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The Gilda Age

Once a rarity outside of Basque Country, the salty, spicy gilda is finding new fans across the globe

A gilda on a bright red backdrop. Lille Allen | Eater

A large, curved gourd snaked down the center of the snack table at a recent New York City event for the brand Birkenstock. The pintxos known as gildas poked out along the gourd’s length, each one skewering a pickled pepper, an anchovy, and an olive. This “gilda cobra” was the work of chef Woldy Reyes, who has since replicated the concept down a similarly serpentine length of bread (this time for the brand Emme Parsons). With his creative presentation, “I wanted to take something so simple, but make it more than what it could actually be,” Reyes says.

The gilda is a staple of Basque Country, a drinking snack that can be held in one hand with a glass of Txakoli in the other. The skewer gets its name from the 1946 film noir Gilda, starring Rita Hayworth. By some tellings, it’s the flavors of a gilda that pay homage: salty and spicy, like Hayworth’s character. By others, it’s the shapes on the skewer: The round manzanilla olive, curvy Cantabrian anchovy, and leggy guindilla pepper evoke a woman’s curves.

After years of relative obscurity outside of Basque Country, the gilda is finding new fans across the globe — London and Sydney, in particular, have become gilda hot spots. In the United States, which has only recently found itself caught in the thrall of conservas, the gilda seems poised for success within an increasingly anchovy-curious dining public. And as the gilda takes off in Basque-inflected wine bars and beyond, it’s also transforming into playful new formats that might earn themselves new names.

Alex Raij and Eder Montero began serving gildas at catering events in NYC in 1999, and they put them on the menu on day one at Txikito, the Basque restaurant they opened in 2008. Green peppers, anchovies, and olives were all more polarizing than they are today, and the pintxo wasn’t common, Raij recalls. Back then, “we were trying to win hearts and change minds,” she says. Now, “I see [gildas] everywhere — I see versions that are hard to look at, and then I see, you know, really beautiful ones.” At Txikito, it’s not about reinventing the gilda so much as constantly improving it.

Raij explains that they’re always upgrading the pepper, anchovy, and olive to ensure not only the best quality but also the right size. If the elements are too long or curvy, a diner risks becoming a “fire eater at Coney Island” with a skewer halfway down their throat. If they pick at the gilda by the piece, they lose the flavor effect. Txikito’s gildas aren’t always as voluptuous as their inspiration. Lacking in curves, the current gilda is “probably one of the least beautiful gildas I’ve ever made,” Raij says. “But it’s in one bite; that’s what I really want people to do.”

As with Txikito, the gilda often appears where one would expect it: Basque or Spanish establishments like Asheville’s Cúrate, Brooklyn’s Bar Vinazo and El Pingüino, Santa Monica’s Xuntos, and Norfolk, Virginia’s Crudo Nudo.

The rise of the gilda martini was to be expected. Martinis have gone beyond dirty to fishy, Punch reported last year, pointing to the gilda-topped Pintxotini at the NYC Basque restaurant Ernesto’s. Nearby, Nudibranch, a Korean Spanish spot, does the same; its gilda martini is so popular that it’s on merch. In San Francisco, Bellota serves a sherry-tinged Gilda-tini, and, naturally, the drink has appeared at a Los Angeles pop-up by tinned fish brand Fish Wife.

Some iterations of the gilda take liberties with the concept. True to her “more is more” ethos, cookbook author Molly Baz has a recipe for a gilda grilled cheese, which she stuffs with pepperoncini, olive, and anchovy relish, and then skewers with a gilda that’s gained a cornichon. In Australia, the aptly named wine bar Gildas serves two riffs on its namesake: the “Grillda,” which has included sardines or mackerel, and the “Matilda,” which consists of charred kangaroo, lemon, and onion. Darby’s in London also serves a “Grillda,” made up of smoked eel and mojo verde.

Although Nudibranch’s gilda is mostly classic, apart from the milder white anchovy in place of the typical brown anchovy, its chefs have played around with inclusions like pickled mussels and vegetables, including pickled okra and onions. “We took banchan ingredients and felt like, Anything can be a gilda,” says chef and co-owner Jeffrey Kim, who sees it as about hitting the notes of salty, spicy, and sour.

This year, Raij and Montero added their own riff on the gilda to the menu at Txikito. The “Hot Jilda” consists of a smoked Japanese sausage, a guindilla pepper, and a pickled pearl onion. It’s served with an S&B curry mustard for dipping — overall a nod to the Japanese food that the pair would share on their one night off together as young cooks.

Txikito’s recent adoption of the Hot Jilda speaks to the broader evolution of Basque cuisine in the US, and Raij’s changing relationship to how her restaurant presents it. When the restaurant opened in 2008, “people weren’t drinking Txakoli, they didn’t know how to pronounce ‘tx,’” she says.

By the time Txikito reopened in late 2022 after a lengthy, pandemic-spurred closure, diners were more keen on anchovies and olives, and more familiar with Basque cuisine. “We want to be in conversation with Basque cuisine and how the cuisine viewed itself when we opened and how it views itself now, and that’s changed in every way, partly because of us,” she says. Accordingly, Raij felt that she and Montero could take more liberties with their food, and that those liberties would be understood as their own personal taste-making choices as opposed to statements about “authenticity.”

“We only put [the Hot Jilda] on this year because we felt like we had moved the conversation far enough along to have this other fun thing,” Raij says.