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If you want an unforgettable experience when you visit the Rioja wine country, go on a pincho tour instead of a sit-down lunch or dinner. ‘Pincho’ is the northern Spanish version of the classic Spanish ‘tapa’. It has evolved from a simple plate of olives placed on top of your drink (‘tapar’ in Spanish means ‘to cover’) to highly complex dishes that show off the creativity of the chefs in our region. You will soon discover that the kitchen staff in bars here are not simply spatula-wielding food flippers, but rather culinary school- trained chefs.
The pincho tour is one of our most popular social events, enjoyed by groups of friends. We pool some money, appoint a treasurer to administer the kitty, and decide in turn which bars to visit. Everyone orders a small glass of wine, beer or water and a pincho. When the kitty is empty, the group can decide to stop the tour or add more money. More often than not, you run into other friends who join the group. During weekends and holidays, the streets are packed.
Most bars specialize in one signature pincho but others have a range of them on top of the bar.
Some of the most popular classic pinchos are:
Patatas bravas (wild potatoes): bite-sized pieces of boiled, then deep fried potatoes covered in a mayonnaise and spicy tomato sauce.
The ‘gilda’, a green olive, a salt-cured anchovy and a pickled guindilla pepper skewered on a toothpick. This pincho was allegedly named after Rita Hayworth’s role in the 1940s movie Gilda because it was ‘verde, salado y picante’ (literally, ‘green, salty and spicy’, which describes the appearance of the pincho but also ‘risqué, congenial and showing a little skin’).
The ‘champi’: button mushrooms cooked on a griddle, covered with a sauce containing olive oil and garlic (each bar has its own secret recipe) skewered on a toothpick.
The ‘pincho de tortilla’: Potato omelet.
A longstanding Spanish tradition is the pincho contest where bars prepare their most innovative dish and compete for a prize. A jury made up of chefs and food writers taste each pincho with the finalists competing at a live showcooking event. The most recent winner in the contest in La Rioja was ‘La Chispa Adecuada’ (Just the right amount of spice) made with wonton pasta, green pepper, shallots, whole grain mustard, spherified balls of red wine and vinegar and small multicolored bonbons.
The winner of the 2018 contest in Vizcaya (including Bilbao) was the ‘codwich’, a sandwich featuring cod. Simple and very Basque!
The contest organizers publish a small booklet with the entries and you visit some bars to taste their pincho. There are always two winning pinchos: one chosen by the professional jury and one chosen by the people who visit the bars and put their favorite in a ballot box.
A pincho tour is easy to organize even if you’re not a local because practically every town and city has one or several streets lined with bars.
Here is a list of the most popular pincho bar areas in the Rioja wine country:
Old town: Laurel area: calle del Laurel, calle Albornoz , Travesía de Laurel, calle San Agustín, calle San Juan.
Near the Gran Vía: calle María Teresa Gil de Gárate, calle Somosierra, calle Menéndez Pelayo
Haro: La Herradura (streets between the Plaza de la Paz and calle Santo Tomás)
Laguardia: The village is full of great bars but the highest concentration is in and around the Plaza Mayor (main square) and Calle Mayor (Kale Nagusia).
Other important cities and towns with tapas streets are in Calahorra, Alfaro and Arnedo in La Rioja and Elciego, Villabuena de Álava (Eskuernaga), Labastida and Oyón in Rioja Alavesa. Just go to the area around the main square and look for the bars! Don’t worry if you don’t speak Spanish. Just point at the pincho!
All photo credits: Tom Perry except for the 'codwich', courtesy of www.campeonatodepintxos.com