Malaga’s signature dish has gone from early royal approval to a potential candidate for an UNESCOworld heritage list and its creator even has a commemorative plaque where it all started, in El Palo. The ‘espeto de sardinas’ is a sure sign of summer across the province and in June was even the subject of one of the Costa del Sol’s famous ‘rutas’.
Food fit for a king
Summer in the many chiringuitos (beach bars) that line the Costa del Sol means one type of food: the ‘espeto’, sardines grilled on a cane skewer over an open fire in an old fishing boat and served up with sea salt and a slice of lemon to garnish.
While locals by now are used to seeing foreigners eating them with a knife and fork, many will tell you that the proper way to eat a sardine is by picking it up between the fingers and eating it like a slice of watermelon.
Locals will also tell you that the espeto should only be eaten in the months of the year with no ‘r’ in them, i.e. from May to August. This is because in the summer the sardines eat more plankton which gives them a greater layer of oil. On cooking this makes the flesh more succulent and much tastier.
The ‘espetero’ is the person in charge of cooing the skewered sardines in fires traditionally made in old fishing boats packed with sand. There is even a monument to the ‘espetero malagueño’ which can be found on the Antonio Banderas promenade to the west of Malaga city centre.
The origins of the espeto date back to 1882 when Miguel Martínez Soler, owner of the then La Gran Parada ‘merendero’ in El Palo started cooking sardines, skewered with a stick, on an open fire. When King Alfonso XII visited the bar in 1885 on an official visit to Malaga to see the destruction caused by the Christmas Day 1884 earthquake, he is said to have tried to eat the sardines with a knife and fork, to which Miguel said, “Your Majesty, not like that – with your fingers.”
The restaurant soon became famous and ‘Miguelito of the sardines’ has gone down in the Malaga history books. There is a plaque in El Palo commemorating the ‘inventor of the espeto’. The simple preparation of one of Malaga’s most popular fish soon spread across the coast and is now synonymous with summer on the Costa del Sol.
There is some controversy as to where the sardines are caught. In theory they should come from the waters around Malaga. However, a depletion of the species of fish has led, in recent years, to them coming from other parts of Spain, including Valencia and the north and some may say that the ‘foreign’ sardines are less tasty than the locally-caught ones.
Espetos are cooked at other times of year with many chiringuitos serving them up as early as February or March and then well into October or November, but any espeto lover will say that the best months are those without an ‘r’ in them; May, June, July and August.
Most beach bars have extended the espeto cooking method to other species of fish. Diners can order from a wide range of larger fish, from sea bream and sea bass to squid, cooked over the fire individually on their own cane skewers.
The dish is so important to Malaga that at the end of May this year members of the Andalusian parliament, the Junta de Andalucía, voted in favour of trying to get UNESCOrecognition on its Intangible Cultural Heritage List. Michelin-starred Malaga chef, Dani García, has supported the initiative, which must be debated in Spain’s national government before reaching UNESCO experts.
While Malaga waits for news from UNESCO, thousands of sardines will be eaten up and down the Costa del Sol this summer by locals and holidaymakers alike.