Most decisions made in the wee morning hours after a few glasses of wine aren’t usually very good ones. Whether it’s attempting to lure and capture a probably rabid wild possum; striking up a conversation with an off-his-rocker homeless man because he kind of looks like Uncle Jesse from Full House sans the glorious mullet, token vest, and home; or to call anyone ever for any reason whatsoever, I’ve had my fair share of unique Chardonnay-inspired adventures. Deciding to buy tickets for a next day 9AM bus ride to San Sebastian at 4AM while mooching Internet from center city Madrid and eating 23-and-a-half-hours-old pizza from the 24 hour pizza place is absolutely one of my better ones.
I’ll admit I had no original intent on traveling to Basque country, but after having been told unanimously by many unrelated parties that I absolutely, undoubtedly, indisputably needed to go, it felt impudent to not acquiesce. Just the night prior I’d accepted an invitation for a homemade, traditional Spanish dinner from the girl who owns the apartment I’m renting. In between bites of gaspacho and various tapas we got to talking about obligatory day trips before I leave Spain next week. When I brought up the possibility of heading up north, she locked eyes with me and said in a tone that was upsettingly serious, “you must go to San Sebastian.”
I told her I’d think about it, but didn’t tell her when or if I was going because I was more than certain she’d let herself into my apartment to try on my clothes, or whatever landladies do when their renters vacate the property for any stretch of time. I’m aware this gives clear insight to my baseless trust issues, but I’ve seen too many minutes of nanny cam footage to ever trust anyone again. I’m still not unconvinced there’s a hidden camera in the shower, which is why I shower with the lights off. But she probably thought about that possibility and installed one with night vision, which is why I now also shower fully clothed.
But the point I’m working toward is after so many undivided positive recommendations, I went to San Sebastian and now understand the fanatical praise it’s received. San Sebastian, set on the idyllic, pristine Bay of Biscay at the northernmost part of Spain in Basque country, has the highest concentration of Michelin starred restaurants of any city in Spain and is regarded the hallmark of cuisine in the country. Oh, and the pintxos. Did I not mention the pintxos?
Pintxos (pronounced peen-chose) are finger foods such as meats, cheeses, vegetables, seafood or any combination thereof served atop sliced bread to accompany a glass of wine or beer. Most bars are bursting at the seams with patrons offering only standing room and a small amount of personal space. Becoming friendly with your pintxos eating, cava drinking stranger-neighbors is an inevitability. Patrons travel from bar to bar eating from a veritable buffet of perfectly portioned bite-sized foods and shamelessly drinking on any given afternoon or night. These are clearly my people.
If pintxos sounds suspiciously like tapas, it’s because pintxos are suspiciously like tapas. It’s said that pintxos came to be called as such since “pintxo” means “spike,” representing the toothpick that fastens together the food and the bread on which they sit. Some people will claim that tapas and pintxos are dissimilar, but the terms have to a greater extent become interchangeable. During my time here in Spain I’ve been in bars serving “tapas” over baguette slices with toothpicks skewered through them, and conversely have been served “pintxos” sans bread and toothpick. Whatever term the dealer chooses to prescribe his or her drug is of little consequence, because when my mouth is full and my stomach is happy I’ve learned to not ruminate on semantics.
San Sebastian is very well known for their highly embellished pintxos, mixing unassuming finger foods and haute cuisine with impressive finesse. Of all the bars I’d teetered out of, Zeruko, a long and narrow bar that dabbles in molecular gastronomy, was my favorite. Amongst the pintxos constructed in an archetypal mix of chorizo, tortilla de patatas, blood sausage, anchovies and others of such ilk, Zeruko stood out by serving unique pintxos comprised of compound creams dotted with roe, layers of beef hash and quail egg, cinnamon raisin crostini with sweet almond crème fraiche and adorned with edible flowers, and a myriad of various other colorful additions. The list continues on and is only as finite as the chefs’ creativity.
My favorite of the night was a delicately prepared sea urchin served in situ, swimming in a thick and heady cream sauce that I’m 97.2% sure was a béchamel substructure. I couldn’t be sure as my attempts to find out were thwarted given my lacking knowledge in the Basque language and the staffs’ in English, so it remains for now a delicious mystery.
When I got back to my hotel that night, contented, full, and buzzing from the frenetic atmosphere of each bar (and possibly the few glasses of wine), I unfastened and swung open the double door balcony attached to my room. Below, at 2AM on a Thursday, the streets were still abound with inebriates darting in and out of bars, laughing and conversing jovially. I settled into my hotel bed and soon after drifted off into a deep, secure sleep. Except I didn’t, because a large fissure sprawled across the ceiling sent me reeling me into panic-stricken anxiety thinking about how many tiny hidden cameras were stashed up there, waiting to film me sleeping.
Nanny cams, you’ve ruined me.