Lessons about Basque pintxos we learned from an American

“Pintxos are a way of life.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
14 May 2024 Tuesday 10:25
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Lessons about Basque pintxos we learned from an American

Pintxos are a way of life.” Pintxos are not just food, they are a way of life. Elena and Juan Mari Arzak, who know something about the matter, say it in the prologue of Marti Buckley's new book dedicated to these small bites that are part of the gastronomic idiosyncrasy of Euskadi. And they write it in English because it is the language in which what some already consider one of the most complete works on the subject has been published: The book of pintxos.

A native of Alabama, after 14 years in San Sebastián, Buckley, journalist and cook, already considers herself an adopted daughter of the city. She has become a great ambassador of Basque cuisine. “Coming from outside helps you see the curious things that people here consider normal,” explains the author.

“Does everyone eat seasonal products? Here yes, but not in my country, it is one of the things that shocked me a lot when I arrived,” she recalls. He landed for the first time in the Basque Country 20 years ago, and when he visited San Sebastián it was a crush that still lasts. One of those that end up marking life and career, it is clear.

His book Basque Country: A Culinary Journey Through a Food Lover's Paradise, published in 2018, was a huge success and ended up also being published in Spanish. Anyone from Alabama writing from Donosti about traditional Basque recipes? It sounds strange, he admits, but it is a documentation work that, in the case of pintxos, had not been done so exhaustively until now.

Four years of work and an enthusiasm, curiosity and interest that perhaps is only achieved when a gilda or a pintxo of txangurro are not seen as something every day, but as small culinary wonders.

“It is something that should have been done already, collecting the anecdotes and history that have happened throughout these decades,” Buckley claims about Basque pintxos and their gastronomic, but also historical and anthropological approach in this book of more 300 pages, edited with great care and illustrated with photographs by Simón Bajada.

Although, due to the language, it could seem that this is a book written for the reader from outside, the author assures that she has always wanted "someone here to be able to pick it up and not find anything American or anything strange, but rather a faithful representation of local cuisine.”

A responsibility that he already assumed with his previous work and that is now reinforced with all the attention focused on his research work around pintxos. Luckily, he jokes, the classic disagreements about this or that ingredient or the preparation of a dish that occur in different parts of the country mean that any possible inaccuracy goes more unnoticed. Although he insists that he always writes “thinking of the Basque grandmother who was going to read it to criticize it.”

A detailed work of several years. Whoever looks at its pages with the magnifying glass and inquisitive gaze of the place that wants to criticize the American, will surely end up learning many things about pintxos. “With few exceptions, the history of pintxo, until now, has been more lived than catalogued. San Sebastián, Bilbao, Pamplona and Vitoria have evolved incredibly in the last century, but many details of that past have been diluted by collective memory,” the author writes in the first pages of her book.

So it is not a simple catalog of pintxos, but a work that also covers the history of these snacks with the help of many of its protagonists. But assuming that, as with so many dishes, it is not usually easy to pinpoint an exact moment in which it was invented. Not even the gilda, he warns.

Theoretically created in 1946 in Casa Vallés, it turns out that years before it was already served - or a very similar pintxo - in the Martínez bar. And what about the name? The legend about Rita Hayworth, we read, is better to take with a grain of salt, because the film was released in Spain a year after the supposed invention of the pintxo and, in reality, until 2007 no one had given this film version of the story.

Among the more than fifty pintxos classified according to their type (stick, hot, on bread...) and with details about their history and preparation and classified, which one tends to surprise readers or visitors the most? Buckley is left with one that has already disappeared: the “Black rabas” with which Edorta Lamo - now at the helm of Arrea!, in Álava - revolutionized the San Sebastian scene years ago in his bar-restaurant A Fuego Negro.

“You prepare a squid stew in its ink, crush it and freeze it as if they were donuts, and you cover this with tempura and fry it. It's like a raba, but with squid flavor in its ink. For me, one of the great surprises of the book,” details the author.

Having become an expert on the subject and after having tried many pintxos, she sticks with a classic, very simple and that has been successful for almost 100 years: Delicia, from the bar La Espiga. “It is a bread with a salted anchovy, hard-boiled egg, a very fine vinaigrette of onion, parsley and hard-boiled egg, homemade mayonnaise and a few drops of Perrins sauce on top,” she describes.

But, in order to put Buckley on a compromise, we should not ask him to choose pintxo, but rather the best city to practice this noble glass sport. Bilbao or Donosti? “To go for pintxos, San Sebastián has always been the most exquisite place, with more variety, with finer, more delicate pinchos. But I think that nowadays Bilbao also has a very good offer and even a more fun and local atmosphere,” he summarizes. “But they are both very good and I am not going to choose,” she concludes.

This reference to the local environment, together with the increase in tourism in the Basque Country in recent years and the changes in traditional areas such as Lo Viejo de Donosti, force us to take a different look at pintxos: have they become something more designed for tourists than for those who live in the Basque Country?

“In my research for the book I discovered something that caught my attention: in the 80s and 90s there were bars that put a bunch of meaningless pintxos on the bar, little more than bread and something on top. But it turns out that a lot of people from outside Donosti started coming in and it was a total success. So much so that everyone on Fermín Calbetón street copied them,” he explains.

A good example - he points out - to put an end to that idea that everything was good before and now it's not. And remember that in the capital of Gipuzkoa, tourism has always been key. But now there are many more tourists, of course. “Yes, but also fewer people from here leaving,” she clarifies. "It's not worth saying that the old part is for tourists if you used to go and now you don't go because it's overcrowded."

Another thing, he clarifies, is housing. A serious problem for the city, which has lived without addressing and regulating this issue for years. “It is one thing to have tourists, but when a city is emptied of locals it is another thing, because it ends up becoming a place where no one is comfortable,” she reflects.