Learning to eat: Basque Country’s pinxtos provide culinary revelations

UVA alum Allison Evanow-Jones is the founder of Ivy-based Square One Organic Spirits. The meals she ate in San Sebastian, Basque Country, transformed her thinking about food. Photo: John Robinson UVA alum Allison Evanow-Jones is the founder of Ivy-based Square One Organic Spirits. The meals she ate in San Sebastian, Basque Country, transformed her thinking about food. Photo: John Robinson

At UVA, I did my third year in Madrid, Spain, and I discovered San Sebastian, a resort town on the coast near the French border that’s famous for its food. It has Michelin-starred restaurants, but my favorite places to eat there were pinxto bars. Pinxto means spike, or skewer, but it translates generally to snack, or tapas. The pinxtos are concentrated in one area in San Sebastian. You go from one to the next, and each has a specialty, often served on a slice of crusty bread. It’s a style of eating, grazing in a cool old neighborhood where food is central to life. The idea of eating fresh and local didn’t exist when I was growing up. I learned about it in Spain, where I ended up living for five years. Today, it informs not only the way I eat but also my business, which uses organic ingredients to make spirits and other drinks.

After I returned to Virginia (I live in Ivy), I got married and my husband and I took a trip—guess where. Part of the planning entailed plotting a course among the best pinxto bars. Thankfully, no driving was involved because drinking definitely was, and my favorite places to eat were within walking distance. The strategy is to start with little bites and then work your way up to a main course. One pinxto we went to specializes in hongos, thick-stemmed mushrooms cut up and sautéed in garlic with a fried egg on top. Another served a dozen different preparations of anchovies, or boquerónes. One delicacy that sounds gross but is delicious are percebes—we call them goose barnacles here—that you eat by sucking the meat out of the shell. Finally, there’s beef, or rather, ox, that’s seared on a big iron griddle, sliced very thin, and again, served on bread.

When you ask about a favorite meal, most people recall one big decadent dining experience. For me, piecing together a bunch of great moments in an amazing place like San Sebastian is how I think of my best meal ever. —Allison Evanow-Jones, founder, Square One Organic Spirits, as told to Joe Bargmann

Square One Organic Spirits are available by request at Virginia ABC stores, and the brand’s organic cocktail mixers can be purchased at local stores including The Spice Diva and Foods of All Nations or online at squareoneorganicmixers.com.

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