am no pilgrim. To walk the Navarre path from France’s Sant-Jean-Pied-de-Port (which I first misunderstood as Pied de Porc) to Spain’s Santiago de Compostela is not high on my hiking list. But I can understand the impulse of devout believers, and saw the satisfaction on the faces of those who arrived at the plaza in front of the grand cathedral. Pilgrimage over.
Still, I have to admit that it was the pintxos and txakoli, not the holy spirit, that most nourished our visit from southern France to northwest Spain, one of the furthest corners of Europe. This is where Columbus set off for the New World.
Pintxos (pinchos in Spanish) are essentially tapas, all-purpose snacks, but served mainly on little skewers (elegant and beveled to hold the food more firmly). To accompany these magic morsels of creative genius comes slightly acid white wine, txakoli, poured at arm’s length into a straight, wide glass to a height of about an inch and filled with bubbles formed as it hits its mark.
“Es molt fort,” the barman warned me in Catalán. “It’s the bubbles – they’ll go right to your head, so watch out!” In this particular pintxos bar, La Mejillonera (Calle Puerto 15, San Sebastian, tel. +34.943.428.465), among the oldest in San Sebastian, we began our evening with steamed mussels in salsa verde sauce, tiny fried squid with aioli, a beer for one of us, and bubbles for me.
We were advised to give our small tip directly to the server, who, when the money was handed over, rang a huge brass bell attached to the wall to let everyone know that a client had particularly enjoyed his pintxos.
Contrary to lore, my head felt strangely cleared by the txacoli, so much so that I segued smoothly into the local vino tinto at Goiz Argi (Calle Fermin Calbeton 4, tel. +34.943.425.204), yet another venerable bar in Donostia (the Basque name for the city). Here you can order skewers of little shrimp grilled to order. I also tasted some of the best croquetas I’ve had anywhere in the world except at the home a Catalán friend.
At a creative new bar, Zeruko (Calle Pescaderia 10, tel. +34.943.423.451), we ate with many of the younger locals, choosing salted anchovies on toast spread with pimiento paste and then branching out with squid-ink risotto cakes dusted with crushed pistachio, fois gras served like ice cream in a cone with a surprise pear gelée at the bottom, and a plate of little sautéed sweet green chilies from Padron – or anywhere you can get them, said the pintxos barman, telling me clients can’t bear their absence.
I felt the same way after acquiring a taste for these sweet little peppers. They made me look forward to my own pimientos, embryonic on the vine in my garden at home. I had nursed them from the baby plants my neighbor found in a nursery in Gerona, and I was determined to have my own supply. They’re not easily grown and demand lots of fertilizer and water. A drip system reassured me that we would have our own plate of pintxos at trip’s end.
After five nights in and out of hotels, we headed back to France on the quick inland route, stopping in Leon to see the Panteon de los Reyes, a frescoed jewel of a burial site for over a dozen kings and queens; then on to Burgos for its famous cathedral, and gazpacho and sopa de ajo at Restaurante Don Auño.
By chance, we found yet another lovely gazpacho and broad white beans with clams at La Posada de Puebla de Sanabria, an inn located in Pueblo de Sanabria, a tiny jewel of a village off the autoroute that runs through the province of Zamora (La Posada de Puebla de Sanabria, Castilla y León, tel. +34.980.620.347). It’s definitely worth a detour.
We then made a final stop again in San Sebastian, making one more pilgrimage to our favorite pintxos bars, and we were home in six hours. Once there, I saw that my pimientos de Padron had reached the size of long, burpless cucumbers. Dinner for two meant picking three or four, cutting them in little rings, sautéing them in olive oil, and finally sprinkling coarse salt. They were not like the authentic tiny peppers from our favorite bars, but the memorable taste of the pays Basque returned. And from the look of my plants, it will again.