of smoked salmon, sardine and oily green pepper is equally moreish, with a glass of txakoli, the local sparkling white wine.
Poured from great height to aerate it, the feisty, fruity white splashes into a tall tumbler. It conjures up vibrant green apples and has a slightly salty aftertaste. The grapes are grown on the coast near the towns of Getaria and it has denomination of origin status – as has the local idiazabal sheep’s milk cheese. The smoked version is more traditional as it was originally made in windowless shepherds’ huts and smoked naturally rather than by design. (Head to Borda Berri for the legendary risotto pintxo made with idiazabal.)
At Casa Urola I tuck into an Instagram-perfect plate of alcachofa con praliné (artichoke with cardoon, mojo sauce and almonds) and txipirón, a mound of squid with creamy white bean sauce and the original pintxo, the Gilda; think a cocktail stick crammed with salty anchovies, fat juicy olives and local guindilla pickled peppers.
“You have to eat it in one go so that the flavours mix in your mouth.” The explosion of pungent salty pickle is eye-wateringly good and strangely addictive. The name comes from an old Rita Hayworth movie, Lourdes tells me. General Franco had a habit of censoring films, so everyone would hot-foot-it across the border to watch them in France. The Gilda is “hot, spicy and long – like the film”, she laughs. They’re everywhere, but the best, according to Lourdes, are at Casa Urola.
At A Fuego Negro she introduces me to pajarito, fried quail with onions and carrots, crispy on the outside, succulent and pink in the middle while at La Cuchara de San Telmo, a long, thin rustic wooden bar with a tiny open kitchen at one end and no pintxos on the counter, she orders cochinillo, melt-in-the-mouth suckling pig with quince sauce and mollejas – veal sweetbreads and apple – majestically matched with a full-bodied Navajas Crianza from Rioja.
It’s hard to stick to the brief of ignoring the counter-spread at Zeruko – one of the new-wave, experimental (swap bells and whistles for smoke and foam) pintxo bars. This is food-porn nirvana. The intricate pintxos look more like modern artworks than snacks. And that’s part of the beauty of pintxos. You can graze on mini-molecular Michelin-style dishes for a fraction of the price. Most cost no more than three or four euros. The signature dish, however, is la hoguera, a sliver of salt cod served on a tiny smoking grill then folded onto a piece of toast with caramelised onions, carrot cream and parsley pearls, a test tube shot of parsley as a chaser – pure theatre.
Our final stop, by the overblown baroque basilica of Santa Maria, is Atari Gastroteka. Lourdes orders me dessert. The torrija is a cross between bread and butter pudding and French toast, made with brioche soaked in custard and then caramelised. I take a tentative taste and end up scraping the plate clean.
Luckily, my hotel is within staggering distance and a fitting base for the gourmet capital of Spain. The glamorous belle époque Hotel Maria Cristina recently turned its spa into a cookery school. You might think that a hotel which hosts Hollywood royalty during San Sebastián’s film festival each September, would need a spa, somewhere to soothe highly strung nerves. But it’s food that’s the star.
A picturesque port and resort on the Bay of Biscay, San Sebastián has notched up 16 Michelin stars. There are seven three-star restaurants across Spain and three of them are here: Akelarre, Martin Berasategui and Arzak, the bastion of chef Juan Mari Arzak. It has the second highest number of Michelin stars per square metre after Kyoto in Japan, and more than Paris.
It also has a culture of gastronomic societies, traditionally private men’s clubs, the first founded here in 1870, where men come together to cook and eat. Lourdes points out their flagpoles on buildings we pass. Add in a liberal peppering of gourmet food stores such as the artisan deli Aitor Lasa crammed with oils and preserves, local charcuterie and cheeses and baskets brimming with mushrooms and pintxo bars and you have all the ingredients for a belt-busting few days of gastronomic grazing.
The hotel, which nudges up to the Parte Vieja and overlooks the River Urumea, was exquisitely revamped in 2012, the year that marked its centenary. Renowned filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar has stayed here, along with a string of Hollywood luminaries from Bette Davis to Woody Allen. Its food credentials include its own concierge-designed DIY pintxos trail, a gourmet shop where you can stock up on gastronomic souvenirs from local wines to smoked olive oil and Basque cookbooks, while in the basement there’s the sleek, state-of-the-art cookery school.
Like my tour, it’s run by Mimo San Sebastián, set up in 2009 by British expat Jon Warren, whose passion for the region’s gastronomy led him to leave his lucrative job in the city in London. They offer pintxos tours, cookery classes, wine and sherry tastings, vineyard tours and trips to sagardotegiak (aka cider houses).
These pepper the surrounding region especially near the town of Astigarraga. The houses dish up set menus featuring salt cod omelette, chorizo cooked in cider, and idiazabal with quince and walnuts along with as much cider – lightly sparkling, cloudy and refreshingly sour – as you can drink from the huge barrels.
I’m taking a cookery class the next morning, which starts with a trip to the 19th-century La Bretxa market to buy the ingredients. San Sebastián is bordered by the sea, mountains and fertile Ebro valley and Basque cuisine reflects this bountiful natural larder. Local farmers sell their produce outside every day except Sundays, the stalls are piled high with the area’s famous artichokes and asparagus, beans in every hue (red, white, green, and black beans from Tolosa), petit pois so sweet they’re known as green caviar, and guindilla peppers.
The fish and meat markets are inside, underground. Here you can find local specialities such as chistorra, a cross between chorizo and sausage, and salt cod (bacalao). At the fish counters there are mounds of percebes (gooseneck barnacles), a typical delicacy. Hake is popular as is turbot cooked over a grill with olive oil and garlic. On the stalls the gills are exposed, a vivid red to show that the fish is fresh. We buy squid for the class and head back to the kitchen.
The chef, Mateus Mendes, begins by teaching us how to clean it and carefully remove the ink sac. During the morning we soak and sear, beat, blend and blanch, and get to handle a blowtorch. Then we sit down to eat the lunch we’ve cooked: a delicate dish of squid with sweetcorn and tart green apple and, for dessert, creamy sweet torrijas.
To try to work up an appetite for dinner I walk around the headland and along the glorious La Concha beach before heading back to Casa Urola. This time I’m upstairs, in the restaurant, rather than perching at the bar for pintxos. Chef Pablo Rodil comes from a family of chefs, his menus a contemporary take on rustic Basque cuisine.
My starter of charcoal-grilled artichoke hearts and cardoons with almond cream, salty praline and crisp Iberian ham is delicious, as are the sautéed baby broad beans with borage, artichoke and egg on potato cream. Another Basque delicacy: charcoal-grilled hake cheeks are soft, salty and delicate. I decline dessert – I can’t eat another thing. I place my napkin on the table, folded neatly; but, believe me, that’s no reflection on the food.
HOW TO DO IT
Cox & Kings offers three-night breaks to the Hotel Maria Cristina from £825 per person, including flights from the UK to Bilbao, car hire and breakfast. They can also arrange food tours with Mimo San Sebastián.
More info: sansebastianturismo.com
Words by Lucy Gillmore
Photographs by Alamy, Getty, JM Bielsa, San Sebastian Food and Markel Redondo