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Pintxos: The Flavors Of Spain, On A Toothpick

Years ago when I lived in Barcelona, I took my mother to a concert at the modernist Palau de la Musica. I remember the tall stained-glass roof above me, undulating and sparkling as the hall reverberated with sound. I remember seeing the awe on visitors' faces as they first beheld the magnificent imagination of architect Lluis Domenech i Montaner — the majestic chandeliers, muses emerging from the wall playing instruments and the ethereal faces and flowers puzzled into the kaleidoscopic glass ceiling.

Pintxos embody everything I love about food: beauty, flavor, imagination, fresh ingredients and community. You do not eat pintxos alone. You eat them in a bar filled with people just off work, hungry and eager to share the day's gossip.

I also remember the pintxos sitting on the counter of the cafe as we left, perfectly sculpted pieces of art, the only food, in my mind, that could match the beauty of the building: bright red peppers floating atop a pillowy mound of tuna and green chives popping out on top; perfectly battered bacalao (salt cod) resting on a slice of fresh bread, smothered with orange-hazelnut Romesco sauce; Serrano ham, marbled in swirling white and pink with a light cheese beneath it. Each pintxo was arranged in bite-sized petals, spinning out in a circle on each plate like the ceramic flowers etched into the cafe pillars.

In the northern Basque region of Spain, any small plate is considered a pintxo (pronounced peen-tcho). Throughout the rest of Spain, most small plates are called tapas, with the word pintxo reserved for any tapa that is skewered or can be eaten in only a few bites. The term pintxo comes from the verb pinchar, meaning to skewer or puncture.

Pintxos embody everything I love about food: beauty, flavor, imagination, fresh ingredients and community. You do not eat pintxos alone. You eat them in a bar filled with people just off work, hungry and eager to share the day's gossip. You eat pintxos with friends or new acquaintances, following the traditions of txikiteo (pronounced chee-kee-tay-oh), a pintxo pub crawl, eating one or two pintxos in each bar and paying by toothpick on the way out (each toothpick representing one pintxo) before moving to the next destination. In pintxo bars, plates of these skewered delicacies, croquettes, small sandwiches or montaditos (miniature, open-faced sandwiches) are organized on bar tops, so diners can revisit the counter every few minutes to choose a new bite, return to their tables to indulge, sip beer or txakoli (a sparkling Basque wine), count toothpicks and move on.

The art of pintxos first developed in the Basque region, specifically in the town of San Sebastian, as a take on the traditional Spanish tapa while incorporating French nouvelle cuisine traditions, emphasizing presentation. The town still reigns as Spain's pintxo center, though today faces stiff competition from a nearby town, Hondarribia, now the host of the annual regional pintxo competition.

Pintxos are an opportunity for imagination and creativity. While some pintxo bars maintain the more traditional combinations of chorizo and manchego or dates with blue cheese and bacon, others reflect the influence of the Michelin-rated Basque chefs cooking nearby, expanding the repertoire of flavors and appearance. Banderillas, a subset of pintxos, are the easiest to assemble, simply combining a pickled vegetable, marinated fish or olive on a toothpick. These strong flavors create a piquant start to a meal. Some of the most common ingredients on banderillas include anchovies and boquerones, vinegar-cured, pearly white anchovies. Guindilla peppers (long, neon green, spicy and pickled) are also popular, and often paired with a salty sardine or olive. All you need for banderillas are the pre-pickled ingredients.

The beauty of pintxos lies in the possibilities. There are no set rules or parameters. The goal is to create something flavorful and beautiful on a toothpick: wrap anchovies around olives, fold guindilla peppers up and over another ingredient before securing it to the pick, or stack colors and flavors into a bite-sized tower.

You don't have to go to a pintxo bar, either. These little bites facilitate mingling, talking and sharing at home, as dinner or hors d'oeuvres. Wherever I am, they always remind me of the fanciful surroundings of our first meeting.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eve Turow