Chasing pinchos to San Sebastian . . .

San Sebastian's beach on the Bay of Biscay provides an exceptional location for sun and history worshipers in all seasons . . .


I can’t think of the number of times we checked the weather during the September/October season in Spain prior to finalizing plans for this trip. We knew it was hot here. And we knew the June/July heat would actually cook a chicken while it scratched around the barnyard. Sort of, maybe . . .

     We were reminded time and again, “Ya, but it’s not like the heat here in Canada. Spain’s heat is a dry heat!” 

     Two things: 1. No one who’s visited Spain said that. 2. When the thermometer tips past the 35ºC mark, it’s hot, dry or other. In Spain it’s consistently above 30º, and it’s so hot the stores close. The population leaves work. The restaurants close. The traffic stops. Even the avian residents disappear.

     Fortunately, Spaniards have come up with an option. A siesta begins daily at 14:00h  and lasts thru 16:00h. The stores, bars and restaurants re-open, the horns sound, people appear everywhere,  supper is served around 20:30h and the birds are chirping as they flit in and out, over and under the canopy scoring crumbs that have tumble from the tables.

     Leaving a restaurant just prior to midnight is not uncommon, most are still full of patrons swilling wines and sharing plates of food. And that is Spain’s real solution to the oppressive heat. Creating, serving, sharing and consuming small plates of food! The various plates are known as Tapas.

A beautiful dessert with all the closing elements . . .
A beautiful dessert with all the closing elements . . .

     We tasted most of the fresh fish tapas dishes in Spain’s south, where the catch of the day is speared one atop the other on stakes and cooked over open fires producing rich flavours of everything delicious from the sea. In Madrid we discovered a wide range of food, from localized tapas to American burgers, chicken and beef, pizza, curry and asian street food. And aside from the recognizable McDick’s, Harvey’s and KFC (none of which are abundant) all are very different compared to home.

     Madrid’s tapas scene varies but choosing the right places (our resident guide is a big-time foodie and as cute as cute could be) made all the difference. We entered Taberna de Laredo, an upscale tapas eatery where a plate opened the evening’s sampling with anchovies on strips of pressed seaweed, topped with grated tomato and garlic. Two wonderful bites each. The langoustine in a so light, almost fluffy tempura bater, barely passed over the fryer and dressed with a grating of lemon rind. Washed down with a second glass of house wine ‘tinto’.

     We followed with a dish of seared scallops topped with a sprinkling of finely chopped scallions.  These were smallish plates, just enough to provide a few bites each for the three of us, and we sailed on thru the night, swilling wine, loving Spain and everything about it.

    As we continued north through Spain we stopped in several more locations, always long enough to sample the local food. Finding the family eatery in Burgos was a winning choice, but it was San Sebastian we were intending to discover. 

     North American television’s Anthony Bourdain had claimed San Sebastian as the capital of the ‘pincho’ - over all others on the planet. These Basque created pinchos are a little piece of bread, baguette style, with a combination of food items such as meat or vegetables or fish piled on top to provide a small bite or two. 

     As we previously mentioned, Basque peoples take great pride in preparing, serving and sharing their food. One must keep in mind that the 45 million residents of Spain welcome more than 75 million tourists per year. Those are enviable numbers on any scale. And available food is one of the main reasons the numbers are where they are.

     Originally the name used in San Sebastian’s Basque country was pinchxos. As tourism became the leading industry in the area, and tourists bastardized the language, the word ‘pinchos’ is now common. 

     After settling in to a flat in the old city we were ushered toward the centre-town eateries where the Film Festival was in full swing and the crowds were thick. We were directed to the old Cathedral smack in the centre, and then to Granarias for the pinchos. This was the absolute perfect choice for me as it turned out. I loved them all!!!!      Patrons enter the eatery to find the bar covered with plates of pinches, and from these select choices they wish to try. Somehow the bartenders keep account of what each selects and the tab is paid on leaving for the evening.

     Our first round of selections included lightly smoked tuna on a slice of roasted red pepper, topped with tomato purée and pea shoots; roasted duck breast on a slice of mango with a wild berry jelly; a tiny tart filled with tomato stewed (lots of) crab; and a barely definable smoked cod slice on a tomato with baked onion slivers. Two bites each, less than 2€ each, and a large glass of cold beer served in very cold glasses at 1.90€ each was about how to describe San Sebastian heaven on this evening. And there sitting with two angels, the rounds of ponchos and refreshment continued for some time into the night.

     The pinchos come in so many flavours including anchovies and baby eels, crab, lobster, Iberian ham, various chickens, beef tartar topped with the tiniest fried egg we’ve ever seen, and so many more.

     Desserts are easily as creative and just as delicious. We shared a plate of chocolate mousse and then a custard encased in thin sliced bread, fried in butter and sugar until it caramelized, topped with coffee ice cream and chocolate mint sticks.

     We’ve included photos from around San Sebastian in the accompanying slide show, some architectural, some of the old cathedral, and some of people watching. Watch for the two photos of the little boys sitting in the doorway eating pinchos, and please enjoy . . .      


Note: Throughout Spain, the basic uses of 'pincho', 'pintxo', and 'tapa' are as follows:

In the Basque Country, you are served 'pintxos'. It is never written 'pinchos' and they are never called 'tapas'. This is the case regardless of whether it is served 'pinchado' to a piece of bread with a cocktail stick or not. Even if you're served a plate of risotto, it's still a pintxo. You will always pay for your pintxo. Find out about the best San Sebastian Pintxo Bars.

In Salamanca, particularly on Calle Van Dyck, you are served pinchos. They are almost always a piece of meat served on a piece of bread. Though not actually 'pinchado' with a stick, this is still close to the original idea of what a 'pincho' is. However, here they are free.

In Granada and Leon (and in some other nearby cities) as well as in some bars in Madrid, a small portion, whether served on bread or not, is a tapa. It is free.

In Seville and other parts of Andalusia, all small portions are called 'tapas'. They are not free.

In many cities in Spain, particularly Madrid, a large portion of, say, calamares, will be called a 'ración', with a half-size portion called a 'media ración' and a quarter-size portion a 'tapa'.

In most parts of Spain, when trying to informally say 'a bit of', for example, "Can I have a bit of tortilla please?" you will ask for a 'pincho' -- so 'un pincho de tortilla'.