The Art of Eating Pintxos

Just rolling the word pintxo (peen-cho) around your tongue defines the essence of this cheerful, cheeky little slice of Basque cuisine. The perfect pintxo should have exquisite taste, texture and appearance, and should be savoured in two elegant bites. The Basque version of a tapa, the pintxo transcends the commonplace by the sheer panache of its culinary campiness.

Many pintxos are bedded on small pieces of bread or on tiny half baguettes, upon which towering creations are constructed. Some bars specialise in seafood, with much use of marinated anchovies, prawns and strips of squid, all topped with anything from chopped crab to pâté. Others deal in pepper or mushroom delicacies, or simply offer a mix of everything. And the choice isn’t normally limited to what’s on the bar top in front of you: many of the best pintxos are the hot ones you need to order.

For many visitors, ordering pintxos can seem like one of the dark arts of Spanish etiquette. Fear not: in many bars in Bilbao and San Sebastián, it couldn’t be easier. With so many pintxos varieties lined up along the bar, you either take a small plate and help yourself or point to the morsel you want. Otherwise, many places have a list of pintxos, either on a menu or posted up behind the bar. If you can’t choose, ask for ‘la especialidad de la casa’ (the house speciality) and it’s hard to go wrong. Another way of eating pintxos is to order raciones (literally ‘rations’; large pintxos servings) or media raciones (half-rations; bigger plates than tapas servings but smaller than standard raciones). These plates and half-plates of a particular dish are a good way to go if you particularly like something and want more than a mere pintxo. Remember, however, that after a couple of raciones most people are full.

A couple of other points to remember. Most locals prefer to just have one or two pintxos in each bar before moving on to the next place. Ordering half a dozen different pintxos just for yourself is the mark of a tourist. And remember, despite popular belief, pintxos are never free. In fact, the cost of a few mouthfuls can quickly add up.

The Basque People

No one quite knows where the Basque people came from (they have no migration myth in their oral history), but their presence here is believed to predate even the earliest known migrations. The Romans left the hilly Basque Country more or less to itself, but the expansionist Castilian crown gained sovereignty over Basque territories during the Middle Ages(1000–1450), although with considerable difficulty; Navarra constituted a separate kingdom until 1512. Even when they came within the Castilian orbit, Navarra and the three other Basque provinces (Guipúzcoa, Vizcaya and Álava) extracted broad autonomy arrangements, known as the fueros (the ancient laws of the Basques).

After the Second Carlist War in 1876, all provinces except Navarra were stripped of their coveted fueros, thereby fuelling nascent Basque nationalism. Yet, although the Partido Nacionalista Vasco (PNV; Basque Nationalist Party) was established in 1894, support was never uniform as all Basque provinces included a considerable Castilian contingent.

When the Republican government in Madrid proposed the possibility of home rule (self-government) to the Basques in 1936, both Guipúzcoa and Vizcaya took up the offer. When the Spanish Civil War erupted, conservative rural Navarra and Álava supported Franco, while Vizcaya and Guipúzcoa sided with the Republicans, a decision they paid a high price for in the four decades that followed.

It was during the Franco days that Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA;Basque Homeland and Freedom) was first born. It was originally set up to fight against the Franco regime, which suppressed the Basques by banning the language and almost all forms of Basque culture. After the death of Franco, ETA called for nothing less than total independence and continued its bloody fight against the Spanish government until, in October 2011, the group announced a ‘definitive cessation of its armed activity’. It’s a status that still stands.