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Spain's foodie frontier Add to ...

Stocky, and a beard tending more to the salt than the pepper, Amiano chain-smoked Ducados and spoke with a kind of doleful awareness that his mission of championing the minuscule and apparently frivolous might appear laughable to the uninitiated. Though his mother tongue was Basque ("It's the first language of my wife and sons too"), he wrote in Castilian.

We met just after noon in a side street in the Parte Vieja, and he agreed to show me the rituals of the tapeo -- the tapas-bar crawl, Donostia-style. Or, as he corrected me, the txikiteo, which is the Basque word for roaming from bar to bar, leavening one's alcohol intake with tiny portions of delicious food.

Pushing the limits of my Basque vocabulary, I entered Txepetxa, a bar famous for its marinated anchovies, with an attempt at a resounding " kaixo!" (pronounced kay-show -- the rebarbative "x," it turned out, is simply a "sh," except in the formation "tx," which is pronounced "ch").

Gratifyingly, the bartender replied with " berdin!" (same to you), and made a great show of filling unstemmed glasses from a bottle of what looked like white wine held at arm's length over his head.

"This is txakoli," Amiano explained. "It's naturally fizzy, a bit like cider or cava, and pouring it that way brings out the bubbles even more."

I took a sip. Served cold, it was tart and fresh, reminding me of a Portuguese vinho verde, and promised to be the perfect accompaniment to the seafood-oriented pintxos spread on the counter before us: txangurro (cooked spider-crab flesh) stuffed in tarts, and silver-backed anchovies interlaced with papaya strips on toast. Plunging in, I took a plate of erizo de mar (literally, "hedgehog of the sea").

"Here and in Catalonia," explained Amiano, "we eat sea urchins raw, a few hours after they're taken from the ocean."

Torn between revulsion and fascination, I scraped a bit of the gravy-hued flesh from the quilled black carapace. The taste was a concentrated burst of saline, mitigated by the winey, umami flavour of the plankton-infused flesh. I reached for my txakoli, happy to have something sweet and cool to rinse my distressed palate.

It was in the early 20th century that cuadrillas (squadrons) of revellers started their pub crawls. In fact, San Sebastian has had a tradition of txokos (gastronomic societies) going back to 1843, in which men would gather in private clubs to cook elaborate dishes, sing, and drink cider. Naturally, the revelry had a tendency to spill over to local bars, and the wives, grandmothers and sisters of the barkeepers covered the counters with potato-and-egg tortillas, stews, and bits of chorizo, morcilla and other sausages. As a strategy to curtail drunkenness, it made good sense: Keeping the men-folk filled with tasty food prevented them from succumbing to the effects of cider and wine.

I mentioned to Amiano that the people of Seville claim tapas were born in a bar called El Rinconcillo at some point in the mid-19th century. Amiano, showing a streak of reflexive Basque nationalism, responded with a grimace of disdain: "They would say that! But if they say it goes back to the 19th century, we'll say it goes back to the 15th. Andalusia has its tradition, but it's never been up to the level of ours. When the idea of the pintxo was born in the Basque country, people in Madrid and Barcelona, all over Spain, started copying us."

When the Lyonnais restaurateur Paul Bocuse visited Spain in 1976, he introduced two Basque chefs, Pedro Subijana and Juan Arzak, to the notion of nouvelle cuisine. They transformed it into la nueva cocina vasca, whose emphasis on small but exquisitely designed portions owed a clear a debt to the popular tradition of pintxos.

Through the 1980s, haute cuisine and bar food fed off of one another in a feedback loop that spurred both tavern-owners and chefs on to greater feats of creativity. Michelin three-starred restaurants started serving picas -- amuse-gueules and hors d'oeuvre that looked suspiciously like pintxos, although they were meant to be manipulated with a knife and fork -- while the bar-top treats in the Parte Vieja started to take on the architectural qualities of nouvelle cuisine.

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