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Bar-hopping, Spanish-style

Basque pintxos are delicious gateway to culture and cuisine

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Our first pintxos in San Sebastian at Ganbara, before we knew the lay of the land.

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Our first pintxos in San Sebastian at Ganbara, before we knew the lay of the land.

Seafood reigns in San Sebastian. Whether the popular Gilda pintxo (Basque tapas, or bar snack) made with a salted anchovy, pickled guindilla peppers, a green olive and plenty of olive oil, tortilla de bacalao (cod omelette), or ttoro (fish soup), seafood is prevalent in restaurants and pintxo bars in the seaside city.

San Sebastian (officially called Donostia-San Sebastian) is located in northern Spain on the Basque Coast, which runs southwest from France along the Bay of Biscay. Renowned for the high concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants in the area, such as Akelarre, Arzak and Mugaritz, there is plenty at street level, particularly in pintxo bars, to occupy food-oriented visitors as well.

Poteo, or bar-hopping, is the way to enjoy pintxos. Do as the locals do, and have one or two pintxos with a small drink (zurrito -- a quarter pint of beer, txakoli -- sparkling white wine, or sidra -- cider), and then move on to the next bar. Pintxos have evolved from simple snacks held together with a toothpick (pintxo means 'spike') to more elaborate small dishes, such as the Hoguera served at Bar Zeruko.

Due to an unfortunate pintxo experience during my first visit to San Sebastian in the winter of 1999, 'pick your pintxos wisely' was my mantra on my return trip last fall. The value of local knowledge cannot be underestimated, especially when choosing a place to eat. Neither my travelling companion, Lara Popic, nor I knew that there was so much more to pintxos than what you see sitting on small plates, covering the bar. Dishes within arm's reach are really only the beginning: a whole host of dishes are made-to-order, and typically listed on a blackboard behind the bar.

Not to knock the ubiquitous tortillas de patatas (Spanish omelettes) or bocadillos de jamon (ham sandwiches), but it took a carefully curated tasting tour to teach Popic and I the delights of local ways. While we were eating cod fritters and egg with prawn at Ganbara, we could have also been enjoying made-to-order dishes such as sauteed mushrooms with egg and prawns, cod cheek with clams, and homemade mamia cheese.

San Sebastian Food offers cooking classes, experiences such as culinary tours, Spanish wine tastings, and escapes such as three- and five-day Basque cooking classes. Jon Warren, managing director and founder, was inspired to start the company while working at boutique hotel Villa Soro shortly after arriving from London.

"What I found was that all the clients were coming up to me asking where the best places were. 'Is this touristy or not? We want a local place,' and 'We didn't get what was going on, how do you order the hot things?' " Warren says. "I could see that this local knowledge, even though there are guide books and the Internet, just having someone on the ground was really added value."

Warren proceeded to establish a company that trades on experiences normally out of reach of people just passing through. The Pintxo Tasting Tour we joined was led by culinary guide Lourdes Erquicia, who is fluent in Spanish, Basque and English, and was born and raised in San Sebastian's Old Town. Her passion for her hometown and its food culture came through in the history and customs she shared with us, as well as the dishes and wines she selected.

Our group was small, 10 people including Erquicia and another staff member, and for those adverse to tour group experiences, have no fear: there were no brightly coloured umbrellas, vests or any other indicators. A group of people enjoying pintxos together is typical in Basque country, where groups of close friends called cuadrillas are integral to social life.

We visited six bars in 21/2 hours, and enjoyed a pintxo and beverage (Basque cider and Spanish wine pairings) at each one. San Sebastian Food doesn't have agreements with any of the establishments, and as such, pays the listed price for pintxos and is allowed greater freedom with bar choices. In fact, our final destination was changed en route so Erquicia could share her favourite "pintxo of the moment" with us risotto de Idiazabal (a pressed cheese made from unpasteurized sheep milk) at Borda Berri.

The bars ranged from the family-run Bar Goiz-Argi where we ate brochetas de gambas (shrimp skewers), which are known as a house specialty for a very good reason, and drank a glass of txakol' (pronounced cha-co-lee), to the packed La Cuchara de San Telmo, where we enjoyed crusted pork with apple puree, and a glass of Navarre rose. Of the crusted pork, my travelling companion Popic had this to say: "It's sometimes in my dreams."

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 25, 2013 D3

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