Friday, 5 February 2010


San Sebastian can be a hard place to stomach if, like me, you have a very big appetite, and very little will power. Almost every single bar top is chock full of tempting little morsels that just beg to be devoured. Going for a quite glass of wine can become an excrutiating exercise in self control. I find myself having to will my hands to remain by my sides, for fear of otherwise devouring the whole spread in the time it takes to down a glass of vino.

The quality of pintxos here is universally very high – San Sebastian's reputation has not been gained without good reason - but why be content with what's good, when you know that excellence is lurking somewhere around the corner? Finding it, however, can be the difficult thing.

So having already spent a couple of days trying my luck at whichever bars caught my eye, earlier on this week, I was lucky enough to be taken on a tour of the old town by a friend who is not only a born and bred local lad, but also a fully-fledged foodie. This man really knows his pintxo bars.

Unsurprisingly, each bar has it's specialities, the two or three dishes in which they really excel. Our tour took us in a series of concentric circles through the old town, stopping off for jamon in one place, bacalao in the next, then octopus in another, then calamari, then hake, and so and so on... Apparently all the inhabitants of San Sebastian have their own little routes around the town, taking in their favourite haunts, in whatever order suits their taste buds that night.

But if you're new in town, how do you find out about these specialities? One option might be to eat every single dish in the whole town, which is something I'm obviously not averse to... Another is to guage the bar by it's tortilla de patata. The best ones will be nice and thick, evenly coloured on the outside, light and creamy in the middle, with onions that someone has taken the time to caramelise, and potato that still has just a little bit of bite. If they get their tortilla right, then it's probably worth ordering another crianza and finding a comfortable spot to lean at by the bar.

The other thing about pintxo is that whilst all the bar-top tapas are great, the real gems are on the pintxo caliente menu – the ones that are made to order. As I was told, the chef isn't going to want their specialities to be sitting out getting dry for an hour or two before someone eats them. They'll want it served at it's very best, fresh from the kitchen. Look out for the subtle variations of dishes from bar to bar... How do they serve their rabas (calamari)? Is their pulpo de galego (Galician-style; boiled and served with paprika), or a la planxa (Basque-style; seared in a very hot pan)? What's in their morcilla? Arroz (rice)? PeƱas (pine nuts)? Pasas (raisins), even? If they pass the tortilla test, and they do something interesting involving your favourite ingredient on the menu, then you're probably in for a tasty night.

Of course, there are visual cues too; If there are three dozen cured pig's legs hanging above the bar, then you can be pretty sure they hold faith in their jamon. And good for them, I say... Swiftly followed by “una raciones, por favor?!”

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