Monday, December 17, 2007

Pintxo Outing in Donostia

The author calls them "tapas", we will not frown upon that, here you have an article about the pintxo bars in Donostia:

San Sebastian Tapas Scene Offers Packed Bars, Snacker's Heaven

Review by John Mariani

Dec. 17 (Bloomberg) -- The way to tell a good tapas bar from a poor one among the more than 500 in San Sebastian, Spain, is to measure the square footage you can occupy on the floor: Anything more than one square foot means it's not very popular.

Jostling for a position near the bar itself is part ritual and part endurance test. On most nights in the old quarter of this gorgeous Basque city on the Bay of Biscay, the bars are packed with locals who come to snack on the tapas -- here called pinchos -- and to drink red and rose wines, cider, Mahou beer or the unique sparkling wine of the region called txakoli.

"The prowl from bar to bar, or tascas, is called el chiquiteo, referring to the squat, wide-mouthed glasses drinks are served in,'' says Gerry Dawes, author of "An Insider's Guide to Spanish Food, Wine, Culture and Travel,'' who has led many a chiquiteo in San Sebastian.

The array of tapas at some bars may number three dozen or more, though most places serve perhaps a dozen, some hot, some cold. They're quite similar from bar to bar. You will invariably find paper-thin slices of sweet-salty Spanish ham on crusty bread (good bread is a distinguishing factor in tapas bars), scrambled eggs and mushrooms, sardines and anchovies, stuffed pimientos, fried croquetas and a potato omelet called tortilla de patata. Those made in the morning and not consumed by afternoon are discarded and new ones are made for the evening.

House Specialties

The best tascas serve a wider variety and several house specialties. One of the best is old town's Gandarias Jatetxea, which serves tripe, chorizo sausage, several croquetas (some with a creamy bechamel inside) and has exclusive rights in San Sebastian to carry Spain's finest and most expensive jamon, from the producer Joselito. This sliced ham is worth every penny at 17.40 euros ($25) for a generous plate.

My favorite tasca is nearby La Cuchara de San Telmo. It's also the one with the least wiggle room, so you will find yourself cheek to jowl with locals who point to the cold tapas on the bar or special-order the hot ones. On a recent evening those included shredded oxtail, foie gras and a risotto with blue Cabrales cheese whipped in.

The tradition among barmen is to pour the wines by holding the bottle a good foot away from the chiquiteo glasses, and rarely do they ever waste a drop. You get a short pour -- maybe an inch or two -- since most people eat one or two tapas, slug down their drink and move on. My own preference, therefore, is to drink the cold, fizzy txakoli, whose alcohol content is only about 9 percent to 11 percent. That way I don't wobble (much) down the street after visiting my third tasca.

Txakoli Regions

Several grape varieties go into txakoli, though principally hondarrabi zuri and hondarrabi beltza. It's made under three appellations: Getariako, west of San Sebastian; Bizkaiko, in Vizcaya province; and Arabako, in the Ayala Valley.

The closest thing to txakoli is the better-known vinho verde of Portugal, though carbon dioxide is usually added to that to give it fizz. Txakoli has a lemony fragrance and an acidity and minerality that makes it a good match with the flavors of tapas, from briny sardines to silky ham.

It's not a sophisticated wine, more fun to drink than to savor or describe. In the U.S., it usually sells for about $13- $16 a bottle, but I've seen examples at a ridiculous $23.

Eight Rules of Pinchos

Here are a few more things I learned about bar hopping in San Sebastian:

1. There are at least a dozen tapas bars (and restaurants) along Calle 31 de Agosto, including those named above and other well-known examples like La Cepa, Martinez and La Cueva. (Gandarias Jatetxea is at No. 23, La Cuchara de San Telmo at No. 28.) Many others dot the streets of old town, and every hotel will provide a map of them.

2. Cold items line the bar, while hot dishes are listed on blackboards.

3. The barman totals up the bill merely by looking at the empty plates you return. It's an honor system.

4. There is no tipping required in a tasca.

5. Smoking is still allowed in Spain's restaurants, but many newer tascas now post "No Smoking'' signs.

6. The locals tend to eat late, though not nearly as late as they do in Madrid. Start bar hopping after 8 p.m. and the tascas will be swarming by 9. During the week, they start to close up around midnight, later on weekends.

7. Tascas tend to stay open throughout the day, so you can eat pretty much whenever you get hungry.

8. Prices for most cold tapas will run about 1.60 to 1.80 euros, hot dishes 2.40 and up. Wines by the glass, including txakoli, cost about 1.10 to 1.40 euros.

(John Mariani writes on wine and food for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on this story: John Mariani at

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