The months without an ‘R’ in them are starting, and we travel south on the search for sardines. Malaga welcomes us with a gift in the shape of fish: prepare yourself to lick your fingers and discover the taste of the Mediterranean thanks to the ‘espetos’.
Come on, we’re leaving. Never have six sardines on a stick gone such a long way! A boat full of sand, some cane from the river, fresh sardines, olive wood embers and the perfect amount of salt.These are the main ingredients for a good ‘espeto’. When the winter is over and the sardines are slim after spawning, come the months without an ‘r’, in which they regain their strength and all of the fat that gives them its flavor.
In the province of Malaga there are tons of ‘chiringuitos’ where you can enjoy this simple but exquisite dish, and prices that go from a euro and 50 cents up to about ten. That’s why we’re embarking on a route on the ancient ‘National road 340’, which will lead us from one beach to another, from Nerja to Manilva, until we see sardines in our dreams’
Nerja is a city of blue-skied summers, streets in which you hear a British accent more often than a Spanish one, and a balcony for the whole of Europe to look over at Africa. Its coastline is the most appealing one of Malaga. And not only because of the crystal clear waters of the Natural reserve ‘Los Acantilados de Maro y Cerro Gordo’, but also because you can find some of the most popular ‘chiringuitos’ there.
One of the classics is ‘AYO’, on the Burriana beach, where a large part of the series that starred ‘Chanquete’ was filmed. It’s too bad they don’t have ‘espetos’ there, only grilled sardines, which is similar but not entirely the same. For the nostalgic, this stop is a must. Also for those who want to have seconds: when you order the first plate of paella you can repeat as many times as you want, until you’ve got enough, for the same price
But let’s move on. Without a hurry, and in the mood to enjoy, the best ‘espetos’ route parts from Nerja across the ancient national road 340. In the outskirts of the town there’s a beach called ‘Playazo’, with a spacious parking where you can leave your car without worries. A short walk of about 150 meters leads us to the first temple of sardines: the ‘chiringuito’ Mauri.
Today, the restaurant is run by two brothers, Francis and Manu, although their parents opened it in June 1990. Ever since then, the surroundings have maintained more or less intact -kind of a rarity in the Costa del Sol- turning it into a very special place. So special, that you will dig in to the ‘espetos’ the same way they did fifty years ago: in a little garden with some grass, next to the sand from the beach and with the waves crashing in just a few meters away.
“The ‘espetos’ Francis makes are very tasty, and the natural surroundings improve the experience even more”, says Manu. To go with it, they recommend the fried fish plate, with some of the best treats from Malaga’s sea: Kingklip, squid, octopus, cuttlefish eggs, fried prawns, or sole, among others.
Don’t forget to try the ‘Gambas al pil pil’ (pil pil prawns) that they make following mother’s recipe, or the paella, cooked with firewood.
The N-340 travels on towards the east, with its roundabouts, curves, residential areas, and, sometimes, so close to the Mediterranean sea that on stormy days it can be quite scary to drive. But the weather is nice on these shores, so don’t worry and enjoy from behind the steering wheel. You’ll pass by the ‘Torrox’ coast, the Algarrobo coast and finally by a little place that remains unseen by the majority of tourists: ‘Caleta de Vélez’. Maybe it doesn’t sound familiar, but here you can find the favorite fish market of many great restaurants in Malaga.
One of them is ‘Marisquería Mani’, that benefits from its proximity: it is located near the doors of the fish market. There, they know how to carefully choose the fruit of the local fishermen’s labor overnight.
A ‘chambao’ (small, simple space, often with palm leaves as a roof) at the door of the restaurant is sometimes used to pin the cane skewers and ‘smoke’ the sardines, which are an authentic delicacy here. Product quality is obvious: it’s enough to walk past their shop windows to see the fish is fresh.
Since the opening in 1963, Manuel Peláez and his family have established themselves in the neighborhood, as well as their delicious ‘fritura malagueña’. You can also order to take away.
The road continues and arrives, in just four kilometers, at Torre del Mar, a district in Vélez-Málaga that always wanted to be independent. Through the ‘Andrés Toré Toré’ street, you can go down all the way to the vast beach, where we will make a special stop in ‘Playa Tropical’, or, as everyone knows it here: ‘Restaurante Carmen’. It opened in the beginning of the 21st century, it’s located on the very boardwalk and it’s it represents an example of the good work in this region.
It’s also a good example of how quality doesn’t always have to correspond with big presentation, high prices or a modern decoration. Here, tradition rules, and the ‘espeto’ of sardines reflects this faithfully, as does the tasty fish that come from the fish market, or the incredible taste of the charcoal-grilled squid.
Nearby is another classic place, the ‘chiringuito’ ‘El Boquerón’, which opened its doors in 1971 and still has a kitchen that delivers flavors like those at home. If you want, soon you’ll have an opportunity to try both restaurants, and pair them with the music of The Prodigy, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, Nadasurf, Iván Ferreiro or La Pegatina, on on the Weekend Beach Festival. It takes place quite close to there, by the end of the boardwalk of Torre del Mar, from the fifth to the eighth of July. Is there a better accompaniment to a festival?
Back on the 340, a good option is to drive north, when it turns into the N-340ª, and visit the old town of Vélez-Málaga, or even to take a small detour via the A-356 to enter in the heart of the ‘Axarquía’ region. From this route, you can take detours towards some of the ‘white villages’.
One that really stands out is ‘Comares’, which is literally situated on the top of a hill. You can also reach ‘Canillas de Aceituno y Sedella’, on the slopes of the ‘Maroma’ peak. But seeing as these mountains aren’t exactly known for their ‘espetos’, when we want to savour the tasty sardines again, the best thing to do is to head back on the 340, to get to ‘Almayate y Benjarafe’, where they serve amazing sardines in practically every ‘chiringuito’.
The one that stands out is ‘El Balandro’, with a nice terrace, gastronomy of certain modernity, and perfect sardines, roasted on a cane wood. The restaurant has hammocks, and even Balinese beds, for the perfect ‘siesta’ with the sound of the waves as a soundtrack.
If you’re in the mood to feast again on the best pescaito, it’s the time to stop in the ‘chiringuito’ ‘Avante Claro’, in ‘La Cala, Rincón de la Victoria’. They work with exquisite products, which makes dining there a real experience: Red mullet from ‘Conil’, sea breams, wedge clams, mollusk… and, of course, ‘espetos’.
The next stop brings us closer to the capital of the Costa del Sol: Malaga. There remains a neighborhood where the traditional kitchen of the sea has not yet been converted in Asian fusion. We’re talking about ‘El Palo’, maybe one of the few places in Malaga where the best things of the 20th century stay alive: kids everywhere, fishermen spending the afternoon on the beach, sounds of flamenco guitars, houses with doors wide open and families playing ‘Parcheesi’ until dawn, in the middle of the boardwalk. This image is very welcoming, and so are the aromas.
All it takes is to sit down at one of the tables set out on the sand from the ‘chiringuito’ ‘El Zagal’. The knowledge accumulated over half a century, allows them to serve one of the best ‘espetos’ in the city. Their ‘espeteros’ are Argentinean, but their hearts belong to ‘El Palo’: the great care with which they treat the sardines and tend to the embers on a small wooden boat are details you won’t easily forget.
You’ll remember the taste of the smoked fish as well. Gilt-head breams, sea bass or squid, smoked by the slow fire of olive wood, to acquire an sublime taste. While you’re there, don’t forget to order some tasty clams or a delicious ‘fritura Malagueña’. If they offer paella, order a plate. And if you want a refreshing drink, choose the sangria. You’ll be back.
In ‘El Palo’ the recently opened ‘Peña Barcelonista’(FC Barcelona supporter’s club) is also worth a visit. A ‘chiringuito’ where you should forget about which football team you back, in exchange for some sardines that come in the ‘Titanic’.
There, the traditional ‘epetero’ boat has been tuned to resemble the mythical transatlantic ship. In its cabins, you can distinguish the fish, and the smoke seems to come out of the four chimneys. The idea came from Adrián Rosa, that reopened this ‘chiringuito’ a few moths ago, after being bound for many years to the kitchens of his family’s restaurant.
Now, the ‘Peña’ will also have succulent meat, paper cones of fish on the go, and a renovated menu. All of this at prices so economical, that it might even be cheaper to eat here every day instead of cooking at home.
If you want a change, in ‘El Palo’ there is always the ‘guiri’ (foreigner, tourist) option to walk all the way to ‘El Tintero’, a mythical place where about the half of Spain (and the world) goes to hear the names of the dishes being shouted out as if it were a fish market, and to listen to the classic “Y yo cobroooo…”.
If you cross the bridge over the ‘Jaboneros’ stream, you’ll enter the territory of ‘Pedregalejo’, where you can enjoy the good job being done by the classic chiringuitos such as ‘Las Palmeras’, ‘Hermanos Muñoz’, or one of the oldest ones: ‘Andrés Maricuchi’, without a doubt, one of the best places in Malaga to have fish.
There’s a lot of know-how, like that of Juani, ‘epetero’ that until recently went out to sea to fish every day. As a son and grandson of fishermen, to talk to him about the art of fishing, about the nets or the boats, is an honor to tradition. So are his stories about how anything was good enough to start a campfire and smoke some of the day’s capture on the beach, next to the rest of the fishermen.
All of this know-how runs in his blood, and that’s why he’s one of the persons that know the ‘art’ of ‘espetos’ best. And, if you’re up for another treat, dare to try just about anything: here, product quality is a sure thing.
If you’re in a nostalgic mood, pass by ‘Astilleros Nereo’, where they have organized a precious exhibition with photographs of the past. Typical fishermen and boats are the main focus in some of the captured moments that won’t be probably seen again in modern times.
Back on the road towards the east by the coastal route, it’s worth it to take a detour in Torremolinos, an old fishing district that became independent from Malaga in the eighties. The very center of fried fish has always been there, in the neighborhood ‘La Carihuela’, where the residents subside on the fruit of the sea.
With the touristic development that started in the fifties, new possibilities –apart from fishing- opened up, for example the several restaurants and ‘chiringuitos’ where the locals expressed their knowledge, and where they could offer the delicious fish and shellfish from this part of the bay of Malaga. Miguel knows all about this. As a child he ran about between the tables of the chiringuito ‘Los Leones’, which his grandfather opened in 1962. “What really attracted my attention back then were the ‘espetos’, and I was always focused on every detail”, explains this young man that was granted the title of ‘best espetero of the province of Malaga’ last summer.
The key, he says, is to make sure the sardines are on the perfect cooking point. “If you reach the point where they aren’t raw, but not too dry either, it’ll come out great”, he says, although the proximity to the ember also counts, as does the quantity and the moment to add the salt.
In ‘Los Leones’ you’ll have a safe bet with the sardines no matter what, but if you see Miguel smoke any other fish, order one too. His specialty is sea bass, which, cooked in this particular way, has a unique flavor.
If you get hooked, don’t worry: Miguel also has a business to take his tasty ‘espetos’ to go, to any event. Whether it’s your wedding, birthday or a party with friends, the ‘Espetero at home’ will show up with a small boat full of sand from the beach, some olive wood, wooden sticks, and loads of sardines so that you can feel like you’re at the beach, wherever you are.
If you feel like going on, the ‘Nacional 340’ continues until ‘Fuengirola’, a township from where it merges with the A-7 highway to Manilva, on the border with Cadiz. On the road you’ll still have a thousand and one options to keep enjoying the smoked sardines. From ‘El Limonero’ in Fuengirola to ‘Los Cañizos’ in Marbella, passing by every each boat filled with sand and burning olive wood. The sardines are waiting!