Monday, November 5, 2007

The challenge of pintoxs

Bilbao has been hard for me.

The city itself is beautiful. It has a bad rap, affectionately called “el botxo” or “the hole” by locals, and was known mainly as an ugly industrial city for years, until it got the Gehry-designed shiny Guggenheim 10 years ago, which, incidentally, is more beautiful than I ever imagined. But it must be “ugly industrial” European-style, because if this city were in the U.S., it would be advertised as a picturesque tourist destination. It’s not in the style of Salamanca or Santiago de Compostela, which can brag about their 500-year-old medieval buildings. Bilbao’s colorful houses and buildings along its Ria, or inlet from the sea, are only from the 19th century; perhaps that’s why it’s not considered one of Spain’s beautiful cities. But it has the Guggenheim; it has the Mercado de Ribera, the biggest covered market in Europe; it has fantastic public transit; it has the world’s oldest transporter bridge (very cool, trust me). Also, the river apparently used to stink, but I went for a morning run my first day and it smelled just fine!

Bilbao has been hard because here, it is undeniable how social Spaniards are. One of the things I love most about Spain is the way people go out, young, old, infant, all together, every night. A typical tapas bar is a place to gather with friends, maybe even your grandparents, and not a place to cruise strangers. Bilbao is chilly these days, but it doesn’t stop the crowds from standing outside the Cafe-Bar Bilbao or Sasibil or Berton with drinks and pintxos, Basque tapas, in their hands. Food and friends go together so well here they have gastronomic societies called “txokos.” (Anyone want to start a Txoko Brooklyn with me?) People have a drink and a pintxo and then move on to the next bar. The classic drink in Euskara Herreria, or Basque country, is txakoli, a light, fizzy white wine with low enough alcohol content that you can move from bar to bar all night without getting smashed. Spanish kids must get smashed sometime, but it must be after I go to sleep because I haven’t seen a trashed Spaniard yet, even though every person I see seems to have a drink in her hand.

As lovely as this is, though, it is not an easy society to fit into as a solo traveler. I’m reminded of what my friend Bianca said to me when I was getting ready to move to New York from San Francisco. “NY is not a good place to find someone, but it’s a great place to be single—at least you know you’re not the only one.” Spain, and a pintxo-focused city like Bilbao, is the exact opposite. I am the only person alone in the entire city!

So what was I supposed to do in this pintxo-paradise? I tried one strategy, going when it’s not prime-tapas hour and I knew I could quietly snag a corner bar stool. In Salamanca, I had forced myself into a café-bar and been rewarded with strong black olives and luscious chunks of jamon, its chewy texture giving it a flavor I liked even more than the thinly sliced jamon I’d always known.

Here in Bilbao, I started with pintxos for breakfast at Abando y Barra, one block from the Guggenheim. I think that’s a little fried quail egg. It was so adorable, it was calling my name like a puppy in a pet shop window. I wouldn’t have thought a room-temperature egg would taste good, but it did. The little sandwich was mainly a tangy tuna sandwich, a little fishy for breakfast, but fortifying for the hours I spent in Richard Serra’s “The Matter of Time.”

That night, around 7:00, I walked to Bar Berton, just down the street from the Pension Mardones, and ate this pretty trio. The croquetas just melted in my mouth. Good, but afterwards, I wished I’d ordered the “solomillo con foie,” one of the few that you had to order off the menu. Here, there was even space at the end of a long table and I sat down and scribbled in my journal, closing the world away from me.

I felt like I was training for a marathon. The next night, I had to push myself further.

I walked by Café-Bar Bilbao twice before I could work up the courage to go in. It was 8:30 pm and it was buzzing, people spilling out onto the Plaza Nueva, people ordering and carrying away 2, 3, 4 glasses at once for their friends waiting outside. But once I was inside, the array of colors and textures on the counter gave me strength. I wanted so much to try one! I ordered a glass of txakoli and three pintxos. Sadly, I was too embarrassed to take out my camera. One can only overcome one insecurity at a time, no? I’m not even sure what I ate, I gulped everything down so fast. I only know that it was very, very, very good. Café Bar Bilbao is known for pushing pintxo boundaries beyond tradition. It must be so, because I think one of my pintxos had raspberry jelly on it.

Could I really tapas-hop on my own? Would I go home slightly hungry or stop at one more place? It’s funny, once you do something scary once, it really isn’t so hard the next time. It wasn’t nearly so painful to walk into Sasibil alone, even if the bartender there didn’t have the kind crinkly-eyed smile of the one at Café-Bar Bilbao. I’m thankful this time I was able to take a photo and have a memento of the 5 minutes I spent there. The one on the right was some sort of chopped jamon with maybe a parmesan crisp on top, and good, but the ones on the left, of bacalao, were stupendous. I think they were rehydrated salt cod, not cooked and so almost raw. The one in the foreground had a little fried quail egg and sitting on top of that, a round slice of octopus. So deliciously chewy! And the one behind had some serious chili oil happening, one of the few spicy things I’ve eaten in Spain.

I’m in San Sebastian now—here’s hoping for less harrowing pintxos-eating here.

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