About a week ago I left France and headed to Spain with a BlaBlaCar – a ride share, a common way of getting around these days in Europe (I would love to see a similar structure take off in North America). The drive flew by as I crossed the Pyrenees from Bordeaux towards Madrid with a smiling driver, about my age, who kept turning around to offer the two of us in the backseat peanut M & M’s. How kind, so kind that I found myself slipping my hand into the family-sized bag, even though I would normally turn away from the rainbow-coloured balls of sugar.
I’ve always wanted to return to Spain – the last time I was here was in 2004 when I spent a few days in Barcelona while nannying in Germany. I remember loving how lively it was, how the people happily relaxed in the many parks, soaking up the strong sunshine and playing instruments. I remember the beautiful beaches and the narrow streets and the Gothic-like buildings with their wrought iron balconies brought to life by plants and flower pots. This time I headed to Madrid, the country’s capital, where I spent about four busy days before heading on to San Sebastian in the north, the Basque country.
One of the things I loved about Madrid was all the street artists. I was there on a Sunday, so I headed to the “Rasto” (el Rasto), a giant flea market that runs every Sunday not far from the Plaza Mayor. It wasn’t long before my eyes met a charming Willy Wonka impersonator. As I stopped to take a photo, he peaced me (I’m inventing this word: he made a peace sign) before I dag in my purse looking for what coins I had. “Muchas gracias,” he said, keeping still, as I continued on my way.
I told people in Madrid that I’d be going to San Sebastian before making my way to France – and often I was told how the coastal Basque city is known to have the best food in all of Spain. This got me quite excited and instantly set my culinary curiosity on fire. I arrived today and decided that I would go and try pintxos. According to Wikipedia, pintxos, or pinchos, are “a small snack, typically eaten in bars, traditional in northern Spain and especially popular in the Basque country and Navarre.”
Pintxos are everywhere in this city — maybe even more common than pastries in France. I found a traditional looking place, Casa Alcalde on Calle Mayor, and hungrily strolled inside, where my eyes were drawn to a wooden corner bar full of platters displaying colourful, carefully-prepared creations that I’ve never seen before. I told the girl behind the counter that I don’t eat meat, but fish would do (I break the vegetarian rules while traveling sometimes). Being in the land of cured ham — commonly known as Spanish ham — my pescatarian request instantly reduced my pintxos selection by about half. But with a choice of over ten, if not twenty, small snacks to choose from, I was still left with some hard decisions to make.
I filled my plate with four exotic creations and ordered a beer. The girl told me to keep my toothpicks (each pintxo was held together by one) and that when I was done eating and ready to pay I should bring them to the counter. That’s how they know how many pintxos each customer eats – and so they know what to charge.
As I emptied the flavourful plate filled with textures of all kinds, I took a look around at the pictures on the wall — colourful pictures of red-lipped senoras with flowers in the hair and dainty embroidered shawls and paintings of bulls, Spain’s longstanding spirit animal. The ill-fated el torro. I looked up and saw about 20 Spanish hams hanging from the ceiling right above my table. The brown-coloured skin reminded me of mouldy food for some reason. I decided not to focus on it. As I bit into each of the four pintxo’s, I thought about how the decorated walls bared resemblance to Spain’s notorious, often overlooked food culture. It’s rich and vibrant, long-standing and, I would say, quite loud.