Speak to many about San Sebastian and one of the first things that comes up is the food.
Great, creative, mouth-watering food.
There’s tapas on the table tops, they tell you, tapas on the bars,
Tapas in the restaurants, and tapas in the stars.
(Well, something along those lines. It is the kind of food to inspire poetry.)
Tapas in San Sebastian does, it seems, tend to make people star struck.
Except it turns out that it isn’t called tapas at all. It’s one of those things that seems incomprehensible to those on both sides of the divide.
To those who know, they can’t understand the confusion. To those who don’t, they can’t understand the difference.
It’s pintxos in San Sebastian, and indeed the rest of the Basque country and Navarre (another part of Europe’s rich historical patchwork quilt: this one takes in the corner of northwest Spain and southwest France.)
Pintxos takes its pronunciation form the Castilian Spanish pinchos, which comes from the verb pinchar, to poke, according to some. Others simply claim that the word pincho means “spike” or “thorn”. Which, all linguistics aside, brings us to the more pressing tasty point: pintxos tastes different to tapas.
It is indeed different food.
Legend has it that the pinchos/pintxos transmutation came as a result of the toothpicks used to “pinch” (or stab, if you ask me) the food together.
Tapas, so the old saying goes, comes from the Spanish word for “cover.” And while I never saw anyone cover anything when it came to food in Seville, tapas was altogether a less elaborately constructed affair.
Manchego cheese would arrive in an earthenware dish, swilling in oil. Albondigas (meatballs) would arrive in a similar type of dish, swimming in a tomato based sauce.
Over time, of course, distinctions become less clear and both tapas and pintxos developed characters all of their own.
But lest you think I have veered off into academia, when I should just be noshing down (or whatever it is the kids do actually say these days,) let’s forget about semantics and get to the point.
Half the thrill, for me at least, of eating in San Sebastian is the way in which you do so; the other half involves the flavour of the food itself.
Both are bathing in character; both may not to be to everyone’s taste.
Pintxos (pronounced “pinsho”) typically comes stacked up along the bar, and you either choose what you want and pay for it at the end according to the number of toothpicks you’ve acquired…
…or occasionally you need to ask the bartender to plate you out some morsels with the good old fashioned point and smile technique refined through the travelling ages.
The flavours are not for the faint of heart: think strong olives, anchovies, peppers and paprika, fierce mustard, and of course concertina folds of thin, creased, translucent and tasty jamon.
And to feel cultured while you seduce your senses with all this salt and spice, look out for La Gilda (pronounced Heelda.)
This salty, spicy treat for the tongue earned its name from Rita Hayworth’s iconic Gilda, back in the day when Franco’s military dictatorship ruled and locals had to sneak across to France to watch such saucy sirens.
There’s so much more I could say about the food in San Sebastian but I’d better call it a day for now. The clock is ticking (quite literally, I’m sat in a room with a very noisy clock) and soon I must pack my bags for Dublin.
However, let me leave you with a “further reading” section of tastebud tickledom.
Or, in more usual language, a tried and tested list of suggestions of great places for food in San Sebastian.
Just don’t call it tapas.
Cool in a dark, shadowy and scarlet way, this strips away images of “tourist Spain” and replaces them with ideas of art and memories of strong flavours.
For a view of just how many options you can find in one place, check out the bar tops of this little eatery.
Look out for the glass tabletops over collections of sweets, seashells and other curios.
This gorgeous little kitchen manages to a pack a punch of culinary education into a small space with a balcony that overlooks the Old Town. Learn plenty about Basque cuisine, txakoli wine and even make a Gilda of your own.
Highly recommended informal, knowledgable and enjoyable guides to San Sebastian and the Basque Region.
Disclosure – although I’ve visited San Sebastian before, this latest trip came about through a partnership between iAmbassador and San Sebastian Tourism to raise awareness of the fact that San Seb will be one of the European Capitals of Culture in 2016.
However, my thoughts on tapas, pintxos, and all things food related remain mine, all mine, because life’s too short to have it any other way.