As much as we are looking forward to coming back to Val d'Isère to work the winter season with YSE Ski, we can't deny the joy of having a little time off after a busy summer. Being very passionate about food, you can imagine that we are happy for any excuse we can get to explore regional foods wherever we are. This week we have certainly hit a highlight with a few days in San Sebastian.
When you first start reading about San Sebastian, you realize very quickly that this place is all about food! In fact, when you google "Top things to do in San Sebastian", number one is La Concha Beach, a beautiful sandy beach right in the town centre. Second on the list is "Food Tours" and number three is "Parte Vieja", the old town - and these two are inseparably intertwined. The density of restaurants/bars in the old town of San Sebastian is just overwhelming! You won't only find a pintxo bar at every corner, but three more in between each corner as well! Our personal little Paradise City!
To get a better feeling for the place and a bit of a insight into how this whole pintxo/tapas thing works, we decided to get some help from a local tour guide. Keith is an expat American and runs www.sansebastianwalkingtours.com which can be a combo of both historic sightseeing and food tour. We decided to give our full attention to the Pintxos and Tapas tour - and the introduction was exactly what we needed to get a bit closer to the full Donostia food experience.
To start with, Keith gave us a bit of an overview about the history of San Sebastian or Donostia as it is called in its original Basque language. It's quite interesting to understand how far Spain and the Basque Country are separate from each other, and it makes you feel a bit like an idiot having tried your best Spanish the night before, when most people's Spanish here is just as much a foreign language to them as English is.
Then we learned about the history of food in the pintxo bars and it is really quite a revelation to hear about how they evolved over time and what the things are that every tourist will do wrong to start with if they're let loose without any instruction - and we weren't an exception!
The night before we had been to a pintxo bar, obviously looking a bit lost. Therefore we were easily identified as non-locals, given a big white plate each and were assigned a table to eat at. So wandering up and down the bar, we grabbed every single pintxo that looked appealing and pretty much had a pintxo dinner consisting of more than 10 items. Slightly embarrassing thinking back to it now that we've had Keith's Pintxo 101!
If you are familiar with tapas from Southern Spain, the whole pintxo culture might need a little time to get used to - especially when you're a polite British person who is used to courteously ordering from the menu.
To cut it short, basically this is what you do: you go to the bar, you order a drink and then you grab any pintxo you want. All of the cold pintxo section will be lined up on the bar, plates and platters fully stacked with the most delicious and colourful food you can imagine. If you wanted something from the warm section, you order it from the bartender and when it's ready they will yell out to you. Traditionally you won't have more than one or two pintxos in one bar before you move on to the next one (or back to work if you're not a lucky tourist).
Keith took us to five different pintxo bars, ordered interesting pintxos everywhere to make us try different flavour combinations we might not have opted for without his helping hand, ordered local drinks and kept telling us all about the food culture. In the end we felt well-equipped to go ahead with our personal pintxo bar adventure.
What we bring back from San Sebastian is a few kilos more on the scales, a rediscovered passion for Spanish/Basque food and a good handful of new ideas for next year's cookbook! We're not sure if we're going to introduce the custom of throwing rubbish on the floor when you're done with your food, but if you're in San Sebastian it's one of the best signs that you're in good hands!