If you love food and whenever you’re traveling you love that moment when you try, taste and get to know new flavours, then IT GOES WITHOUT SAYING that Basque Country has to be on your list! This is where you eat all the time, where eating together is a crucial element of everyday life, and where even food is an evidence of otherness of this region of Spain…
Basque Country is green hills, unique climate, towns with a soul, such as Bilbao or San Sebastián, and a lot of other charming towns that I wrote about HERE – check it out! Basque Country is also Basque nationalism, very strong sense of identity, language unlike any other (euskera), intriguing history – but this is a topic for another story, as long as my two master’s dissertations that I wrote about Basque nationalism 🙂
And today is time for FOOD! If you’re planning on going to Basque Country, you have to remember one magical word: PINTXOS! What are pintxos? Usually they can be called Basque tapas! You don’t go out to get tapas here, you can only “ir de pintxos“. The most beautiful thing about going out to get pintxos is that you don’t usually go to one restaurant, you don’t sit at the table, you don’t spend a few hours there. Going out to get pintxos means hanging out in pintxos bars in the old towns of Bilbao or San Sebastián. In every bar, you see dozens of various sandwiches and small scnacks – with anything you want! With local cold cuts, seafood and fish, definitely with tortillas, manchego or goat cheese, vegetables, mushrooms, various pistachios… You enter such bar and see various pintxos. You want them all! It’s not easy to show that in pictures, because the best pintxos bars are usually crowds of people milling around the bar and choosing the best bites… You have to see it yourself! 🙂
How to eat Basque pintxos? 🙂 How to behave in such bars? It’s not like you sit at the table and order from a menu! The first thing you have to do is walk along the counter with plates full of pintxos. You look close into them you decide what you feel like eating and if you want to stay. I guess I don’t have to tell you that you should choose places where you see crowds of locals. This is where you can find the best and the freshest pintxos. In bigger towns, such as Bilbao or San Sebastián, it’s not difficult to find such bars because Basque people love their lifestyle! Once you’ve found your bar, you need to ask a bartender for a plate and you put everything you want to eat on it. You can also order something from the menu, such as fried squids! You eat while standing by the counter or by the table – if you can find one! I need to warn you – in the evenings it may be difficult and sometimes even breakfast must be eaten standing up 🙂 If you don’t have a table, you throw your napkins and toothpicks on the ground – sounds strange? Look around – everybody does it! 🙂 Once you’re done eating, you pay for what was on your plate, bartender usually asks how many pintxos you’ve eaten and you go to another bar! 🙂 I’m curious – how many pinxtos bars can you visit in one evening?!!! 🙂
What else should you eat in Basque Country? Everything that has anything to do with seafood and fish. The Bay of Biscay is rich with various sea beauts – both classic (I could finally eat calamares fritos!) and unusual ones for us, like expensive and exclusive percebes or porcupines baked with béchamel or served in other ways.
If you want to taste Basque Country, you have to keep your ears and eyes wide open to any local fiestas, feasts and trade fairs. The biggest and the most famous ones that attract crowds of locals and tourists are Semana Grande, which takes place in August in Vittoria, San Sebastián and Bilbao, and others. This year San Sebastián is having fun between August 13th and 20th, and Bilbao – between August 20th and 28th. Maybe you can still go on a spontaneous trip? 🙂 In winter, you should check out Dia de Santo Thomas. It takes place on December 21st and is one of the most popular Basque holidays riotously celebrated in San Sebastián, Bilbao and smaller towns like Mondragon or Azpeitia. Less than a month later the whole San Sebastián is having fun – during so-called Tamborrada on January 20th. This is how they celebrate their patron’s day! It’s fabulous – I know because I’ve participated in all of these holidays at least once! 🙂 It gets crowded, loud, joyful, there’s a lot of local txakoli wine and acrid sidra, which is almost a national Basque drink. There’s also typically local food, such as talo con txistorra. We got to eat it this year in some booth near Bilbao where they were preparing themselves for some kind of local fiesta. Talo con txistorra is a counterpart of our grilled sausage, also eaten en masse at every feast or fair. Here we have a spicy sausage that tastes a bit like chorizo (txistorra) served in a corn cake that looks a little bit like Mexican tortilla. Ages ago, talo substituted for Basque people’s bread. Now it’s eaten only at various feasts and fairs. You need to try it! 🙂 And drink sidra!
Food from stalls is always memorable and it’s usually the simplest flavours that you remember most about your travels. This is what happened to us this year. While exploring one of the towns, climatic, very Basque-esque Ondarroa, we saw a stage, tables and something for kids on one of the squares. That place looked as if some feast had just ended there or was just about to start. There was also a car with an unobtrusive table and a sign that said Pulperia. Pulpo in Spanish is octopus and we love octopuses! In this small stall’s menu there was nothing more than a sliced octopus divided into portions – for 8, 16 or 32 euros. We chose the one for 8! One of the men working in Pulperia took a piece of octopus out of a plastic barrel and started cutting it with scissors into thin slices that landed on our wooden tray. The other guy poured olive over it, added some salt and smoked pepper and that was it!!! I have no doubts it was the best octopus we’ve ever eaten – soft, delicious, perfect!!!
I wouldn’t be myself if I didn’t tell you about some sweets. However, there are not many unique sweets in Basque Country. But you should still try pastel vasco. Simple cake that comes from French Basque Country (Labourd to be exact) and can often be eaten on fairs, but also in paistry shops in places like San Sebastián. Pastel Vasco is a little bit like a tart. It has crunchy almond dough and blancmange cream. Sometimes it has a fruit stuffing as well. Very simple, very delicious! 🙂
You can ask: alright, but where in San Sebastián should we eat these pintxos? To be honest, we were planning on writing a post titled “5-10 pinxtos bars that you should visit”. Then we figured that pinxtos are delicious wherever there are many locals, where it’s loud, crowded and joyful. They are similar in a lot of places, although you can obviously find pintxos typical for one particular bar.
Out of all the places we visited, you should go to Beti Jai Berria, Bar Sport, Araba Etxea, Casa Tiburcio, Oiartzun Gozotegia, Atari Gastroteka or Casa Vergara. You will find a lot of bars on Fermin Calbeton Street in San Sebastián, where they throw a lot of parties and that is always full of life. Once you get to San Sebastián, I’m sure you’ll want to come back! 🙂