We spent some time in Donostia San Sebastián in northern Spain, a beautiful city renowned for its food, and held by many to be the culinary capital of the region, if not the whole of Spain.
Why, then, did we spend a couple of perplexing evenings eating some of the worst food I’ve ever ordered anywhere in the world?
Torrid pasta, limp pizza, thrown-together fish dishes, over-priced, under-value, ill thought through cooking. Terrible, terrible food, only made palatable by wine.
There was a problem, and we quickly worked out that the problem was us. Eating out in San Sebastián is a very, very different affair to doing the same thing in Britain.
Let me explain.
The Spanish conundrum
I need to eat in the evening, at a normal time, maybe 8pm or something like that. When we eat out at home, that’s the sort of time we book a table for. Seems to work OK.
The Spanish customarily eat their evening meal much, much later, at maybe 10pm or beyond. That makes finding a good restaurant that doesn’t fall into the ‘shit tourist racket’ category extremely difficult until a point where I’d be literally on my knees with hunger.
So, how do the good people of San Sebastián do it?
They have a little filler, something to ‘put them on’, as my dear Mum used to say.
They eat pintxos (spelt with an ‘x’ in Basque, as pinchos in Spanish), the northern Spanish version of tapas … glorious, bite-sized snacks, usually made up of something elaborate on a slice of bread and available strewn casually across every bar in the city, huge waves of bewildering food designed almost entirely to either get you through to a proper meal, or to soak up the alcohol.
It’s a very, very good system, and gives the casual diner the opportunity to taste some extraordinary cooking at knock-down prices. Making pintxos is a competitive sport among most bar and restaurant owners in San Sebastián, and when that sort of thing happens, everybody wins.
Our hastily revised strategy involved embracing the idea of the pintxo wholeheartedly, feeding the kids properly at our apartment before we went out, to avoid the ‘I don’t like that, and I’m going to starve myself in protest’ situation, and hitting the bars for four or five plates of pintxo each … at between 1.8 Euros and 3 Euros a plate, about 10 or 12 Euros worth a head constituted a decent meal. Everybody loved it, and the kids discovered calamari.
The etiquette of ordering pintxos
You walk into a bar. It’s busy. There are people propped up at the bar, huge legs of jamon hanging from the ceiling. You have enough Spanish to order a couple of glasses of white wine to counter the searing heat, even if you spend half your time getting mixed up with the little Italian you know, and eventually end up asking in French. There’s food everywhere, platters full of slices of baguette topped with ham, anchovies, sweet peppers, chorizo.
It’s all quite bewildering, and feels like untrodden ground (in our week in San Sebastián, we bumped into few Britons, and heard little English).
Gesticulation and enthusiastic use of some choice Spanish words is the key. Learn how to say ‘one’, ‘two’, ‘please’ and ‘thankyou’, smile an awful lot and look enthusiastic and you’ll be fine.
The main thing to remember is to indicate that you want to eat first, before taking any food. Don’t just grab the tastiest thing within arm’s reach. The bartender will give you a plate and either let you go, or fill it with whatever you want … just watch what other people do and follow them, and watch what they choose, as well.
It’s customary to run a tab, so the bartender will keep track of what you’ve eaten and the drinks you’ve had, and you pay when you leave. Spanish bartenders seem to have an almost supernatural ability to keep track of all their customers in even the busiest bar, and will be able to present an itemised bill when you want to pay, but I found that trying to stick with the same bartender each time I ordered something made things simpler, or rather, it made me feel like they’d charge me the right amount at the end without any confusion.
Most pintxos are held together with a small wooden toothpick, which is there to help the bartender track your tab as much as it is to maintain the structural stability of your snack, so keep hold of them, and you’ll know roughly how much you’ve spent.
The secrets of the blackboard
The food laid out on the bar looks amazing, but it isn’t likely to be the best they have to offer. Most of the choice dishes are cooked to order and listed on a blackboard behind the bar, or on a menu, which on the odd occasion, might arrive in English. Phew.
Made-to-order dishes include most hot food, such as calamari or croquettes of various types, along with things like hot chorizo sausage or various types of stew or braised dishes. Food can normally be ordered as a racione, effectively a bigger portion, large enough for two people to share.
The real treasures of the pintxo bar are on that blackboard. Point, and say ‘gracias’ a lot.
A little effort will be rewarded, and it’s hard to eat badly in San Sebastián’s heaving pintxo bars. Be adventurous, and try some of the more unusual looking things, or take a chance on something strange from the blackboards. The best trick of them all is simply to park yourself next to a hungry local and watch what they order.
There’s some wonderful food to be had, of many different types in small, tapas style portions that allow people to try several things over the course of an evening, backed by some fiercely good cooking from kitchens determined to out-do their friends and competitors next door.
Just feed the kids before you go out.
Next week: a quick run-down of some of the bars we discovered.