Pintxos: The art of condensing a dish’s flavor into a one or two bite creation; and never confusing this with tapas!
Welcome to the concept known as pintxos, which has no equivalent in the United States, making them all the more special. Before describing exactly what I ate in San Sebastian, here is the background of my story.
Before I departed for the Basque Country, several people asked me if I would be trying or reviewing tapas there. My basic response was that in towns such as San Sebastian, they serve something called pintxos. However, I must admit: at that time, I couldn’t exactly explain the differences between pintxos and tapas.
While you might find some crossovers, such as tortilla (potato omelet) and croquettes, I discovered that pintxos and tapas are not alike at all. Not to generalize, but many Basque people tend to have a great sense of pride about pintxos, as they very well should, and some might take offense to comparisons with tapas.
What I have learned:
Pintxos can aptly be described as versatile. They may be hot or cold, (I tend to prefer hot) consumed standing up in some bars or sitting down in others, and you can eat them before a meal, as a meal, or even as snacks (such as the time when I watched a football (soccer) game while devouring excellent pintxos at a bar.) Many of the cold varieties consist of a small slice of bread on which a ration of food is placed. Pintxos are often held together with a stick, although this is not mandatory.
Essentially, chefs attempt to serve a miniature version of a meal by creating pintxos. While some restaurants in New York City might offer a whole plate of croquettes, a Basque chef needs to serve only one to express the desired flavor. As a consequence, pintxos are both affordable and a great way to sample a wider selection of foods in one meal.
Pintxos I tried in San Sebastian:
The following is a list of pintxos I consumed, in no particular order, and a brief description of each:
- Croquettes: (also called croquetas or even croquetinas) whether you prefer cheese, ham, cod, mushrooms, or beef, I tasted and liked them all. I noticed that these croquettes tended to be larger than the ones served in America, but as a hungry tourist, this worked for me. I must applaud the great chefs of San Sebastian for being able to articulate so much flavor in only one item. It should be noted that the great local ingredients of the Basque country are often used, such as idiazabal cheese, a few terrific types of ham, and fresh cod. For all of these reasons, I highly recommend trying all of the sensational varieties!
- Txistorra in Talo: An excellent Basque sausage rolled up in a corn tortilla-style wrap. This is a traditional selection and I really enjoyed the smoky and slightly sweet sausage with a bit of crispness from the wrap. (For your information: I’m Jewish but not kosher, if you hadn’t noticed by now.)
- Ojaldre relleno de txistorra: The same outstanding Basque sausage in a flaky and crisp puff pastry. My Americanized taste buds considered this pintxo as an extremely gourmet version of a pig in a blanket, but I hope that doesn’t sound offensive to people from the Basque country.
- Gambas gabardina: A large plump shrimp coated with a dough made with beer and then fried; this was one of my favorites and I found it to be very different from the “beer battered” shrimp in the United States. I particularly enjoyed the unique flavor of the beer and of course the succulent shrimp, which are extremely fresh in this region known for its fish and seafood.
- Ojaldre relleno de champiñones: A pintxo of puff pastry filled with mushrooms: if you are a fan of mushrooms like myself, you simply can’t go wrong here.
After processing my adventures in the Basque country, which was an education in and of itself, all I can say is that I encourage everyone to go there if you really want to discover the magic of Pintxos. (and for several other reasons too) It is my hope that I have been able to accurately describe the pintxos experience to you, thanks for accompanying me on this journey!