“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well”

I’m planning my birthday dinner at the moment, and I’ve gone with the best the Spanish-speaking world has to offer to vegetarians. Cue pintxos, tapas, home-made corn tortillas, and a Mexican chilli chocolate cake to die for. To top it all off, I have invested in copious amounts of cava, tempranillo, sangria, and – perhaps surprisingly – apple cider.  Ella Baila Sola is playing from the stereo and there’s also a misguided-purchase of a piñata sitting in the corner cause I didn’t really think through where I could tie it up…

Spanish food is fun. It’s theatrical, it’s delicious, and the invariably small serving sizes mean you get to try a little of everything and make catering a dinner party an absolute breeze. Of course, the only problem with my selection of theme for my birthday is that it’s making me feel incredibly nostalgic for Spain. I’ve blogged previously on Barcelona so today I thought I would go with San Sebastián.

I love San Sebastián. People say it’s too touristy, but what they don’t mention is that the vast majority of tourists (in the non-British season) are themselves Spanish – up from the surrounding areas for a weekend of good times. As a city of tiny alleyways, San Sebastián makes even the smallest crowd feel substantial, and we were there during a festival weekend. There were activities and performances every day, and one afternoon there was a parade in which giant wooden and paper dolls on stilts traversed the city to gather and dance in the square just next to our hostel.

San Sebastián is a loud city. Unbelievably loud. It is a city whose energy is infectious – even after a sleepless night at a Romanian airport and a very early morning flight we were ready to stay up till dawn.

And oh my god the food. The pintxos are a thing of beauty; an ocean of tiny toothpicks pressing magnificent combinations of cheese, peppers, and seafood onto crusty baguette. A well-stocked pintxo bar resembles a poorly built picket fence.

There are two types of pintxo bar. The first is staffed by middle-aged men in long-sleeve white shirts and black waistcoats. Either too bright or too dark, they are populated by a subdued crowd politely sipping table wine and nibbling simple pintxos made according to traditional recipes. The bread is topped with only one or two ingredients – always fresh – and the meal is rounded out with a serving of patatas bravas and pimientos de padrón.

The second is staffed by young bearded men working alongside women sporting bright red hair. The lighting – always just the right side of dark – obscures how many people the tiny venue contains, but the rabble of voices – and the quickly disappearing pintxos – hint at the multitude. The pintxos themselves are always works of art – beautifully executed pieces one feels almost guilty to consume – and are new twists on old favourites (brie with pomegranate, shitake mushroom skewers and the like). The drinks list is invariably simple but performance-based. At one place the cava barrel stood above the waiter’s head and streamed out in an arc. He had to hold the glass at just the right distance and angle to catch the liquid, which had formed a parabola above his head.

Two types of pintxo bar, and I honestly couldn’t tell you which is my favourite.

(I have very few photos of San Sebastián – I was having too much fun to remember to take any.)