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A gourmet guide to ordering pintxos in Spain’s Basque Country

In the Basque Country, instead of tapas they tend to eat pintxos. What are these mouth-watering bites? Which are the best ones to try? What drinks should you order to accompany? This guide will help you on your gastronomic experience.

A gourmet guide to ordering pintxos in Spain's Basque Country
Learn to order pintxos like a local with a detailed foodie guide. Photo: Richard Thiel / Pixabay

Euskadi (as the Basque Country is called in Basque), a northern Spanish region bordering France, is one of the country’s great foodie regions, known throughout the world for its offerings.

The Basque Country has more Michelin Stars than any other region in Spain with a total of 226, far above number two on the list – Catalonia with 49.

The pintxo capitals of the Basque Country are its most important cities – San Sebastián, Bilbao and Vitoria-Gasteiz, but you’ll find them all over the region, even in small towns like Guernica.

What is a pintxo?

Pintxos – or pincho in Castillian Spanish spelling – are typically small pieces of bread topped with all kinds of traditional ingredients and typically held together with a wooden skewer or a long toothpick.

Although the distinction between a tapa and a pintxo isn’t that clear even according to Spain’s Royal Language Academy, pintxos are more likely to be served on a piece of bread or through a skewer, whereas tapas are generally a bit bigger and served on a plate to and to accompany a drink.

Pintxos can be topped with something basic like a piece of tortilla (Spanish omelette) and a green pepper, or they could go more elaborate such as paprika-sprinkled pulpo (octopus) with fried potato and a cream cheese mousse.

However, to be a pintxo, it doesn’t have to be on bread, sometimes pintxos can be served in mini glass jars, small plates, tiny frying pans or even just on a skewer. Many bars will compete to see who can make the most extravagant mini meal in a pintxo, while other places will keep it simple. 

READ ALSO: Old bones shed light on mysterious origins of the Basque people

There are so many different types of pintxos, each bar has its own specialities, but you’ll find many repeated throughout the region.

There are many containing cod (bacalao) in particular as it’s a Basque favourite. You’ll also find several with fried mushrooms, dripping in garlic butter, stacked on top of one another.

One classic pintxo that you’ll find everywhere is the gilda. It’s a combination of olives, pickled guindilla peppers and anchovies on a stick.

You have to try a gilda when in the Basque Country. Photo: Iñigo De la Maza / Unsplash

It is said that gilda was invented by Joaquín Aramburu, in San Sebastián at Casa Vallés around 1946 who named it ‘Gilda’, in reference to the character from the film of the same name starring actress Rita Hayworth (who was actually half Spanish). In reality, these three ingredients were put together before this but hadn’t been dubbed the ‘gilda’.

Like in the rest of Spain, you won’t find many vegetarian options. However, most bars have a couple to choose from. If you don’t see any, simply ask and many places will be able to make you something. These may not be the most typical ones ordered by the Basques, but many still have traditional ingredients such as Idiazabal cheese – a Basque speciality.

READ ALSO: Ten unique Basque words you need to learn right now

Pintxos are typically laid out on top of the bar so you can see exactly what they have. Sometimes they’ll be labelled so you can see what they contain, but other times you’ll have to ask or just go for what looks good.

You don’t automatically get a complimentary pintxo with a drink in the Basque Country. (Photo by GERARD JULIEN / AFP)

Ordering pintxos

When it comes to ordering, firstly, there’s no table service in most bars in the Basque Country so you’ll have to get good a wiggling your way up to the bar to get served. It’s not always easy as there’s no orderly queuing system and people will often push in front.

Pintxos are almost always paired with a drink, which you should order first. Typically, this would be a glass of tinto (red) Rioja wine, a local white txakoli (Basque wine) a beer or even a Basque cider (sidra).

Remember, there is also usually a list of hot pintxos which you can order separately. They’re typically made to order and are slightly more expensive than the ones are the bar, but will often be fresher and slightly bigger too. Many locals will do a combination of choosing some from the bar and then ordering a few extras from the hot menu.  

Pintxos are never given free with your drink like tapas are in Granada or Almería. You will typically be paying €2-€3.50 for each pintxo and slightly more for hot pintxos.

READ ALSO: Where can you get free tapas in Spain?

Not every pintxo is served on a piece of bread or held together with a skewer. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

It used to be that you’d ask for the pintxos you want and keep on going up for more until you were done. Someone would then come and count how many sticks were left on your plate and charge you accordingly.

In the last couple of years, however, that isn’t so common. Now it’s more likely that you’ll order and pay for the pintxos at the same time or you’ll order the pintxos and the person at the bar will keep a record of what you have, so you’ll receive an accurate bill at the end.

Basque pintxos bars don’t usually close their kitchens between lunch and dinner. They’ll stay open and you can usually stop for a snack at any time of day. Many of them are even open in the morning and a pintxo with a cup of coffee (or even a glass of wine) is a perfectly acceptable Basque breakfast. This may be a pintxo de tortilla, for example.

Remember that pintxo bars generally tend to close earlier than other bars in Spain.

You’ll find many close around 10:30pm on weekdays and slightly longer on weekends, even in busy areas such as the Casco Viejo neighbourhood of Bilbao.

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These are Spain’s new Michelin-starred restaurants

The new 2023 Michelin Star guide for the best restaurants in Spain and Portugal has awarded new stars to 34 restaurants across Spain. Read on to discover which ones and where they are.

These are Spain's new Michelin-starred restaurants

En España se come bien (People eat well in Spain), you’ll hear many Spaniards proclaim. That’s coming from a country that’s not accustomed to singing its own praises on the global stage. 

Although these higher-than-average gastronomic standards apply to all types of bars and restaurants, when it comes to haute cuisine, Spain continues to be among the top five countries with the most Michelin-starred eateries, together with France, Japan, Italy and Germany.

On Tuesday November 22nd, Michelin revealed its newest restaurant selection of acclaimed Spanish restaurants during an event in the Spanish city of Toledo.

As of November 2022, two restaurants in Spain have been awarded the coveted three Michelin Star distinction.

Three have gone up to the two-star category and 29 restaurants have been given new one-star rankings.

Atrio in Cáceres (Extremadura region in western Spain) and Cocina Hermanos Torres in Barcelona have both earned the top award three-star prize, which is the highest award that can be given, and have joined the 13 other restaurants in Spain at this level.

According to the judges, Atrio won the distinction due to “its elegant and delicate dishes, prepared by chef Toño Pérez, who has shaken up local gastronomic traditions”. His menu focuses on Iberian pork and other products from Extremadura.

While in Barcelona, Cocina Hermanos Torres has been given the top award for “firing the imagination with every bite”. Chefs Sergio and Javier Torres have created “a magical space in which the gastronomic experience consistently seeks out the very best seasonal produce and exceeds foodies’ expectations, turning it into a dining extravaganza,” the judges said.

READ ALSO – REVEALED: Spain’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurants

Of the 2023 guide, International Director of Michelin Gwendal Poullennec said: “We were delighted to see how younger chefs are taking the lead and embarking on their own journeys, in many cases flying the flag of reinterpreted regional or fusion cuisines”.

“In turn, vegan options are gradually forging ahead on menus, something which was already occurring in other European countries,” he added. 

Below are the Spanish rankings for the 2023 guide, including the three stars awarded to Atrio and Cocina Hermanos Torres. 

Two stars

  • Deessa, Madrid
  • El Rincón de Juan Carlos, Adeje, Tenerife
  • Pepe Vieira, Serpe, Pontevedra

One star

  • Ababol, Albacete
  • Ajonegro, Logroño
  • Aleia, Barcelona
  • AlmaMater, Murcia
  • Alquimia-Laboratorio, Valladolid
  • Ancestral, Illescas
  • Arrea!, Santa Cruz de Campezo
  • Ceibe, Ourense
  • Cobo Evolución, Burgos
  • Código de Barra, Cádiz
  • Come, Barcelona
  • Enigma, Barcelona
  • Etxeko Ibiza, Es Canar, Ibiza
  • Ferpel, Ortiguera
  • Fusión19, Muro, Mallorca
  • Gente Rara, Zaragoza
  • Kaleja, Málaga
  • La Finca, Loja
  • Mont Bar, Barcelona
  • Monte, San Feliz
  • Montia, San Lorenzo de El Escorial
  • Oba, Casas-Ibáñez
  • O’Pazo, Padrón
  • Ravioxo, Madrid
  • San-Hô, Adeje, Tenerife
  • Slow & Low, Barcelona
  • Tabaiba, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria
  • Ugo Chan, Madrid
  • Zuara Sushi, Madrid

The Michelin Guide also handed out special awards to three different chefs.

The Young Chef Award for 2023 went to Almería-born chef Cristóbal Muñoz, who at age 31, heads up the kitchens at Ambivium in Peñafiel, Castilla y León.

The Chef Mentor Award for 2023 was given to a well-known name in the world of Spanish gastronomy – Joan Roca, who together with his brothers turned El Cellar de Can Roca in Girona, Catalonia into one of the best and most famous restaurants in the world.

Finally, the Michelin Service Award for 2023 was presented to Toni Gerez from Castell de Peralada, also in Catalonia. As the restaurant manager and sommelier, he “excels in customer-facing roles, in particular, when presenting his marvellous cheese cart that goes from table to table,” explained the judges.

In total, the 2023 Guide lists 1,401 restaurants throughout Spain, Portugal and Andorra. Out of these, 13 have three Michelin Stars, 41 have two Michelin Stars and 235 were awarded one Michelin Star.