There’s no better way to explore a city, particularly a gastronomic mecca like San Sebastián, than to eat your way through it. In this case, one Pintxo (tapas) at a time. Despite the plethora of Michelin-rated restaurants, our most rewarding glimpse of the city and its energetic vibe, was a night spent wandering around the Old Town sampling the local food and wine.
Of course, deciding amongst the multitude of bars and knowing what to order meant finding an experienced local. Enter Eli Susperregi, Culinary Guide Manager with Mimo, a critically acclaimed cooking school that specializes in cultural immersion through food. We knew as soon as we met her that we were in excellent hands and happily let her lead the way.
The Old Town of San Sebastián is the heart of the city with respect to both its history and the place where locals and tourists alike converge when it’s time for a beverage and a bite. Its cobblestone streets are peppered with doorways and typically a staircase leading down to a basement bar that is standing room only. Remnants of the city’s military past are present through cannons and pieces of the wall that used to surround it. It is also home to two of the oldest churches in the city: San Vincente and St. Mary’s Basilica which date back to the 16th and 18th century respectively.
As we wandered around the maze of pedestrian-only lanes, we ended up in Constitution Plaza, which until 1940 was home to the City Hall. Eli drew our attention upwards and asked us to tell her if we noticed anything unusual. All of the balconies surrounding the square had numbers. Those numbers have been kept over time as an homage to when the square used to be the town’s Bullring. Today it is the main gathering place for locals to celebrate all of their major holidays, the most famous being San Sebastián Day. On January 19th at the stroke of midnight, the city flag is raised and the Tamborrado (drumming festival) begins. It lasts a full 24 hours and the excitement with which Eli explains the event, tells us it would be worth returning to witness in person.
We kicked off our Pintxos tour at Goiz Argi to taste the local wine known as Txakoli. Slightly fizzy, it’s a dry white wine with high acidity and low alcohol content that is the perfect pairing to the area’s local fare. They are extremely proud of this wine that is produced in nearby Getaria but it’s the showmanship of the pour that will turn anyone into a fan. The bartender lined up a row of cider glasses on the bar and poured from a seemingly implausible height. According to Eli this is done to keep the bubbles intact. Our Txakoli was paired perfectly with Prawn Skewers and Mari Juli, a dish of smoked salmon, roasted green peppers and anchioves.
The next stop was Ganbara which featured an order of the first Pintxo ever created in San Sebastián, known as Gilda. It is made up of anchovies, guindilla and olives. We also tried the fried anchovies with garlic, and finished with an order of Txangurro, the local crab. All three of these pintxos were paired with the Chivite Las Fincas, a Rosé of Tempranillo and Garnacha grapes which was not only delicious but is widely available in Canada.
As we hit the midway point of our tour, the evening got busier, and we noticed paper napkins littering the floors of the most popular bars. We learned quickly that it’s not a sign of poor manners or inattentive wait staff, but rather it’s considered great compliment (and a way to spot the most frequented spots). You’re encouraged to throw your napkin on the floor upon finishing if you enjoyed what you ate. Admittedly, it took a while to shake our Canadian upbringing to proactively litter, but when in San Sebastián…! Of course, as good Canadians, we followed the local custom with a sincere apology.
We ventured into Sirimiri situated by St. Mary’s Basilica and quickly noticed its floor covered in napkins. We were now moving from seafood to meat which also meant delving into Spain’s red wines. When it comes to perfect pairings, a glass of Rioja (the 2015 Vinestral from Bodegas Marques de Reinosa) alongside Lamb and Wild Mushroom Risotto would certainly be in the running.
At Txuleta, our next taste of Spanish red was the 2015 12 Tablas from the Ribera del Duero region. Of course, no pintxos tour anywhere in Spain would be complete without some Ibérico ham! That was followed by T-Bone croquetas and piquillo peppers.
Despite feeling like we couldn’t possibly eat any more, Eli made a bold promise that the last stop would mean sampling the best cheesecake in the city, which she also claimed was likely the best in the world. We simply couldn’t turn that down and ended up at La Viña to taste it for ourselves. With a glass of Pedro Ximénez Nectar sherry, the dessert combination was simply spectacular and easily met our very high expectations.
At the end of our tour we found ourselves sitting under the steps of Santa Maria Church watching the nightlife at the height of the evening. The energy was electric and even our group of 8 partaking in long, loud toasts didn’t seem to raise an eyebrow. Spain is a country where the pleasures of the table are celebrated, and joy and fun is encouraged.
San Sebastián’s Old Town stole our hearts…and our stomachs. 5 bars, 5 wines, 13 Pintxos, and countless laughs later, it proved to be one priceless AdVINEture.