Pintxos: Small wonders

29 October 2013
Pintxos: Small wonders

Pintxos are Spanish bar snacks on a cocktail stick or skewer. They're taken very seriously indeed in San Sebastián, the Basque seaside town famous for its world-class restaurants, so could they be a hit over here too? Michael Raffael reports

Two of the top 10 in the World's 50 Best Restaurants can be found in the Basque resort of San Sebastián. Mugaritz (two Michelin stars) occupies fourth place and Arzak (three Michelin stars) eighth, while another two restaurants (Akelarre and Martín Berasategui) in the city have three Michelin stars. So what's so special about this coastal resort in the north-eastern corner of Spain? And with such a concentration of world-class restaurants, why should anybody in catering pay much attention to the pintxos in its back-street bars?

It helps to know what a pintxo is as far as Basques are concerned. Originally, it referred to a savoury mouthful on a toothpick served with a drink. The classic version, called a gilda, combines pickled guindilla pepper, green olive and salted anchovy.

Alfonso Aguirre co-owns the website - it's a cross between Harden's and The Good Food Guide. He supplies potted reviews of about 175 bars, but his readers, around 40,000 a month, rate individual pintxos. "Many tourists," he says "get it wrong.

They take a plate, pick five pintxos off the bar and fill themselves up. We will go to a bar for a particular one and then go somewhere else for another."

This explains in part why the standard is so high and why there's such variety. No single place has a monopoly on "the best pintxo in the city". Whereas a British pub is territorial, pintxo bars are part of a graze-and-move-on culture. It's easy to start with, say, a classic Spanish omelette at Bar Nestor (you have to book a slice in advance and be on time to eat it hot from the pan) and then cross the road to Zeruko and choose from a cutting-edge menu with molecular cuisine overtones.

One of Zeruko's specialities is hoguera or 'bonfire' - a bite of salt cod placed on a mesh that rests on an earthenware cazuela filled with charring seaweed. The customer smokes the cod to their taste and it's accompanied with herb cream on a toasted shard of baguette.

Another special, anguilla ahumada al romero, comes under a smoke-filled cloche: a baton of smoked eel, scented with rosemary, resting on a courgette ribbon topped with béchamel and salmon roe.

Chef José Antonio Calvo is opening a branch of Zeruko in New York later this year; the advance guard of a string of pintxo specialists heading for international capitals.

From property to pintxos Four years ago Amaya Arzallus was an estate agent. The financial crisis prompted her to change careers and open a bar, Bernardina.

Over dinner with Juan Mari Arzak and Ferran AdriÁ (her husband is commercial director of Joselito Ibérico ham), she was told: "Whatever you do, don't close on Mondays, because that's when the other bars shut. All the chefs will want to eat your food then, because it's their day off." Her vinoteca is in the commercial part of town, Antiguo, and the menu plays up the Joselito connection, with ham croquetas, salchichon and piquillos roasted with slices of Ibérico pancetta.

By contrast, Bar Antonio in the city centre might seem scruffy. There's little room at the counter, a couple of tables outside for smokers, and a small bistro in the basement. Yet it offers some of the most highly regarded pintxos. Its igueldo scores 9.5 out of 10 in the Todopintxos ratings. It's essentially simple: slice of baguette, fresh tomato sauce, canned tuna, salted anchovy and two curly guindilla peppers with a balsamic and olive oil dressing. It's a winner because each is prepared to order and doesn't hang around on the counter.

The difference between tapas and pintxos is blurred. In San SebastiÁ¡n the two words are interchangeable. Mini-portions of the hot dishes scaled up would translate into raciones for sharing.

San SebastiÁ¡n locals eat standing up or on stools. They hit a bar, order a drink, get a bite and then go somewhere else. Food is just one part of the package. A Fuego Negro, a jazz bar in the old town, matches its funky dishes - 'Rabbit, Rabbit', for instance - with music and a hip décor.

Over the entrance to Marc Clua and IÁ±aki Gulin's Borda Berri a sign in Basque announces "Here we cook". Trained in the three-Michelin-starred kitchen of MartÁ­n Berasategui, they take simmering and stewing seriously. Portions of ox cheek in red wine, risotto with Idiazabal cheese or lamb sweetbread ravioli with lemon grass and leek all cost about €3.

The godfathers Arzak and Pedro Subijana at Akelare are the godfathers of the new Basque cuisine. They honed their skills with Paul Bocuse before developing their own styles around the regional produce: anchovy, tuna, salt cod, lamb, Basque pig and vegetables. Apart from pimentÁ³n de la Vera (a smoked paprika), spices play little part.

The city has about 200 gastronomic societies - clubs where men hang out and cook for each other. Eating well is central to the city's culture and word soon spreads if a new pintxo bar is cutting it - or not.

Kevin Patricio, co-owner of La Madame a new bar in an ex-brothel, found his Mexican-American chef sleeping on La Concha beach. A haunt of Andoni Luis Aduriz, it serves cocktails and offers fusion recipes. Its bowl of smoked sweetcorn with fresh lime juice, truffle oil and egg yolk seems almost exotic, until the owner, an old boy of Manhattan's iconic PDT bar, points out that Spain brought corn to Europe from Mexico.

For those who want to learn how to run a bar and what kind of food to cook, there's the Basque Culinary Centre on the outskirts of town. It runs dedicated pintxo-tapas courses alongside four-year university degrees. The intensive two-month experience includes a demo by Manchester-born Darren Williamson, whose Bitoque bar in Bilbao has won Best Spanish Pintxo Bar and Champion Basque Pintxo awards.

Senior lecturer Angel Palacios had his own much fÁªted restaurant in Madrid, La Broche, until recently. With another Centre lecturer Luis Arrafat (ex-El Bulli and Mugaritz) and restaurateur David Garrantxa, he opened Andra Mari. It offers sharing portions - raciones - as well as bite-size snacklets.

Located in the developing quarter of Gros, it doesn't lack competition. On the doorstep is Hidalgo 56 where ex-Michelin chef Juan Mari Humada offers fried hake in a sesame crust or a seared scallop with swiss chard. Around the corner is Bergara, one of the earliest bars to adopt the new Basque cuisine.

Spanish spectrum Around 175 bars are listed on the Todopintxos site. They cover every aspect of Spanish cuisine from classic to modern and in every kind of location. The San Telmo Museum café-bar (and the Aquarium's) is run by Bokado, a small group that partnered with Arzak. Its designer pintxos include finger bocadillos of tuna, chicken livers with maracuja or gambas with a creamy Russian salad. At the other extreme Ciaboga dishes up oily garlic potatoes in a ramshackle cubbyhole bar - they are delicious nonetheless. Antzara owes its reputation to a croquetas mixture packed into a large mussel shell and fried. Casa Urola dishes up tasters of lobster salpicon or raciones of fresh runner beans with bacalao, cream sauce and olives.

What they all have in common is taste. Bar food has to give a big flavour hit and the pintxos served at these bars do just that - they're not shy and reserved. That may explain why salty anchovies or bacon/ham figure so often. One of the very best pintxos is a crumbled Burgos black pudding and poached egg yolk (at Bar Iturrioz) because it invites customers to drink.

On the La Concha seafront, IÁ±igo PeÁ±a at Narru has ben described as "the most interesting young chef in what is probably (per capita) the largest concentration of innovative chefs on the globe" by the Wall Street Journal. Alongside his restaurant, the bar serves pintxos that belong to the traditional school of cookery but with extra polish. "I'm not," PeÁ±a says, "in the race to be the avant-garde chef with the latest ideas, but I put the produce above everything else and just add a personal touch."

However wacky or molecular, however staid or classic, pintxo bar owners across San SebastiÁ¡n would agree.

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