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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.

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