Beyond the Périphérique: A Binge in Basque Country

tapas_san_sebastian

Basque tapas are way better than bad sex. And in a crowded tapas bar, the experience is not much different. Photo: David R. Burton

I just returned from a jaunt to one of my favorite parts of the world: the Basque region of southwestern France and northeastern Spain. I love the place: it’s geologically spectacular, encompassing both a fair chunk of the Pyrenees Mountains and a long stretch of beach-intensive Atlantic coastline; it’s architecturally stunning, with lots of well-preserved centuries-old houses; and, best of all, it’s gastronomically stupefying, with a long and proudly maintained tradition of great food.

The Basques know how to eat. They do wonders with seafood, they can convert a pig into a staggering variety of delicious cold cuts, they make brilliant use of their piquant and flavorful Espelette peppers, and their foie gras is nothing to shake a funnel at. But my favorite thing to eat there is the pintxos, Basque-style tapas. These are more common south of the Pyrenees than north. (Note that I did not say “on the Spanish side” — the French and Spanish Basque people, quite naturally, feel greater kinship and loyalty to each other than to the national governments that arrived centuries after they did. Also, I already get enough flame mail without urinant off any separatists.)

So, one morning my wife Nancy and I took the train across the border to San Sebastián, a wonderful coastal city that reputedly has the world’s highest per-capita concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants. The old town behind the port is a grid (I’ll probably be drummed out of the journalists corps for failing to call it a “maze,” but it really is more of a grid) of narrow, picturesque pedestrian streets lined with what has to be the world’s highest per-stomacha concentration of tapas bars, all of them packed with patrons all the time.

There are a number of protocols and procedures to be observed when it comes to Basque tapas.

Protocols and procedures for tapas bar owners:

1) Make the most elaborate little morsels you can imagine, including but not limited to a dazzling selection of tiny open-faced sandwiches heaped with creative combinations of mouthwatering ingredients.

2) Put them on display on huge platters covering nearly every square centimeter of counter space.

3) Keep a stock of plates, glasses, silverware, beverages and waiters behind the bar.

4) And stop there — there can be no attempt at any other kind of organization whatsoever. In particular, there must be nothing resembling crowd control or, dieu forbid, a queue. In a properly-run pintxos bar, customers should feel and, insofar as is possible, look and act like characters in a Hogarth print of Bedlam.

Protocols and procedures for tapas bar customers:

1) Realize that you are entering a place in which an atmosphere of glorious chaos is part of the experience (having grown up in the staid and orderly Midwestern United States, this is one of the things I like most about tapas bars).

2) Edge your way through the crowd as close to the bar as possible and try to get a waiter’s attention.

3) Keep trying to get a waiter’s attention.

4) Keep trying to get a waiter’s attention.

5) Get a… oops, no, keep trying to get a waiter’s attention.

6) Get a waiter’s attention, order whatever it is you want to drink and ask for a plate to put your tapas on.

7) Have your fill of your pick of tapas — for the cold ones you can (usually) help yourself but for the hot ones you have to get the waiter to relay your choice to the kitchen.

8) Toss any used paper napkins and whatnot on the floor, not on the bar.

9) But do not throw away any colored toothpicks holding the little edible sculptures together, because these are used to figure up your bill (they’re color-coded by price), although in San Sebastián most places dispense with the picks and just rely on the honor system.

10) When you’re finished, try to get your waiter’s attention to pay your bill.

11) Keep trying to… (see steps 3 and 4 above).

There can indeed be a lot of waiting for waiters involved, and I noticed that in most bars about two-thirds of the floor space at any given time was occupied by customers who had yet to order or were waiting, with saintly patience, to pay. Combined with the fact that the tradition is to have only one or two tapas and then move on to another bar, pintxos aficionados in San Sebastián must spend more time waiting for their needs to be met than a Tantric guru with ED.

Not wishing to defy tradition, Nancy and I spent about three hours sampling the wares in a half-dozen bars, each with its own specialty. After fried shrimp at Gambara, chorizo-filled pastries at Gandarias, grilled baby squid at Astelehena (our favorite), cod fritters at Tamboril and more than our share of fancy finger food in all of those places and some others I forget, we came to La Cuchara de San Telmo, which our guidebook tapped as the top tapas bar in town.

Not only is San Telmo especially good and therefore especially popular, it’s also especially small and therefore especially crowded. And it’s especial in another way: there’s no countertop display — all the pintxos are cooked on the spot. This means that all the less convenient aspects of the tapas bar experience are exacerbated. You have to cram into a cramped narrow passage along the bar and choose from a list of dishes scrawled on a blackboard. It’s so jammed you have to shout your order to the waiter, who then shouts it to the cook in the adjacent kitchen, who then cooks it and shouts for the waiter, who then shouts for you to come and get it. With all the shouting, the only way to have a conversation is — you guessed it — to yell. So it tends to get a wee bit noisy in there.

But no matter. As I said, I like my tapas with a side of pandemonium. So we bellied up to the bar, perused the menu and placed our order. Nancy wanted a grilled octopus dish, but the waiter tried to discourage her by saying it would be “five minutes” before it could be ready. It’s true that this is a long prep time for even a hot tapa, but we were in no hurry and had already been there for 10 minutes crowd-surfing toward the counter, so this did not seem like a hardship.

But it turned out that when the guy said “five minutes” he actually meant “five minutes after you die of malnutrition.” There was some kind of glitch in the kitchen immediately after we ordered. Apparently San Telmo’s fire went out, because the service suddenly became slower and even more confused than usual. But this did not stop the constant flow of customers from pouring in and the waiters from taking orders. Time went by, but at no time did the steady barrage of shouting abate. Imagine each of four waiters constantly embroiled in an unbroken stream of conversation like this:

Customer: WE WANT FOUR PLATES OF SHRIMP, TWO OF DUCK LIVER AND THREE OF STUFFED PEPPER!

Waiter: THREE SHRIMP, TWO DUCK LIVERS…

Customer: NO! FOUR SHRIMP, TWO… NO, WAIT — FIVE SHRIMP, ONE DUCK LIVER AND THREE STUFFED PEPPERS.

Waiter to cook: FIVE SHRIMP! ONE DUCK LIVER! THREE STUFFED PEPPERS!

Cook: FIVE SHRIMP! ONE DUCK LIVER! THREE STUFFED PEPPERS! PICK UP FIVE RICE BALLS AND ONE CALVES’ BRAINS!

Waiter: WHO HAS FIVE RICE BALLS AND A CALVES’ BRAINS?

Customer: WE HAVE THREE RICE BALLS AND CALVES’ BRAINS!

Waiter: WHO HAS TWO BALLS AND NO BRAINS?

Etc., etc., etc.

Finally our dishes came, and they were excellent. It took about ninety seconds to eat them after a good half hour of eardrum damage, but we enjoyed it, paid up and got out of there, making the guy standing next to me very, very happy. He had been slowly but relentlessly inching his way millimeter by millimeter (as opposed to millimetering his way inch by inch) into my space, pressing his bare arm into mine harder and harder with each passing second. Another minute and I would have absorbed his tattoos.

Afterward I came to a realization: San Telmo is a nutritional sinkhole. There’s a constant scrum of customers in front of the bar and a constant maelstrom of waiters behind it, and every dish has to be ordered, written down, relayed to the cooks, retrieved, matched again to the right customer, served, eaten (standing up) and paid for. Gigajoules of energy are expended for a limited menu of miniature dishes that amount to about three or four bites each — there’s no way the total calories served in the place exceed the total calories burned in the effort to prepare and consume them. If the entire population of the earth relied on this system for obtaining nourishment, the human race would be extinct in about five weeks.

This led to my latest sure-fire moneymaking scheme: The San Telmo Diet. It’s very simple and offers guaranteed results. Here’s how it works: you can eat as much as you want of whatever you want whenever you want, as long as you order and eat it at La Cuchara de San Telmo in San Sebastián. Even if you don’t stick with it long enough to shed actual kilos, after four or five meals your body mass will have been compressed so hard from all sides you’ll at least look slimmer.

Note: For actual useful information on tapas in San Sebastián, check out Todo Pintxos.

David Jaggard

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