Food & Wine Paradise: San Sebastián

Perhaps the closest thing to heaven on earth for a food lover exists in Northern Spain in the heart of Basque Country.

Imagine glistening platters hoisting aloft the most dazzling displays of fresh seafood you’ve ever seen… brightly-colored pickled vegetables, blistered peppers with creamy aioli, paprika dusted cheeses, warm, flaky croissants, glorious hams carved up into ribbons of sweet, salty, nutty-buttery goodness…

This is the scene you’ll encounter when you step off the sunny streets of San Sebastián, and duck into one of its many pintxos bars. Pintxos bars are essentially small taverns serving the regional Basque version of tapas.

The word “pintxos” comes from the Spanish verb pinchar – “to stab.” Pintxos are small snacks that usually come stacked on a small slice of bread and are spiked with a skewer.

The protocol at many pintxos bars is to sidle up to the bar and order yourself a beer, a cider, or a glass of wine. From there, your server or barman will typically hand you a plate. You can then sample from the vast selection of pintxos that are normally covering every visible surface within reach. Your tab is later calculated by counting the number of skewers left on your plate! (Speaking from experience, this usually adds up quite pleasantly and surprisingly to far less than you imagine having spent).

While trying some of the beautiful, cold hors d’oeuvres on the counter is irresistible, it pays to save some room for warm pintxos. These are often available to order from a menu or are sometimes listed on chalkboards nearby. Warm pintxos have the advantage of being made to order. They are often a bit more expensive, but well worth it from a flavor perspective. For excellent pintxos bars in San Sebastián, I personally recommend Ganbarra and Victor Montes.

This warm pintxo specialty at Ganbarra ^ was featured in Anthony Bourdain’s episode on San Sebastián – warm egg yolk and with locally foraged mushrooms.

Some of the most popular and tasty pintxos are: Gilda (anchovy & guindilla pepper), Patatas Bravas (potato croquetas), Pulpo (octopus sprinkled with smoked paprika), spanish chorizo, Morcilla Cocida (blood pudding w/ quail egg), yellowfin tuna, and Jamon Serrano, or the Rolls Royce of ham – Jamon Iberico.

Pintxos are best savored with a crisp, refreshing beverage to wash away their inherent (and delicious) salt, fat, and spice. The go-to choice for wine is txakoli or txakolina. This is a local, dry white (sometimes rose) made from the hondarrabi grape. Txakoli is extremely drinkable, typically low-alcohol, and tastes somewhat apple-y – sometimes with a touch of sea spray. The Basque region is also quite possibly the best place in Spain for quality craft ale and also for apple cider. Spanish ciders can taste a bit funky to some, occasionally sporting earthy, barnyard flavors. But if you don’t mind a touch of funk, it’s just the ticket for pinxtos!

If you’re interested in having a tapas night at home and you want to drink some txakoli, look for the wine label “Ameztoi.” It’s a reliable brand with fairly wide distribution, so there’s a decent chance you’ll find it in the Spanish section of your wine shop or grocery store. A top-notch example of txakoli made by  “Doniene Gorrondona.” is truly delicious if you can manage to find it.

Any serious conversation about Basque cuisine should also include txuleta. Txuleta is a thick-cut ribeye steak that is unique because it comes from the meat of older cattle. Some cattle destined for harvest reach the ripe old age of 18 years. Ripe is the operative word here. These cuts of meat are revered for their flavor concentration. The meat is typically aged for several weeks before hitting a wood-fired grill. Some say that txuleta beef is the richest, beefiest steak they’ve ever tasted. The color of the meat is vivid red, and the fat is yellow like butter and exceptionally flavorful. The quality of the fat is reminiscent of a true, pasture-raised farm chicken – where the tallow and the juices are rather yellowish when it’s cooked. For excellent txuleta in San Sebastián like the one pictured below, For excellent txuleta in San Sebastian, I recommend Gandaria.

For matters of food and wine pairings, there is no shortage of options for good steak wine in the Spanish pantheon. The classic choice would be a glass of red based on the tempranillo grape from nearby Rioja. You could choose a “Reserva” or a “Gran Reserva” to match both food and wine for age and complexity. The former are aged for 3 years before release, 5 years for the latter. Other tempranillo-based heavyweights from the regions of Ribera del Duero and Toro would do equally well to absorb the fat of a txuleta steak. The mandatory oak aging of these wines will also harmonize with the charred flavors from the grill. There are many good producers of Rioja wines. Look out for the labels La Rioja Alta, Marques de Murrieta, CUNE, and Muga for quality bottles.

If the food and wine weren’t enough reason to make a pilgrimage to San Sebastián, consider a cultural one. During the week of August 15, the Donastiarras (San Sebastián locals) throw a summer’s end festival of epic proportions. People from all over Europe flock to the scene to take part in a whole week of celebrations. In Spanish, it’s called La Semana Grande. Each night fireworks illuminate Concha Bay and the surrounding promenade. Regional and sometimes international teams compete with one another to create the most awesome spectacle.

Another bizarre but fun tradition is the parade of gigantes and cabezudos – “giants and bigheads.” Larger than life puppets, dressed as traditional Basque countrymen are carried through the streets. At night, the crowds gather to watch the toros de fuego. These “fire bulls” mimic the running of the bulls in Pamplona. But instead of actual bulls, they consist of men who wear papier-mâché bull costumes on their heads. The horns spew out showers of sparks, and children run away screaming with glee.

With so much to see and do (not to mention eat and drink), San Sebastián is the ultimate destination for food and wine lovers.

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