Guide To The Most Delicious Pintxos, The Tapas Version Of The Basque Country
“The main problem with pintxos is that they look so beautiful and so well presented. When it comes to eating them, it’s not pretty,” says travel vlogger Marko Ayling. He’s right, these little Basque dishes on skewers on toothpicks are magnificent. If they weren’t so delicious, it would be a tragedy to eat them. Read on to learn more about growing the pintxo (pronounced “peencho”).
I’ve heard of tapas, but what are pintxos?
Spain is famous for its “small dishes”, called tapas. Pintxos are undeniably similar – in fact, sometimes one establishment serves a particular dish, calling it a tapa, while another sells the same thing as a pintxo. However, tourists can tell the difference between the two in several ways.
Tapas are more popular in southern Spain, especially in Madrid. The Basque Country and Navarre, both to the north, along the Bay of Biscay and bordering France, prefer pintxos. Euskadi (another way of saying the Basque Country) is famous throughout the world for its culinary art.
The word “pincho” means skewer in Spanish, but in the Basque Country they replace “ch” with “tx”. So, people call these little dishes pintxos because of the toothpick or skewer that holds them together. Tapas don’t always come on a toothpick, although they can.
Did you know…? Gilda was the first pintxo recipe developed in Euskadi. This skewer is accompanied by an anchovy, a marinated guindilla pepper and an olive.
A final difference is that tapas are usually free to accompany a glass of wine or beer. Customers must order and pay for the pintxos separately.
Culturally, pintxos and tapas occupy the same space. Groups of friends head out to enjoy the evening, stopping at several restaurants for drinks and snacks. Depending on where they are in Spain, they consume pintxos or tapas while they chat about life and let off steam.
Did you know…? The messier the floor in a pintxo bar, the better the establishment. Indeed, customers throw their napkins and toothpicks instead of leaving them on the table. If a pintxo bar is busy, at the end of the night there should be a lot of rubbish on the floor.
Where can I try pintxos?
Foodies hoping to join the pintxo crawl on a Friday night (or any day) should head to the city of San Sebastian (called Donostia in Basque) or Bilbao.
San Sebastian is a seaside city with stunning architecture and the cultural center of the region. This urban center has a huge concentration of bars, making it a fantastic place to go out on the town.
Bilbao, on the other hand, is the largest city in the Basque Country. It is a port and formerly industrial city known for its metal work. Famous for its cleanliness and order, the Spaniards ranked it as one of the best places to live in their country. There is only about an hour and a half between the two towns, so visitors should be able to reach both in one trip.
Travelers can explore pintxo bars on their own or choose a guided pintxo tour. Going with a guided tour has the advantage of being part of a group – the more the merrier! Plus, the locals who work with these agencies know the best pintxos and bars to try. Annie Ross wrote this Google review about her experience on a pintxo tour: “It was a perfect thing to do to get our bearings around the city, learn about the traditions and try some of the best pintxos.”
Tours of San Sebastian:
Tours of Bilbao:
- Tours By Basques – This company’s tours have won several travel association awards.
- Bilbao Food Safari – They offer tours based on the principle that the best way to learn about a culture is through their cuisine.
- Secret Bilbao – Miguel, the owner and guide, creates totally personalized and thoughtful experiences for his clients.
Each pintxo is a work of art. Food blogger Marti Kilpatrick explains that each has the complexity of a whole dish, but scaled down to the size of a bite. “If you can’t spend 150 euros [at a high-end restaurant] you can come and spend 5”, she explains to the aforementioned blogger Marko Ayling while choosing pintxos at Bar Zeruko, one of the chicest in San Sebastián. The two, together with local guide Eli Susperregui, end up choosing candied tomatoes – filled with Basque cheese–, stuffed sea urchin, figs with liver and upside-down calamari.
Next: Top 10 cities in Spain to visit for beginners