The only woman at the sardine fire

Dolores Blanco with an espeto of tasty sardines at the beach bar where she works.
Dolores Blanco with an espeto of tasty sardines at the beach bar where she works. / S. ZAMORA
  • Extremadura-born Dolores Blanco has mastered the art of the 'espeto', traditionally a male-dominated profession on the Costa del Sol

At the age of 20, Dolores Blanco (Trujillo, 1977) found a job in the hospitality industry and spent the next 15 years waiting on tables. She started in her native Extremadura, but her profession saw her move where the work was: Cadiz, Huelva, Pamplona... until in 2010 she arrived on the Costa del Sol. "Ten years ago coming to 'work the coast' in the summer was still a good option," she says.

Since then she has never been without work and now she admits that she is in love with her current role as an 'espetera'. She is one of the select group of professionals responsible for the skewers of sardines ('espetos')cooked on the open wood fires at beach restaurants. And she is the only woman in Malaga province in this traditionally male role.

But how exactly did a woman from the coastless province of Cáceres end up cooking what is the Costa del Sol's most traditional seaside dish?

"When I arrived in Malaga, I'd never seen an espeto before and I was fascinated by this way of cooking sardines from day one," she explains. By chance that same year there was an espetero course in Amfremar, an association Dolores was involved with as a volunteer.

"I asked if I could do it as there weren't any women. There I learned the basics." It was working later in 'chiringuitos' (beach restaurants) alongside professionals that she says she really picked up the tricks of the trade.

"The sardines are toasted in the heat from the flames, a kind of hot chamber that forms between the fire and the fish," she explains. "This heat is fundamental," she reveals, "as is time - around eight minutes. You can't rush them. The fish needs permanent attention to make sure it is cooked just right."

The 42-year-old recently confirmed her commitment to her profession when she turned down the offer of a job as a secretary in Gijón in northern Spain. "I've never been without work," she says.

This traditional way of cooking sardines is currently among the hopefuls to be declared intangible cultural heritage by Unesco. Dolores supports the bid.

"It's unique and deserves that distinction," she says. "It has to be preserved."

She doesn't rule out the idea of transporting the espeto to other areas, even her hometown of Trujillo, providing there is "good olive wood" for the fire. However the reason for this tradition being special to the Costa del Sol is clear: "The small sardine that lives in the Alboran Sea is exceptional, first for its small size (around 12 centimetres), its shiny skin and for being especially tasty. In the summer they eat more, because there is more plankton and so they have more oil." These sardines, ideal for espetos, are known as "manolitas".

This explains the general rule that sardines can only be eaten when there's no R in the month; the sardines are at their best between May and August, but the espeteros don't stand with their arms folded for the rest of the year, when other types of fish are cooked in the same way.

But spending the day in front of a fire in the heat of the Costa del Sol summer, is not the most comfortable of jobs. "I try to drink a lot of water to keep hydrated and use sun cream, especially on the face. Sometimes, if I get really hot and bothered I wet my head in the shower next to the chiringuito to cool off," she says.

The job is also a smelly one. "The smell goes with you until you've had a shower with soap and water at home," she adds.

Pleasant surprise

Dolores admits she never liked sardines much until she tried the Costa's espetos. "These are something else. They're like sweets, you can't get enough of them. What's more they're healthy and reasonably priced," she points out. A typical espeto with five or six sardines can cost between two and six euros.

While the traditional skewer was always made of cane, Dolores has happily moved on to the stainless steel version. "I live in the 21st century. I can understand how the veteran espeteros get nostalgic over canes, but these can leave splinters, they're less hygienic and what's more are banned by the Health authorities. I prefer the steel. It's cleaner and lasts longer," she says.

Dolores makes up for her petite 1.50 metres in height and 40 kilos with her positive and extrovert personality, reflected by her blue hair. So, how does she feel about being the only woman in a typically male profession?

"I don't understand it because women are now in all professions. A woman can do the job as well as a man, if not better. In general we women are perfectionists, organised, disciplined, tidy and very clean. I thought at first that it was going to be harder but everyone has supported me," she says.

Little surprise, then, that her current employers, who were reticent when they took her on last year, are happy with their unique espetera.