The gilda looks so simple: just a long toothpick with a few tasty morsels strung on it, an olive, a couple of pickled peppers, a salt-cured anchovy. These snacks sit stacked behind bar counters across the Basque Country of northern Spain, waiting for someone to point at them, waiting to be devoured. And it's true, Gildas are quite basic. Three ingredients. One stick. Yet this cherished staple is the perfect example of something that's greater than the sum of its parts, an ideal pre-dinner appetiser, something that goes incredibly well with vermouth or wine or beer, a single bite that is at once salty, briny, spicy and tangy. There are few things in this world better than a Spanish gilda.
So loved are gildas in Basque Spain that a whole legend has been built around their invention. What's certain is that the gilda was created some 60 or so years ago in a San Sebastian bar called Casa Valles. From here, things drift into myth: the story goes that the owner of that bar, Blas Valles, would serve small plates of tinned snacks to his customers – who were ostensibly just there to drink – such as olives, sometimes pickled peppers called guindillas, and even salted anchovies. One day, regular customer and local legend Joaquin Aramburu began jabbing at his snacks with a toothpick, lining up an olive, a few guindillas and an anchovy in one bite, and a legend was born. The snack is named after Rita Hayworth's character, Gilda, in the movie of the same name – apparently because she, like the snack, was a little spicy and "salty", which to the Spanish can also be slang for "witty".
Pretty much every bar across the Basque Country of Spain now serves gildas as one of its staple "pintxos", or snacks. The best news, however, is that the bar responsible for their invention, Casa Valles (Reyes Catolicos Kalea 10), still exists, and it's an absolute classic of old-school Basque hospitality. It's also worth calling into the San Sebastian bar that's named after the Gilda's supposed inventor, Aramburu, whose nickname was Txepetxa (bartxepetxa.es).
The greatness of the gilda is beginning to be recognised in Australia. In Sydney, Continental Deli in Newtown (continentaldelicatessen.com.au) does an excellent gilda, using Basque Ortiz anchovies, with an extensive vermouth list to match it. In Melbourne, call past Karen Martini's new eatery, Hero (heroacmi.com.au), for a "red pepper gilda".
ONE MORE THING
If you're ordering a gilda in its rightful home, bear in mind that the "G" in Spain is pronounced more like a slightly guttural "H", so the correct pronunciation of the snack sounds more like "Hilda".