A tapas frenzy in San Sebastiàn

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Are you a lover of all things carbohydrate? Do you like eating olive oil, eggs, mayonnaise from a tube, anchovies, and lots and lots of bread? If you’ve answered yes to all of the previous, and don’t recoil at the idea of eating at a communal public buffet cheek by jowl with others, you’ll have a merry old time snacking at all the tapas bars of San Sebastiàn. This is Northern Spain’s answer to what to do when you’re out, want to get trousered on fizzy wine, but want to eat without having to sit down in a restaurant. This smart seaside town is considered to be Spain’s tapas kingdom. All the bar tops are literally GROANING with beautiful ‘pinxtos’ (the Basque name for tapas) – slices of white baguette bread festooned with a variety of jewel-like toppings. We just popped over for a cheeky weekend there, and – LO – I have returned a stone heavier!

This is roughly how it goes. You drop into any tapas bar that is busy (avoid the empty ones – bad sign). A lot of the renowned ones are in the old town. Elbow your way to the bar and admire the spread. Which will look roughly like this:

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Get the barman’s attention and he will give you a plate. Either you tell him what you’d like, and he’ll pop it on the plate for you, or you’re sometimes at liberty to fill up the plate yourself. Etiquette: NEVER pick up any item of food, then change your mind and put it back! Just DON’T.

You’ll spot the same types of tapas/pinxtos in most of the bars: slices of tortilla omelette sandwiched in bread, potato and cheese croquettes, skewers of anchovy, gherkin and chilli, and endless plates filled with rounds of baguette topped with crab, tuna, cheeses, fried courgettes, grilled peppers, cured jamon…at first the range seems completely mind-boggling, but then you’ll start to recognise the same types in most tapas bars. There is a tendancy to go heavy on the mayonnaise (a bit industrial, but not unpleasant) and raw onions are often sprinkled liberally as a garnish, so watch out if you’re not a fan. (I hate raw onion in all its guises, and managed to avoid it.) You can also order all kinds of non-bready items from the hot dishes menu – grilled padron peppers, meat and seafood skewers, pork chops and so on.

What differentiates each tapas bar from its rivals, though, are the specials that they chalk up on a board. For example, one might be famous for its grilled prawns, mussels, or duck dishes. We even found a place that did an amazing cheesecake. It’s just a question of doing a little research beforehand and finding out which tapas bar specialises in what (The London Foodie gives an excellent guide). Don’t worry if you can’t understand what the Basque descriptions of the food are on the blackboards hanging on the walls – many bars can give you a paper menu in English.

In terms of what to drink, we were delighted with our goblets of ‘Txakoli’. This is a sparkling dry white Basque wine that bar staff pour from a great height above the glass, with a great flourish, in order to get more bubbles into it. We noticed almost everyone was drinking this, so we just copied. To be honest, we didn’t have a clue what wine to order anyway.

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I would advise all ladies coming on a tapas crawl to bring sensible shoes – I abandoned my high heeled shoes at the hotel because standing for several hours in cramped conditions, being jostled about, is murder on the feet! You will be very lucky if you get a table anywhere, but don’t despair – every bar we went to appeared rammed on arrival, but soon enough people would migrate onto the next bar in great waves, so the numbers would thin out pretty regularly. Many bars have a handy leaning rail against which you can prop yourself up.

We enjoyed an epic lunch here, at Bar Martínez:

From left, clockwise: cheese croquette, ham croquette, fried courgette and egg pinxto, two anchovy, pepper and mayonnaise pinxtos, chilli and anchovy skewer:

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Followed swiftly by these little beauties – from left, clockwise: salt cod atop seafood mousse, two courgettes stuffed with tuna mayo, salt cod and seafood mousse, crab pate with mayonnaise on the side.

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Ordered separately from the hot dishes menu – octopus skewer with potatoes:

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Other hot dishes we enjoyed from the specialities blackboards in various bars were:

Beef cheeks braised in red wine from La Cuchara de San Telmo – meltingly tender and intensely savoury:

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Battered ‘pipas’ (prawns) from Bar Tamboril – crisp and fresh:

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The most sumptuous cheesecake from Bar La Viña – it had a burnished caramelised exterior, which gave way to almost molten cream in the centre. I have no words to describe how good it was:

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You can also surf the ‘experimental’ modern tapas wave, where chefs have gone all leftfield with their very untraditional creations. Some are more successful than others – for example we found the tapas at A Fuego Negro a bit on the pretentious side, and a bit baffling. We ordered a side dish of ‘Black Rabas’ which seemed to be battered donuts containing a flavourless black gunge, which we couldn’t identify. A small side salad with popcorn and seared beef was tasty enough, but minuscule.

Black Rabas (left); Steak and popcorn salad:

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However, we had our minds totally blown at Bar Zeruko which makes modern and creative tapas that are playful, unusual and weirdly delicious. None of the food is what it seems. It is pretty and jewel-like, glistening and colourful, and none of it looks like anything you can truly identify. What looks like a tomato might in fact contain raspberry mousse. You don’t quite know what to expect. There is quite a lot of aspic jelly.

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A creamy seafood custard served in a sea urchin shell – much nicer than it sounds!

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We couldn’t work out what this was – a savoury ‘egg’ that had a cheesy taste. A bit on the challenging side for us:

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‘Bob Limon’ – the most insane pudding ever. The chef came over to tell us precisely in which order to eat each of the components. You started eating the ‘egg yolk’ whole – you popped it in your mouth where it exploded with a tangy liquid tasting of passion fruit, a bit like ‘Um Bongo’. Then you devoured both the lemony cream together with the foamy lime sponge. Then you ate the blackcurrant blob (on the right) that tasted of intense Ribena mixed with cake crumbs and then – the grand finale: you chewed the little yellow flower bud on both sides of your mouth, which caused the whole of my tongue to go numb and my mouth to water uncontrollably for about five minutes. A bit like how you imagine Willy Wonka’s flavoured chewing gum would make your mouth feel:

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Wowsers. We ate a heck of a lot of food in the space of two-and-a-half days. I haven’t even spoken about half of it. By the end of our break, I couldn’t see my feet when I looked down. It had been such an incredible eating experience. I’ll just remember to pack more sensible shoes next time. And a corset.

Addresses:

Speciality: cold tapas
Bar Martínez, Calle 31 de Agosto

Speciality: Cheesecake ‘Tarte de Queso’
Bar La Viña, C/31 de Agosto 3

Speciality: Prawns (‘pipas’) in batter
Bar Tamboril, C/Pescadería 2

Speciality: Beef cheeks in red wine
La Cuchara de San Telmo, Calle 31 de Agosto, 28

Speciality: modern tapas (a bit pretentious)
A Fuego Negro, Calle 31 de Agosto

Speciality: modern, experimental tapas
Bar Zeruko, Calle Pescadería 10

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