An exquisite example of what Amiano called "bonsai cuisine" can be found in La Cuchara de San Telmo, a hole-in-the-wall decorated with steel beer steins and corn husks hanging over the bar. Its two young chefs -- one with a shaved head and a goatee, the other in a heavy metal T-shirt -- were veterans of some of the best kitchens in Barcelona and San Sebastian, and hurried back to the kitchen to prepare our mid-afternoon orders.
They watched beaming as we sipped a creamy garlic soup in a shot glass. Tepid, almost glutinous, and frothed up with the bite of raw-milk Idiazabal cheese, it was at once refreshing and challenging. Next came bacalao (salt cod), fried Tempura-style, crispy and salty on the outside, but flaky on the inside.
Pausing for doses of txakoli, we confronted a plate of lightly fried foie gras, stacked with smoked eel and caramelized apple. I was already reaching my capacity, but Amiano was just getting started.
"This is nothing. Normally, a cuadrilla has between four and 15 people, and they'll visit at least five bars. On fiesta days, you might start early in the morning, sit down for a full meal at some point, and not finish with pintxos and wine until the evening. On weekends, people may stay out till two or three in the morning. There are places where you can sit down, but normally, you're always on foot."
To travellers used to maître d's, such informality can be disconcerting: Toothpicks and oil-paned napkins are casually tossed onto the floor, and when it comes time to pay there's no written bill. Settling up is an honourable negotiation between host and client.
Squinting into the late-afternoon sun, Amiano next led me to Ganbara, a bar tricked out like a ship's cabin, its marble-and-wood counter spread with spectacular heaps of raw cepes, chanterelles, and morels, interspersed with red and green chilies. Two more glasses of txakoli appeared, and Amaia Ortuzar, the curly-haired owner who had been dandling her baby on her knee when we entered, returned from the kitchen with a plate of perfectly grilled mushrooms. An egg yolk slid over the olive-oil topped caps, a piece of pâté de foie gras was hidden among the stems, and we used bread and forks to slather up the mingling juices. I didn't want it to stop -- it was as if I had discovered my gastronomic ideal.
Though I'd washed down eight dishes with at least as many glasses of txakoli, I was feeling exhilarated and clear-headed -- lucid enough, in fact, to remember to look at my pocket watch. Three hours had passed at Ganbara, though it had seemed like 30 minutes. I apologized to Amiano for eating up his entire afternoon.
"That's what a txikiteo is for," he replied good-naturedly. "To forget about time!" Bidding me " agur," he patted his belly and strolled away toward La Concha. Watching him go, I envied the man, a member of a distinctive society that had so faithfully maintained its culinary and cultural traditions in the face of centuries of invasion -- both linguistic and touristic.
Though, when I thought about it, I was really jealous of the decades of pintxo-eating that lay before him.
Taras Grescoe's The Devil's Picnic has just been published by HarperCollins. For more information, visit http://www.devilspicnic.ca.
Pack your appetite
The Renfe rail service (renfe.es; 34 902 24 02 02) runs regular trains to San Sebastian from Madrid (six hours) and Barcelona (eight). Domestic flights land in nearby Hondarribia.
WHERE TO STAY
Hote l Londres y de Inglaterra: Zubieta 2; http://www.hlondres.com; 34 (943) 44 07 70. Rates start at $140 a night.
Hotel Europa: C. San Martin 52; 34 (943) 47 08 80; http://www.hotel-europa.com. Rates start at $120 a night.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Txepetxa: Pescaderia 5; 34 (943) 342 277.
La Cuchara de San Telmo: Calle 31 de Agosto 28 ; 34 (943) 420 840.
Ganbara: San Jeronimo 21; 34 (943) 422 575.
Tourist Office of Spain: 416-961-3131; http://www.tourspain.toronto.on.ca.
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