This blue marble

– and yet it spins


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Pintxo bar survival guide

padronesMore pintxos. Of course. This is San Sebastián. I lust for fresh vegetables but all I find is pickled olives, pimientos de padrón, or grilled red peppers on bread (which I do love but in moderation!). At home I steam tenderstem broccoli or flat green beans every day. Word is spreading among my classmates about a restaurant that specializes in fresh vegetarian fare. Sounds like heaven to me right now.

The original pintxos were apparently simple fishermen’s food. They seem simple, but keeping a menu of 20-30 pintxos and bocadillos requires a lot of salting, pickling, blending, and deep-frying. A potato tortilla is a pintxo (or bocadillo), and the “original” pintxo with green olives, green pickled peppers, and a small slice of pickled anchovy requires quite a lot of preparation if everything needs to be home-made. GetariaBasque bars are not places for relaxing, thinking, and writing. The music is loud and energetic, and if there is no music the other people are loud and energetic – and there are no seats. Eating at a pintxo bar is not for the timid, and some command of the Spanish language does make it much easier. The best is to just elbow in, look at what is going on and what is on the menu (and everybody’s plates) and then do like everyone else. And if there is no need to elbow one’s way in one is probably better off by going somewhere else. Some pintxo bars are order only. Others require the guest to take a plate, fill it at the bar, and pay at the end of the counter. Some bars have table service for the lucky ones who manage to grab a table. Finally, in the most traditional bars one elbows one’s way to the counter, orders just 1-2 pintxos and a small glass of cider, and flees into the street to eat after paying in cash at the bar. 

Each bar may serve 20 different kinds of pintxos, but there is always one signature pintxo that the locals know to choose. Some are proper dishes (I’ve even heard of a risotto “pintxo”). Thus on a Wednesday pintxopote night (or a weekend night) people pintxo bar crawl, having one or two bites and a small drink at each place before moving on. Ordering 10 pintxos in one place in one go is what tourists do. 

With pintxos most locals choose to drink Basque cider, or txakolí, a local cider-like wine. Both are very dry and contain little or no bubbles. Therefore they are poured from a special cork which is added to the mouth of the bottle. The glass is placed several dozen centimeters below, preferably at arm’s length, and the drink is poured in one long stream (like something else yellow…). The idea is to freshen up the flavor by aerating the drink before serving. Both txakolí and cidra taste surprisingly strong and yeasty and even bitter. The cider is strong and alcoholic while the wine is not, and both are served in the same large tumblers which are only poured one-third full or less – some 100 cl at a time. Just enough for a pintxo.SS-9

(San Sebastián, Spain; August 2019)


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Pintxos and puppy love

SS-5Yesterday I attended the city tour organized by our school, for newcomers. About Spain, in Spanish, of course. I surprised myself by understanding everything – although the guide was a teacher who spoke más despacio.

Afterwards some of us headed out to Gros in the rain, searching for food. A row of unsuccessful attempts later we concluded that all good places are always full and spilling out into the street even on a Monday. And those that have space have it for a reason. One of the unsuccessful attempts involved us actually getting seated, indoors, in a restaurant that turned out to serve pintxos and bocadillos on its (full) terrace and expensive Italian food in its (empty) restaurant. We gave up, walked out, and entered a busy pintxo bar, signed up for a table promised within half an hour, and attempted to order at the bar.

I and my Dutch classmate got ourselves a glass of wine each without a problem, but deciphering the long list of pintxos calientes and frios and bocadillos was not easy. The stuffed peppers contained meat. The bread with mushrooms contained meat. And meat is never “carne” in Spain but various kinds of cuts and hung and cured pieces of meat, or sausages, all with their own names in Spanish. I quickly concluded that most likely if there is an unfamiliar word on the menu it is the name of a kind of meat.

When we finally got the table I was on my second pintxo. My Dutch classmate had only scored a glass of wine. The rest of our group had not even been that successful: they had been coldly advised to wait until seated before being allowed a drink, let alone food.

The service was the usually slow San Sebastián service. As the rest of the table ate I wistfully meditated on my chances of receiving my third (delicious) anchovy pintxo. I was trying to converse with another Dutch classmate, a barely 20-something young woman, about her internship in the South of Spain. She gushed about how she felt it was her responsibility to also join a civil disobedience movement on climate change. Suddenly the young German (barely 20-something) man next to her poked her on the arm and asked us what we were talking about. “Climate change,” I said. “What do you think about it?” “Ha ha ha,” he nervously laughed, like a comedian. “Do I have to have an opinion about it?” “Well yes,” I said surprised. “Like, do you believe it is happening, or not?” “Ha ha ha” he laughed again, and poked the Dutch woman on the arm once more, provoking her to give him a slap on the head. And that was that conversation.

Also, that was what all conversations turned out to be at our end of the table. A nervous, constantly laughing 20-year-old wooing another pretty much killed all hopes of good talk. I gave up on my anchovy pintxo, put some cash on the table, said good night to everyone, and walked out feeling happy I was old enough to not care about what people thought of me.

As I strolled the streets of Gros I thought how wonderful it once was to have the exciting, dramatic life of a 20-year-old, and how even more wonderful it was to be liberated from expectations and to just be able to exit a situation that did not provide any value.
SS-6(San Sebastián, Spain; August 2019)


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Pintxopote

GetariaBusy. Warm. Crowded. Brightly lit. This is a Donostian pintxo bar on a Wednesday or Thursday night, the night of pintxopote. The waiters (all men sweat over the counter (although thankfully not onto the pintxos). Sangria and cider flow, and I am the only solo guest.

I wonder how long I get to keep my corner table. Pintxopote is a bar-crawl tradition from the recent economic recession in Spain, where Basque bars enticed locals to spend money outdoors, by offering a pintxo and a small drink for 2-3 euro. In San Sebastián old town it is on Wednesdays, and in Gros on Thursdays. A “pintxo” is a tapa, usually on bread. A “pote” is a drink in Basque.

The pintxos are good but oil, bread, and cheese are a killer combination for dinner every day. Literally. I wish pintxos would include a side salad. I doubt the Basques eat vegetables in any other form than cooked, grilled, or pickled.

Time to crawl back out into the fresh air to find a nice seaside café for a nightcap.

(San Sebastián, and photo from Getaría, Spain; August 2019)


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Just eat

bologna-12Oh, such a change: from wheat noodles and sauce, lard on rye bread, and very few non-meat options to an abundance of antipasti, tapenade, bread, and cheeses. Fresh gelato. Wonderfully fat green olives. Aioli. Salvation.bologna-13I find myself exposed to several “food capitals” this summer: I am still in San Sebastián, the city with the most Michelin stars; and writing about the food capital of Italy: Bologna. What else can one say but “go there and eat everything that’s put in front of you”? It is bound to be a success. bologna-11(Bologna, Italy; July 2019)


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Berries

salzburg-6Himbeeren, Blaubeeren, Brombeeren. The best you can get in the summer, if strawberries are not available. Or perhaps, even if they were available.

I’d like to think these berries are picked by rosy-cheeked Austrians in the nearby forests and brambles, but most likely these come from Poland. Or Serbia. And definitely not forests or brambles.  Unfortunately. Not that there is anything wrong with berries from Poland or Serbia (except for the kilometers between me and the food). This is food business in Europe today.

(Salzburg, Austria; July 2019)


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Warmth of the sun in a cup

curcuminWhisked into hot almond milk, curcumin latte is the warmth of the sun in a cup. This one comes with ginger, cinnamon, and black pepper for extra heat. Heat is good, not only in the winter, but also as a digestive for people whose bellies burn with a slow flame, like me.

Curcumin comes from turmeric, the ginger-resembling root that makes one’s fingers yellow when handling it. And as turmeric only contains a few percent of curcumin, quite a few roots have gone into one curcumin latte – for my good health. Yum.

(Brande, Denmark; June 2019)


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Blueberries, goodberries

blueberriesBlueberries and bilberries are the same, right? Wrong. Blueberries found in our European supermarkets all-year round are cultivated highbush blueberries, juicy and light or green inside. The blue berries found in the Northern European forests are bilberries. These are the ones that stain your fingers and tongue when you eat them straight from the bush.

And it is the European bilberry which (as far as I know) is the superior superfood of the two: loads of antioxidants, minerals, and great taste, unbeatable by the North American blueberry.

But when it is April and the Finnish forests are only waking up one takes what one finds (in the supermarket). And so today granma’s old sugar bowl is filled with cultivated blueberries.

(Loviisa, Finland; April 2019)