Pintxos - the creative spirit of Basque cuisine

The first time I visited Bilbao was in the late 1990s. My friend was a student there. It would never have crossed my mind to visit otherwise: ETA was still active; the town itself was sadly post-industrial (like so many Atlantic ports), and the only flights from the UK went via Brussels on an airline that was heading for bankruptcy. The Guggenheim Museum had recently opened in the old port district, to much disbelief and bemusement - why would any forward-thinking arts organisation open a prestigious gallery in such a town? Who would risk the disruption of separatist action to visit such a gallery? 

Image: P Hodkinson

Well, I was visiting and, as it turned out, so have many millions of people since. The Basque government had actually been very far-sighted when they approached the Guggenheim Foundation with an offer of significant financial investment in a gallery of contemporary art. What I found in Bilbao was a proud town that was not going to be defined, either by its declining maritime trade or by outsiders' fears of terrorism. It had a lively bar scene, beautiful buildings and signs of a growing tourist industry that centred on the gallery. Over the next couple of decades, reduced ETA activity gave more tourists the confidence to visit, all curious to see what the fuss about this mind-bending building was all about. The ETA ceasefire of 2011, and its subsequent renunciation of armed struggle and eventual disbandment, may be explained in part by the greater prosperity the tourists brought. The end of that struggle also brought a significant "peace dividend" to the Basque economy, much of which the regional government has been wise to invest in the world's first university faculty of gastronomic sciences.

To go back to my first visit, then, and that lively bar culture. Like much of the Iberian Peninsula, Bilbao is a rather sleepy place during the day, coming to life at sundown. The day is too warm to socialise much, so lunch breaks are long enough to fit in a siesta, the working day goes on quite late and people nibble the way from bar to bar when they go out at night. Social evenings could last from 9:30 or 10:00pm to 3:00 and 4:00 in the morning. I was struck by the huge refrigerated counter-tops in the bars and cafés, laden with hundreds of tasty morsels on cocktail sticks. My student-friend and host explained they were pintxos (pronounced "pinch-oss"), a particular feature of Basque life. I was told to eat whichever and as many as I liked, retaining the cocktail sticks. When the time came to settle the bill, the waiter would simply count the sticks to calculate what we owed.

Image: P Hodkinson

Since that time, I have seen pinxtos in other Spanish cities, but always in bars that proclaim their Basque heritage. The university courses and the presence of several world-renowned restaurants have made the Basque country the place to go for great food. Pintxos have become synonymous with that food culture. What makes them so interesting is the way the cook handles the limitations of size. They are eaten in a single mouthful, two at the most, so have to carry a real whack of flavour, and, since you're going to munch your way through a dozen or more over an evening, there has to be sufficient variety to maintain your interest, lest you wander to another bar out of boredom. In a coastal town like Bilbao (which still has the most amazing fish market I've ever seen), seafoods predominate. Creative ways with salt-cod, slices of impossible-to-translate fresh fish and every shape of crustacean can all be seen in even the smallest corner bar. Cured meats, seared steak and griddled kidneys have featured on some of my favourites, as have the various fruits and vegetables grown on the regions hillsides. Although the original pintxos were simply skewered pickles, these days they might be pinned onto bread slices, mini potatoes or morcilla (black pudding/blood sausage). In a Basque bistro in Catalunya, I was served morcilla with a slice of seared foie gras, topped with a fried quail egg.

One pintxo is ubiquitous. I've never been in a bar or café that didn't offer vast quantities of pintxos Gilda, a flavour explosion of salted anchovy, pickled guindilla chilli-pepper and manzanilla olive. Every bar has its own way to skewer them: some wrap the chili in the anchovy, some stuff the olive with the chilli; the more artistic weave multiple layers of chilli and anchovy between the olives to create intricate patterns on the display. The name Gilda was given to them in honour of Rita Heyworth, whose 1946 film of that name also caused a sensation for its spiciness! 

A few weeks ago, we invited some friends around. Not being in the mood for exhausting catering, we simply asked each guest to bring a plate of pintxos. We explained the idea and left the rest to people's creativity. What a spread we had! Although we had around 16 guests, no pintxo was repeated. The overall look of the table was colourful and appealing, and the pintxos featured an array vegetables, fish, meats and even fruits. Those guests who had been unfamiliar with pintxos were thrilled to see how their own platter complemented the others, and I suspect the idea will be borrowed by several of them next summer. There is no more sincere form of flattery. 

The bar in San Sebastian that created and named Pintxos Gilda also claims they were the first pintxo ever. Considering how far their invention has reached in the last 75 years, how many palates tickled, how many diners delighted, that's something worth toasting. Gilda continues to cause a sensation wherever she goes.

Image: P Hodkinson

Image: P Hodkinson


Next Time: a trip to Provence


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