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Spain's foodie frontier Add to ...

Argomaniz. Etxarri-Aranatz. Icazteguieta. On the train north from Madrid, the murderous agglutinations of consonants on the trackside town signs were starting to worry me. By the time I sat down for lunch in Donostia -- and realized I didn't know how, or what, to order -- I decided I was going to need some help with the thorny and tentacular vocabulary of the Basque tapas bar.

I had expected the familiar landscape of the Spanish taberna: upended barrels of sherry doing double duty as tables; dusty fluorescent-lit hams dangling from the rafters; and, at the bar, the usual array of tapas: fat green olives stuffed with almonds, anchovies drowned in olive oil, patatas bravas smothered in hot sauce.

Instead, after using some diplomatic elbow work to belly up to the barra, I was confronted with the alien, the unidentifiable and, I feared, the indigestible. Before me was what looked like a miniature hedgehog, rudely spatchcocked and placed on a slice of baguette. All down the bar-top tentacles protruded from canapés; crustacean tails poked out of dollops of mayonnaise; deep-fried squid strips were bound with undercooked bacon.

The food seemed as spiky and strange as the Basque language itself, a tongue that consists of only verbs and nouns, has no swear words, and predates the Indo-European invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 900 B.C. Like Haida and Japanese, Basque is a linguistic isolate, an orphan with no links to any known living language. The only Basque word I knew with certainty was kaixo (hello), and I wasn't at all sure how to handle that "x."

Timidly, I reached for the least intimidating foodstuff -- it turned out to be a sun-dried tomato on top of a wedge of Camembert on toast -- and contemplated my strategy. If I was going to get anything out of my time in the culinary capital of Spain, if not the world, I would clearly need a crash course in the glossary of Basque gastronomy. So I left a message with an expert in the matter, and set out to explore the streets in an effort to build up an appetite before our appointment.

Per capita, the city of Donostia (better known to most people by its Spanish name, San Sebastian) boasts the most Michelin stars in the world: 15 in total, one for every 12,000 inhabitants (versus, for example, one star for every 160,000 New Yorkers or one for every 220,000 Londoners ).

It was immediately obvious to me that two cities co-exist on the same stretch of Atlantic coast. The clamshell-shaped harbour of San Sebastian, the wealthy resort town with the highest property values in Spain, is set off by a tiny island as perfectly placed as Marilyn Monroe's mole. Popular with vacationing French, San Sebastian is like an Iberian Biarritz, whose palm-studded boardwalk is bedecked with such Francophile flourishes as Fontaines Wallace and mansarded hotels with names like the Londres y de Inglaterra and the Europa.

Then there's Donostia, the rough-and-ready Basque town, where pickets protested outside the Maria Cristina Hotel during my visit and ETA, the most violent separatist movement in Europe, pasted the walls with gruesome posters showing the swollen heads of martyrs beaten and tortured by the national Guardia Civil. (Since then, much to the relief of most Basques, ETA surprised the world by announcing a permanent ceasefire.)

The one place San Sebastian and Donostia seemed to coalesce was in the Parte Vieja, an eight-square-block grid of five-storey buildings abutting the stone-Jesus-topped Monte Urgull. And the one thing the inhabitants of these coincidental cities seemed to agree on -- perhaps because it was the only safe topic of conversation -- was food. The Parte Vieja was like a French Quarter for foodies: a densely packed grid of narrow, pedestrian streets full of dozens of the best tapas bars in the world.

Except, as Peio Amiano was quick to inform me, tapas aren't tapas here: Basques call them pintxos. I had first come across Amiano's name in his restaurant column in the El Diario Vasco newspaper, and flipped through his lavishly illustrated book, La Alta Cocina Vasca en Miniatura (Basque Haute Cuisine in Miniature), prefaced by encomiums from Ferran Adria, Juan Arzak, and Martin Berastegui, three of Spain's most renowned chefs.

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.

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

GETTING THERE

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.

MORE INFORMATION

Tourist Office of Spain: 416-961-3131; http://www.tourspain.toronto.on.ca.

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