Telling any vaguely food-interested person I was taking a trip to the Basque Country in the north of Spain felt similar to how I imagine Sergeant Nicholas Angel feels when confronted with the ring of dark-hooded villagers in Hot Fuzz. Like ‘the greater good’, each person I spoke to seemed programmed to deliver one chanted, gleaming-eyed response: pintxos. I couldn’t hear it enough: these small snacks – a sort of tapas speared on cocktail sticks, to be eaten gradually over the course of a bar hop – were the holy grail of food in northern Spain and I would be injudicious to miss them.
Bilbao has about enough pintxos bars to match the number of abstract artworks mounted on the bendy walls of its Guggenheim museum. Despite this, it seems difficult to eat badly, and I did well for a few days with sticky globs of morcilla rolled in crushed peanuts and tart, slippery boquerones pinned onto white bread like the prize catch on the bait shop wall. In San Sebastián, my expectations stayed high. I had a lot of starred locations on my Google Maps, and I was ready to be amazed.
The irony was that after all the chanting and anticipation, I never made it through my carefully planned pintxos bar hop. The night started and ended at my first stop, Cuchara de San Telmo. This was not through laziness, inebriation or determination to prove everyone wrong about pintxos, but rather the pure joy I got from eating their food. I quite literally ordered one plate, ate, paid, walked two steps out the door and went back in to get the rest of my dinner.
It’s a tiny restaurant, a short corridor along a bar with the kitchen crammed in the end and no tables or chairs. It’s packed, so much so that other customers’ elbows flank yours, leaving you no option but to eat with the exaggerated table manners of a nervous commoner dining with the queen. Somehow, though, no one seems annoyed: there is no front-row-at-the-gig shoulder warfare or arguments about who was ahead in the queue, and when someone shoves past me and the couple beside me to get to the bar the three of us just share a laugh about how hungry they must be. At risk of sounding like a romanticising Brit Abroad, there is some kind of communal spirit: later, when elbow to elbow has developed into more of a face to armpit situation, the waiters stop coming round with the dishes and just get us to pass them over people’s heads. No one seems to mind.
The plates come in tapa, media ración or ración size, and while I’m still planning to make it a night of bar-hopping, I order the smaller size of ‘pressed, roasted, sweet and crunchy’ pig’s ear. I also ask for a glass of txakoli, a white wine made in the region, which is poured theatrically from arm’s length and smacks the tongue with serious acidity. For the first ten minutes it looks pretty unappealing, leaving frothy tide marks on the glass, but once it’s settled there are lovely lemony pear flavours. Still, I imagine it’s better in the summer, sipped on a hot, languid day beside one of the city’s neat Victorian gardens. After a day of battering rain and Blighty levels of wind, a warming glass of red would have done better.
My first ever pig’s ear is crunchy as promised, the charred edges snapping between the teeth like good pork crackling, and there is a layer of silken cartilage in each forkful. It’s drizzled with a spiral of chimichurri, like this is a recent opening in Bristol or Shoreditch. I get the octopus, which is subtle and tender with that pleasing bounciness at bite, and I get the suckling pig too because, well, I’m on holiday. This is the pièce de résistance, served on a smear of sweet membrillo compote and with a shining umber shell dotted with chunks of sea salt. Breaking into it reminds me of that first spoonful of crème brûlée, resistance for a moment and suddenly all smooth. The meat is so soft it falls out of its crisp casing, and I audibly take in breath with my first bite.
On the wall behind the bar there is a wooden pig’s head hung beside a tiny reproduction of Picasso’s Guernica. As I pay (again) I can’t help feeling sorry for the guy, watching people shove his mates’ crisped-up ears into their mouths night after night. I feel a bit like a roasted pig myself on the walk home, but in the best way; for a meal like that at less than £20 I’ll take some quite extreme indigestion.
So, in the end, I did not return home a member of the pintxos cult. I’ll still recommend the concept to anyone asking what they should do in the Basque Country – there is something childishly fun about filling your plate from a buffet spread of prawns and tortilla, trying the one with brie and counting up your cocktail sticks at the end like a proud primary-schooler. But when the shit comes down to it? I’ll be sending people on the high-speed rail straight to Cuchara de San Telmo.