Pintxos–pronounced peenchos and also known tapas. In the Basque Country, they are sacred like communion in a temple. Even on a gray, rainy Saturday in Bilbao’s Casco Viejo, or, “old town”, groups of friends, couples, families, are hopping from tavern to tavern, or berria to berria, scarfing down a few pintxos, a glass of txacoli, the regional white wine, and moving on in the time it took me to take even one of the photographs featured in this post. There is, indeed, a science to berria hopping. A way to do it so that you don’t get too full, too overwhelmed by choices, or too…buzzed to fully enjoy it. So if you’re on your way to the Basque Country to partake of the world’s best tapas, here are six things you should know to maximize your experience.
1. Forgo the bread. Bread’s just going to fill you up with empty calories and limit the quantities of fish, prawns, blue cheese, olives, grilled octopus Iberian ham and other goodies you can taste. Just lift said goodies up off those hunks of carb with your knife and fork, and attack! Leaving the bread behind may earn you a few strange looks from locals, but it’s a foolproof way to enjoy as many tapas as possible. Now, like every rule, this one has an exception: if the bread’s been toasted in olive oil, eat the thing. Or if the pintxo itself leaks any type of yummy, buttery, tomato or garlic juices on your plate, feel free to use that bread to sop it up!
2. One word: zurita. When you’re eating your way through the old town, surrounded by locals and centuries old churches, you cannot order a Coke. Drinking wine all afternoon would have me snoozing on the bar in no time, so I went with beer. Except, I kept forgetting the word for ‘small beer’ in the Basque Country, having never heard this word used in Catalonia or Andalusia. So bartenders kept bringing me pints. If you’re a drinker who can hit six bars in the space of two hours and handle drinking a pint in each one, bottoms up. For the rest of us, the word for small beer is zurita. Repeat: thu-rrrreeee-tah. Zurita. Otherwise, you’ll be smashed before you hit the 3rd berria.
4. Ask the bartender. You’re standing in front of the bar, every available space covered by a plate of something you have never seen before. What to choose? It’s not about just asking, ‘What is this?’ A rundown of the ingredients won’t necessarily tell you anything, especially if you’re not accustomed to Spanish food. Ask the bartender, or really, anyone else who may be standing around: ¿Cual me recommiendas? ¿Cual es tu favorito? or What do you recommend? Which one is your favorite? The Basque take great pride in their gastronomic superiority, and will be happy to steer you in the right direction. The bartender may even gift you their fave pintxo, as happened to us more than once!
5. Take a mornin’ pintxo. Most places put out tapas at 10am, so the food you see at 2:30 is the food that’s been there, FRESH, for hours. You may not want to be eating anchovies, or super fishy, vinegar-drenched morsels straight out of the gate, but a just-made Spanish tortilla, smoked salmon, or Iberian ham pintxo with your cafe con leche is a veritable Basque breakfast of champions.
5. Don’t be put off by all the stuff on the floor. My very first Basque berria, El Huevo Berria, looks completely normal from the outside. Even sleek. Lots of glass and chrome. A jukebox. Specials scrawled on a chalkboard. Two dark-haired, pale-skinned, pierced women serving a just-after-lunch crew. The place looked so modern, imagine my surprise to see a guy swallow a pintxo, wipe his mouth on a little white napkin, crumple it up, and drop it right where he stood. I looked down, the floor was covered with dirty little napkins. I put my feet up on the stool, resolved not to look down, and got to ‘pinching’. Looked at it as a twist on the sawdust covered bar floor phenomenon. It’s just the custom.
6. Eat Fearlessly. Don’t be afraid to not eat food you simply don’t want to. With the increasing popularity of ‘eat and travel’ shows, the pressure seems to be on to ingest things things like cow’s ears just to say that you’ve done it. I say, eat what will please you. The Basque pintxo experience is all about pleasure. Decadence, even. Don’t be afraid to taste new things, but nothing can cut a berria crawl short like biting into something that leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Eat what you like, like what you eat, salud!