Which country has the best food in Europe? Okay, one, we’re not touching that question with a ten foot pole, and two, there is great food to be had just about everywhere in Europe! But going by the numbers, who’s got the most Michelin stars? Paris? Rome? Copenhagen? The answer might surprise you.
Donostia - San Sebastian in the Autonomous Community of the Basque Country in Spain, boasts the highest number of Michelin starred eateries per capita in Europe. But its delights aren’t confined to the world of fine dining! Guidebook giant Lonely Planet named doing a pintxos bar crawl in San Sebastian as the world’s #1 food experience in their Ultimate Eats book. While such lists may be arbitrary and wide open to debate, nobody disputes the Basque region’s culinary credentials. Whether it’s a multi-course degustation or a mouth-watering pintxos bar crawl, it’s time to follow your taste buds and head north to the Basque country on your next Spain vacation.
What Are Pintxos?
Simply put, pintxos (pronounced peen-chos) are a kind of tapas unique to the Basque region, involving perfectly balanced morsels placed atop slices of bread and skewered to keep them together. There are countless varieties involving seafood, cured meats, cheeses, vegetables, pickles, or the classic tortilla. They can be served cold, usually on platters atop a bar in classic Basque style, or hot, freshly made to order. It’s reductive to say that any Spanish tapa can be turned into a Basque pintxo, but it’s not totally inaccurate. Pintxo chefs are constantly coming up with new creations to sate both the appetites and curiosity of locals, and it is mostly locals! Despite the global popularity of tapas, pintxos have stayed a uniquely Basque phenomenon.
Best Way to Eat Pintxos
The best way to enjoy pintxos is the local way, of course! Order at the bar, where the goods are displayed, pointing out which ones you want to try (handy for cutting through language barriers as well). An anchovy, pepper, and olive combo called gilda with a glass of cold vermouth is a classic starter, but there’s no wrong sequence. Simply order up a few skewers to go with your drink, then move to the next bar for more. Unlike tapas, which are typically shared, you’ll enjoy your pintxo all to yourself. Unlike some other destinations in Spain, pintxos in San Sebastian rarely come free with a drink, but don’t worry. Each plate will only set you back a few euros.
The Best Restaurants in San Sebastian
Again, there’s no right or wrong answer here. Splurging 240EUR will get you all the Michelin 3-star wonderment of Akelarre, Arzak, or, just outside the city, Martin Berasategui. Is it worth it? If you’re a serious foodie, absolutely! But you don’t have to spend this kind of money for an unforgettably tasty evening. A good menu del dia will have you covered for lunch. Just give yourself a good two hours to enjoy the experience. For dinner, at the risk of repeating ourselves, do the pintxo crawl! Spend from 2EUR to 5EUR in each bar and fill up slowly, enjoying the atmosphere at each stop as you go. We could name names, but honestly? It’s hard to go wrong. The tricks is to look for locals, but even if you do try a pintxo or bar you don’t like, the next one is never far away!
Other Top Dishes to Try in the Basque Country
While the perfect simplicity of pintxos gets the most praise, be sure to try some other Basque specialties while you’re here. This is a region serious about seafood, with pil-pil cod in Vizcaya, marmitako (a tuna stew), and hake in green sauce topping the list of favorites. You can even try squid served in its own ink, or angulas (baby eels) if you’re feeling adventurous. If you’re not up for seafood, get stuck into a hearty lamb stew or alubias de tolosa with a glass of Rioja Alavesa (see below). Desserts don’t disappoint either! Almond and cherry flavors come together in etxeko biskotxoa, aka gâteau Basque. Go face down in a gooey Goxua, level up your French toast with the orange and cinnamon flavours of torrijas, or discover how smooth walnut pudding can really be, if you’re lucky enough to find somewhere that serves intxaursaltsa.
Kalimotxo, anyone? What to drink in Basque country
Anyone fancy a wine and coke? Despite the relative scarceness of Coca-Cola in the 1920s when it was invented (to be clear, it was named, not invented, in the 1970s), kalimotxo, which mixes Coke and red wine in equal measure, has become a Basque staple. It’s a little like the cola answer to the south’s popular tinto verano. It’s even (allegedly) used to salvage spoiled wine! Drinkers are a bit stricter about the cola, however. Pepsi attempted to package and market its own ‘sophisticated’ mix of cola and wine in 2017, and Kalimotxo fans were not having it.
Speaking of wine, the Basque country isn’t short on vineyards. Rioja Alavesa makes up about 20% of the famous Rioja region, producing fuller bodied, more acidic reds than its southern neighbours. More unique to the Basque country is Txakoli, a light, straw-colored wine poured from an arms-length height to give it a crisp, bubbly burst. Learning to pour yourself a glass of Txakoli can be a fun, sometimes messy memory to make in the Basque region, but if you succeed, drink it quickly for just the right amount of fizz. No wonder only 20 percent of Txakoli produced ever makes it outside the Basque country!
Where is Donostia?
If you’re in San Sebastian, you’re already there. Donostia is simply the Basque form of the name, and both mean ‘Saint Sebastian.’ Locals call themselves Donostiarras. You’ll hear the names used interchangeably, but remember that the Basque country is an autonomous region with its own heritage, language, myths, and culinary traditions. Immerse yourself in all that’s unique about it, and this region offers you an unforgettable vacation.
12 Apr 2023, 7:37 p.m.