I have just returned from an eight-day trip, or rather trek, across the French Pyrenees to Pamplona on the Camino de Santiago and, I can safely say, I am knackered. We experienced the most appalling weather (soaked to the skin for three days) and the most beautiful (24-27° for the rest of the week) and, although I have returned with a sprained ankle (currently swathed in a not-at-all-fetching-or-summery support bandage and no fun when there are five flights of stairs between your front door and bed…), a very unseasonal cold and the sort of pain in the neck that only a crooked and heavy rucksack can provide, I loved it. And there was, of course, the food.
Now, although northern Spain may be cited as a culinary paradise, I found, as I often did when I lived in Granada, that the best and most interesting flavours were to be had in tapas bars not restaurants. That may have something to do with the fact that, since we were walking and therefore setting off early, we tended to go to bed just as the Spanish decided to have an apéritif but since northern Spain is home to Logroño (said to have the best tapas in the whole country), Pamplona and Bilbao, I also think it’s because we were in the land of the pintxo, a rather more upmarket and dressy version of tapas which just beats restaurant fanciness every time.
My favourites were: the bar that served only grilled mushrooms, piled three to a cocktail stick, drowned in garlic butter, one tiny shrimp on top and pinned to a chunk of bread; a piece of toast layered with soft goat’s cheese, honey and walnuts (and I hate honey…); mini chorizo and Moorish lamb kebabs and a paper cornet full of huge prawns, sprinkled with just a touch of sea salt.
I love eating like this: a little bit of something here, another bit of something over there; the constant back and forth of the bar staff and the chatter and hum of everyone else eating and drinking. Standing up isn’t much fun, I grant you, especially after 20-odd kilometres of walking per day but I never tire of the fact that even in a crush, there’s always room for one more, that the banter is usually good-natured, never aggressive, and that going for tapas, or pintxos, is cheap, age-agnostic and an everyday occurrence. Yes, there are good tapas places in London but it’s all so, well, expensive, trendy and far too ‘sat down’ to be anywhere near as much fun as the original. The Spanish, like us, may be bankrupt in financial terms but they still know how to enjoy themselves more than most other nations on the planet. It helps, of course, that the glasses of Rioja, in La Rioja, are all of 50 centimos…sigh.