Although I only had about 28 hours in San Sebastian, once the driving was over, we made the best of exploring the unique cuisine of the city in just a few meals.
As I had mentioned previously, the parte vieja (old city) is known for having the most bars per square meter than any city in the world. More than a place to whet your whistle, these bars specialize in pintxos, the Basque word for tapas (which, in turn, is the Spanish term for small appetizer). Rather than sitting down and ordering from a menu upon arrival, you belly-up to the bar, where each of the pintxos are lined up, plate after plate, and point to choose the ones you would like to order.
Some of them, like the tasty tower of mushrooms, garlic and ham on this piece of baguette shown below, need to be thrown under the broiler for a few minutes to get appropriately warm and gooey.
There are also several hot choices that can be prepared fresh when ordered. The cold bites it seemed, in most places we went, could just be picked off the bar at will, and there was an honor system to report what was eaten later to the waiter.
Rather than try and squeeze in a dinner reservation at the last minute during our only evening meal, we decided to run with the locals and do a pintxos and wine crawl through the old city. We started at Txepetxa, a bar that is known for their anchovies. We started with skewered octopus with peppers and olive oil, followed by white anchovies and roe. All complimented by a crisp, extremely light white wine. It was incredibly delicious and very fresh. The staff were friendly and welcoming, obviously amused at our broken Spanish. Although I could have stayed and sampled one of each of their award-winning anchovy combinations, we decided to push on – variety is the spice of life.
The second spot was just ‘ho-hum’, only memorable for the delicious glass of Rioja and the highly amusing eel pintxo. Garnishing a thick slice of baguette, these baby eels were tossed with finely chopped bell peppers and olive oil. They were slightly chewy with just a hint of brininess. Tasty and great fun to eat.
We purposefully sought out our last stop. My friend had been here previously and knew it only as ‘the place with the mushrooms’. When we found it, I finally understood – it was a cascade of artichokes and fungus. And, at this point, we were starting to crave something green. We ordered the artichoke, which came with either a ham or shellfish accompaniment. Not a hard decision for me. I always choose the pig.
When it arrived, we declared it a religious experience – much to the amusement of the bar staff. Tender artichokes topped with crispy pieces of bacon and fried garlic, drizzled with fruity olive oil. It seemed nirvana-esque in that moment to me; at least until I had to ruin it with my curiosity.
Slightly down the bar from where we were standing was a platter of oblong white pod-like objects. The plate had obviously been full at some point, but at this point in the evening (around 11pm), there were only two remaining. I slid over and looked closer. The white pods were shot through with purplish veins and looked slightly obscene. The barman followed my glance and, when I caught his eye, I asked him what it was. This was the exchange were my high-school Spanish, my cobbled together French and the wine + cross-country road trip exhaustion failed me.
Me: “Que es eso?” (Spanish: What is this?)
Barman: “Huevos de Medusa”* (Spanish: Eggs of Medusa)
Here I paused. Huevos, as every good high school student of Spanish knows, is slang for testicles. And it was completely possible that those white lumpy sacs, shot through with veins could be some animal’s man-twins**. But, then again, Medusa is the name of a jellyfish, so maybe it was eggs. Unfortunately, my contemplation only lasted about two seconds before he started talking again.
Barman: “Quiera esto?” (Spanish: Do you want this?)
Me: “Oui” (French: yes).
My friend looked at me doubtfully as I returned to our bar space, a few feet away. I was pretty sure that she had heard the entire encounter, but needed to confirm for herself. I assured her that yes, we were now getting one of the scary white things from over there. It arrived, I photographed. Then we ate (she was a great sport). And it was eggs. (Thank goodness). A large egg sac filled with mild, slightly salty eggs the size of the tobiko that is served at sushi restaurants. Actually, it was relatively tasteless, but I did try to eat as much of it as possible. Although at this point, a number of locals at the bar were astounded that we hard ordered it and (to me) appeared to be laughing at us. But, at least I was adventurous.
After hearing stories of how late evenings start in Spain, I was surprised that we closed down the bar at the stroke of midnight. However, we were informed that the party was dutifully moving on to the disco down the street. We politely declined after a full day of driving, moving and exploring. Instead, we wound our ways back through the web of cobblestone streets towards home. Bellies full and with fun stories to tell.
(I loved the hams, in many rows, hanging from every ceiling)
* I think, in retrospect, that I misunderstood the “medusa” part of the name. I do believe that my friend caught the details, but the story is much funnier this way…
** Thanks to the German for helping me with suitable testicle slang. Cojones was a close follow-up contender.