Pintxos bring people together through small plates

May 4, 2013

Friends and family gather as the aromas of sweet bread, grapes with a touch of cedar and savory ham fills the air. Guests line up with insatiable appetites and plates in hands, as they move through a myriad of dishes. Though the decadent spread may appear so, today is not a holiday. Rather, this is a way of life for Basques and Catalonians.

The tradition, passed on through several generations, has inspired the gastronomy known as pintxos in Basque and tapas throughout Spain. The small dishes, designed to bring family and friends together, do exhibit a difference. A pintxo, of Basque origin, is a micro-cuisine meant for one diner whereas tapas are small shareable plates. Their common thread exists in their purpose — family, friendship and food.

IRATI Taverna Basca, the first pintxos bar in Barcelona, brings that tradition in its purest form to Catalonia. Seven- teen years since opening, the restaurant has expanded to several more locations, spreading the culture throughout Barcelona. The restaurant dishes up around 50 selections of hot and cold pintxos, each with its own texture, flavor and ingredients, chef Miguel Farin Mora said.

“My favorite pintxo is Jila,” he said. “It’s explosive with many different flavors that opens the stomach for the rest of the meal.”

The culmination of the senses makes this dish unlike any other offered at the restaurant, Mora said. Delicately arranged on a toothpick, as all pintxos are at IRATI, Jila is a combination of salty olives and an anchovy wrapped around three small spicy peppers. This dish and others are iconic of the micro-cuisine of the Basque Country, said Mora, who has worked at IRATI for five years.

“[What I love about Barcelona] is the different cultures; it’s a very energetic city,” he said. “It’s one of the capitals of gastronomy, and you can find all kinds of food here.”

Spain is known for tapas (small meals) made for sharing with friends and family, but that is not what IRATI is about, manager Jair Martín said. Pintxos are not tapas.

Instead, customers choose several pintxos, miniature dishes, meaning they are not confined to one choice on a dinner menu, Martín said. When guests are satisfied, they simply return the plates and pay on the honor system, which is based on the number of toothpicks on their plates.

“If you want to know about Basque cuisine and Basque gastronomy, which has won more Michelin stars than any other place, then you should come to IRATI,” Martín said.

But Barça offers cuisine originating from all cultures, not just from the nearby Basque region. As one of the fastest-moving and tourist-saturated cities in Spain, diners can find a variation of dishes to suit any palate. Some restaurants have begun to experiment with ingredients, synthesizing multiple dining experiences into a hybrid. One example is Ziryab, a fusion of both Arab dishes and tapas-style dining.

“Because tapas aren’t large, you can order as much as you want and try everything,” said Kate Burton, owner of Ziryab.

After working for the Red Cross in war zones and prisons, Kate Burton needed a change of pace. Reflecting on her past, she discovered her passion for Arabic culture surpassed speaking the language and working with refugees in war zones.

Instead, Burton turned to her palate for the solution.

Fusing Catalan and Middle Eastern flavors, Burton’s restaurant exhibits dishes made with thyme, rosemary, mints and creams. One of the most popular dishes featured consist of dates, traditional of Arab nations, wrapped in bacon.

The restaurant, only open for six months, has already begun to create a name for itself as it combines the friendly atmosphere of tapas-style dining withdishes from Arab nations.

“What I love about this place is that it’s off the beaten path; that’s what Barcelona is about,” she said. “People come to eat here and end up going out together after,” Burton said.