San Sebastián: The Food

Pintxos are to Basque Country what tapas are to the rest of Spain.

However, instead of sitting down and ordering tapas from a menu, bars and restaurants have all the pintxos on plates along the counter. You simply walk up, ask for a small plate, and then pick and choose what you want, and then pay for what you’ve chosen. Typically you eat 1-2 pintxos at a bar before moving on, meaning that many people will go to several bars over the course of a few hours with friends.

This was slightly intimidating as I was on my own and while I’m really comfortable and at ease with traveling alone and sight-seeing alone, I hate eating by myself or trying to figure out food etiquette in a new place (weird, I know).

Booking a food tour for Friday night was the best decision of my life.

There were only five of us on the tour: three australians (who were not traveling together funny enough) and two Americans (Story time: the other girl told me that she was working for an IT company for several years and was getting sick of it and needed a break from life. When she told them she was going to quit to travel, they decided to let her go on vacation for three months and then OFFERED HER A JOB TRANSFER TO LONDON for when she was done so that she could stay in Europe. This=my dream only without the IT company part and without the being stuck in America for a few years part. So basically really just partially my dream).

But the highlight of this tour (aside from the food I promise I’m getting there) was Tomasz, our guide. Tomasz is the best tour guide I’ve ever had for anything ever in any city. He’s Polish, but married a girl from Basque (they met at a Russian language class in Moscow) and now lives here giving tours as the owner/sole employee of the San Sebastian “franchise” of an Australia-based tour company. Tomasz studied history at the university and thus, this was not so much a food-only tour as a history and culture tour and worth every single penny I dished out for the experience.

Case in point: He didn’t want us to spend time at the bars tasting the very original pintxo when as he said, “there are much more interesting types.” So his wife MADE THEM FOR US and we stood along the railing by the beach listening to Tomasz give us background information on food in San Sebastián and eating his wife’s homemade pintxos before we even stepped foot in a bar.

We went to three bars, and as part of the tour, got 1-2 pintxos per bar plus a drink.

However, we first stopped along this nondescript building:

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Tomasz explained that if there was a building that looked like a bar, but just had a name and date, it was actually a gastronomy club, for which San Sebastián is famous. These clubs were male-only for decades and were a place for men to “escape” their home lives and COOK. It’s only been recently that women are allowed in the clubs, which are used for social occasions and family gatherings, but to this day, the only woman allowed in the kitchen itself is the cleaning lady. Take that gender stereotypes!

Then on to the bars!

Bar #1:

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Traditional Basque white wine that was more like champaign but delicious all the same
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Tuna and watermelon tartar with mini-breadsticks and flakes of algae. Surprisingly delicious and Tomasz wisely didn’t tell us what it was until after we tried it. And then after we all loved it and he earned our trust, we didn’t hesitate the rest of the night.

Bar #2:

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Walking there!
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Brie covered in poppy seeds with a tomato jam/sauce/I’m not sure but it was delicious. All of us except Tomasz agreed that it would’ve been perfect if the brie was only topped with poppy seeds, not covered on all sides.
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Wine from the Rioja region and pig cheek. Red wine isn’t my favourite but this was pretty good. And the cheek was excellent.

Bar #3:

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Another reason why this tour was a good choice: While bars put most of their pintxos on the counter, most also have a few “off-menu” options that you just have to know to ask for. Tomasz did know, asked, and we received.
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Version of a Spanish tortilla=on menu
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Hi Tomasz! Also just side note that men in Spain often wear their wedding rings on their right hand (as demonstrated by Tomasz here).
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Crab mousse with a shrimp garnish=decidedly off-menu
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Hard cider

Then on Saturday night, I went out bar-hopping with an Australian girl from the hostel(seriously don’t know if there was a flight deal or something but most of the English I heard in San Sebastián was with an Australian or British accent). I was grateful for the company and she was grateful for a translator as she spoke no Spanish aside from “hola,” “gracias” etc. However, I sadly seem to have no pictures of this outing saved on my computer right now (check back for possible updates). Among the pintxos I had were a ham montadito (small sandwich), flat bread topped with grilled octopus, and cheese topped with jams.

San Sebastián had the best food I’ve had in Europe by a mile. I’d honestly go back for the food (and Tomasz’ hilarious attempts at sarcasm. But really. If you’re ever in Basque Country take his tour. Here ends the unsolicited advertisement).

Next up: Camino de Santiago!

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