I just love the pic below – there’s something so serene and also surreal about this immaculately groomed Basque barman standing patiently behind a mountain of old-fashioned pintxos – alone. This was last Saturday midday as the old quarter of Donostia (aka San Sebastian) was revving up for peak pintxo hour. Some bars were still closed, others had their shutters half up and a handful were already open, including this one.
Stupidly, I haven’t got the name but it was in Calle Mayor, on the left before the basilica – don’t miss it.
Before writing more I should maybe explain to the uninitiated that pintxos are the Basque take on tapas, and San Sebastian has the highest density of bars per inhabitant in the world. Not only that, it has the greatest number of Michelin stars per square kilometre. So, statistics over, let’s cut to the chase.
Round the corner, just past the iconic basilica of Santa Maria (above), is one of the most highly praised bars of the innovative breed: A Fuego Negro (calle 31 de Agosto 31). The interior has pushed the boat towards nightclub allure with dark walls and low lighting, and the pintxo offerings come in complex guises – not the easiest to figure out or order, despite the barmen’s laudable English.
I had a little plate of rabbit, tender and propped up with carrots, just as every self-respecting bunny should be, but nothing outstanding. The bar looked to me like it might be better at night, but the menu leaned heavily towards the pretentious.
I washed the rabbit down with a smooth crianza, as by then I’d had enough of the local tipple – Txakoli. I used to revel in Txakoli, the gently sparkling Basque white wine which is only made in a handful of vineyards overlooking the Bay of Biscay. Maybe my palate’s changed over the years, but I’m sure it was once a more uplifting indulgence with greater body and more fizz.
So at my next stop, at the deservedly legendary Gandarias (calle 31 de Agosto 25), I smacked my lips over another excellent crianza, this time a Rioja Alavesa, the Basque red wine province, as I tucked into the bar’s tempting array (below). The elegant lady standing next to me (it was already heaving), a local, was intrigued by me and my companions (a Brit, a Mexican and a Madrileño). So we chatted amicably, mainly about pintxos and wine and how she and her husband spent every Saturday lunch in this bar. I mean what else do you talk about in this city?
Further along this street made in heaven, up a side-slope, La Cuchara de San Telmo beckoned. This bar really wowed me when I was researching my book, New Tapas, back in 2001 over 10 years ago. It was new, young, fresh and ballsy, and I ended up interviewing one of the chefs and including some of his recipes. That chef has now opened a different bar (Borda Berri, Fermin Calbeton 12, also allegedly an excellent address) and La Cuchara still has a great reputation but I decided to skip it – it was obviously too early and only just warming up.
So our trio then dived into a regular looking place for some classic boquerones (above) – hard to beat, above all in this spring season when fresh anchovies are at their best. Douse them in vinegar and a little garlic for a quick pickle and —
Later, on a stroll round the old town, I admired some of the raw produce that finds its way into the bar offerings. Raf tomatoes were one. Their lumpy assymetrical shapes, full of creases and tinged with green, always augur well. They are lightyears from the tasteless hothouse varieties that dominate UK shops. Apparently raf tomatoes were first cultivated back in the 1960s, in Almeria (Andalucia), but as they ripen fast and therefore rapidly pass their visual sell-by date, they disappeared from the market. Now people have come to appreciate their sweet, juicy flavour – best eaten sliced very thinly and doused in extra virgin olive oil – sprinkled with oregano.
A little more exotic are the kokotxas de merluza, or rather hake barbels (somewhere between a cheek and a jowl – bringing us to cheek by jowl, or why not cheek by barbel. I digress). This particular piscine delicacy is a star of Basque cuisine, but alas my time being limited, I never tracked it down. Next visit, for sure.
Instead, here’s a rather classy little tapa of arroz cremoso de hongos (mushroom risotto) in ‘before and after’ form, accompanied by an egg yolk and the pil pil sauce that would bathe those kokotxas. Dream on, Dunlop— or is it spill on?
Read my Guardian article on San Sebastian’s pintxos bars https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2013/mar/14/san-sebastian-best-tapas-pintxo-bars