In Spain’s Basque country it is important to know a few words of the Basque language especially in the city of San Sebastian. This hotbed of Basque nationalism is known as Donostia locally and there are other words visitors should become acquainted with. The most important is pintxos.
In the Basque Country there are no tapas bars – instead they are referred to as pintxos bars, but the idea is the same. People in Spain eat a lot later than most tourists are used to and one of the reasons is the locals visit a pintxos bar first – so it is a great idea for visitors to eat a few pintxos too, to bridge the gap to the later eating time.
The problem in San Sebastian is eating just a ‘few’ pintxos – these bite-sized delights are so tasty and varied that some visitors, me included, can eat them all evening. Pintxos bars also serve wine and sherry, so if you do have a seat at the bar then there is no real need to move all night.
So it was at the A Fuego Negro in San Sebastian’s old town – this is a famous pintxos bar in the Casco Viejo, appearing in most guidebooks, and it always looks busy. This might be because it is roughly midway between the 18th Century Basilica de Santa Maria and the Museo San Telmo, two popular tourist destinations. As we approached along Calle de Agosta at 9pm there were people standing around with small plates, wine, and/or a cigarette. Visitors should not worry though because there is no smoking inside. Heading indoors the place will look packed but that is usually because people prefer to be closer to the door in the warmer weather. At the back there is a small area with eight tables which always seemed to be occupied.
However, it’s more fun to be at the bar and luckily two places became available at the end near the kitchen and we sat down before anyone else could. We ordered two glasses of the house white wine and settled into the warm and welcoming atmosphere.
People were ordering food all around us and the five servers behind the bar were scurrying here and there, sometimes disappearing into the kitchen to place a larger order. Occasionally the female chef came out to query something and there would be a bit of shouting until everything was sorted out. Each time the kitchen door opened we were treated to a waft of whatever food was cooking at the time – squid, hake, cod, crab.
The wine was really fresh and we decided that due to the din we would just order three items at random from the blackboard rather than getting a Basque lesson in how to pronounce items such as spider crab (txangurro). My girlfriend can’t eat dairy products so we did have a protracted discussion with a very patient proprietor to ensure that none of our order contained milk or butter, including the bread.
Arriving on three separate, small dishes the pintxos were delicious; delicately flavoured hake and cod with small amounts of lettuce, avocado, and carrot. All the time we were eating people were standing behind us but I never felt at all cramped even when transactions were taking place above my head and to either side – three euros for a pintxo, four for a glass of wine. We polished off our food helped by another glass of white wine – the heat from the kitchen was making us thirsty. I then decided to celebrate and ordered a manzanilla sherry, never thinking the waiter would pour me a full glass. But he did and it was chilled to perfection. I ordered two more pintxos and another sherry for us to share.
During our two hours at the bar the orders around us had never stopped coming and yet our server entered all our purchases into the till with 100% accuracy and we paid our bill quite happy in the knowledge that we had experienced an evening we would never forget.
Outside it was even busier than earlier and so we dodged through the crowds and found a quieter bar that sold ham pintxos and the same white wine as earlier. The real joy of pintxos is that you can hop from bar to bar and sample each place’s speciality knowing that it will taste wonderful.
There was still time to see the lights of San Sebastian reflected in the outgoing tide and watch some people partying on the city’s central crescent of sand, the Playa de la Concha. We were able to reflect that San Sebastian, and the Basque Country, are one of the great food destinations of the world and that visiting pintxos bars is the best way to appreciate this food.