A pintxo, pronounced “pincho,” is a small snack traditionally served in the bars, or bodegas, of northern Spain – a little mouthful eaten with your hands. It’s sometimes, but not exclusively, served on bread and often has a toothpick in the centre to hold it all together.
Pintxos are smaller than tapas, which in Spain tend to be larger plates of food. The comparison is like a canapé to an entree.
The pintxos served in Australia often bear no relation to what you would find in San Sebastián, the capital of the Basque region. We’re hoping to change that, in Melbourne at least, so we drove from Bilbao to San Sebastián looking for ideas while searching for more vermouth – or vermut as the locals call it – to bring back to Australia.
Anyone who has watched or listened to chef (and intrepid television presenter) Anthony Bourdain talk about Spain will know San Sebastián’s significance as a food destination. “Outside of Asia, Spain is the single greatest place for culinary achievement in the world,” he says.
No surprises then that the Basque region is home to some of the world’s most innovative restaurant kitchens, including Arzak and Mugaritz. Located just outside of San Sebastián these restaurants are considered to be among the top 10 in the world and both hold three Michelin stars, the highest accolade available for European restaurants.
But it’s not all fine dining and modernist cuisine – the city is home to countless traditional bodegas famous for their pintxos. San Sebastián’s inhabitants are full of life (and most likely a lot of vermuth) so in the name of research we chow our way from bodega to bodega. The pattern was something like this:
Pintxos. Vermouth. Pintxos. Vermouth. Bed. Pintxos. Vermouth. Antacids. Bed. Repeat.
In Spain’s bodegas pre-prepared pintxos are served to help soak up the booze, and that’s good news for us. Sometimes they were free, and other times we paid. Sometimes we weren’t sure of the etiquette at all.
Usually these bodegas have no chef so the preparation of these simple snacks is left to the bar staff. However some bodegas have elevated their pintxos to Michelin star levels.
It is a perfect expression of just how important food is to the people of Span; that even in their bars you can enjoy high quality snacks, rather than food being an afterthought.
San Sebastián is a city made of many small bites that together make a full meal. The perfect way to explore this city? One bite at a time.