The Belle Epoque seaside town of San Sebastian, in the Basque region of Spain, is the perfect place to take a gourmet trip
A trip to San Sebastian for foodies is like a trip to Rio’s Maracana stadium for the football obsessed; it’s simply the best of the best. The town has more Michelin stars per capita than any other city in the world - yes, even Paris - and as a result everyone takes immense pride in the both the quality and presentation of even the most simple snack, resulting in a bar scene that’s a tiny slice of gastro-heaven.
For the uninitiated, eating pintxos (Basque for tapas, and pronounced ‘pinch-oh’) can seem like a complicated affair; it seems impossible to decide where to start to make your txikiteo ('chick-e-tay-oh') – what the locals call a pintxo pub crawl. Each bar’s shining wooden counter is heaped high with plate after plate of perfectly turned out delights, from the most heavenly seafood to melt-in-the-mouth slices of ham and local cheeses. The sheer abundance and choice can be overwhelming but if you follow a few simple rules you’re guaranteed to have the gastronomic thrill of your life.
The first rule of the txikiteo is to dodge the old tourist trick of being given a plate piled high by the barman – locals would never do this. The whole point of the txikiteo is to taste only the very finest that bar has to offer and then move on, which can be tough of the face of so much deliciousness, but try to be strong!
Start by ordering a drink - try one of the local specialities like a non-alcoholic Mosto, which comes from the first pressing of grapes and will either be red or white. If you fancy something stronger, try the txakoli, a sparkling wine. Don’t be surprised by the small servings: the idea is to have just enough to wash down your pintxo, not enough to get drunk. Scout out what the locals seem to be eating, then make your move.
Most people eat whilst standing at the counter and the system relies on honesty. Once you’ve taken a napkin, just help yourself and at the end tell the barman (although most will just seem to know) then pay up. Finally – toss your napkin to the floor! A good guide later in the evening is seeing which of the bars in the Old Town are ankle-deep in serviettes – these are the great bars! Most pintxos cost around €1.50 – €3.50. A lot of the fun will be in discovering your own favourites but if you want a tried and tested txikiteo then here are a few of my best-loved bars.
Start just outside the Parte Vieja (the old town) with the San Marcial, which is a small downstairs bar on Calle San Marcial. Their speciality is the most filling of all the pintxos on this route so do this one first, so you have room for the rest! It’s a gavilla; a deep-fried croquette made from heavy, creamy béchamel sauce and the finest cured ham. You have to order this at the bar as they are freshly made and arrive piping hot.
It’s all too tempting to spend the night here, but tear yourself away and make your way to the Meson Martin, on Calle Elkano, just five minutes' walk away, past the iconic Hotel de Londres y de la Inglaterra. Meson Martin's speciality is the trainera, which is essentially a little bit of everything to get your juices flowing! It comes on a slice of bread piled with Iberian ham and topped with a ring of delicate grilled baby squid and prawns drenched in a garlicky vinaigrette dressing.
Now you’re starting to get into the spirit of the txikiteo, cross the Boulevard into the Parte Vieja and walk down Calle San Jerónimo until you reach Calle Fermin de Calbeton. Turn down here for the Bar Goiz Argi, for their delectable brocheta de gambas, prawn and bacon skewers on tomato-y bread. The later you arrive, the more chaotic this bar becomes. You need to order your brocheta freshly cooked and don’t be surprised if it arrives minutes later, passed over the heads of the crowds at the counter – as our change did too!
Head back down San Jerónimo again until you’re almost at the Plaza de la Constitución and look for Bar Ganbara, where you’ll enjoy one or two of the jamon bocadillos from the counter. These are mini ham sandwiches, tasting unlike any ham sandwich you’ve ever had before! The bread is fresh, fragrant and chewy, stuffed with slice after slice of salty, smoky, wafer-thin ham, perfectly aged and impossibly more-ish.
Now, for your final stop, cross the Plaza to the Calle de Pescaderia and one of the new award-winning bars that takes its innovative pintxos very seriously indeed. Bar Zeruko’s house speciality is the hoguera, which translates as ‘the bonfire’. It’s an exquisite slice of smoked cod, which arrives speared over its own charcoal smoker so you can decide how smoked you’d like your fish to be, complete with a test tube full of ‘liquid salad’ and a caviar-topped biscuit.
So, some traditional, some startlingly modern pintxos to try, all of them delicious. And that’s just a tiny fraction of what’s on offer…