You can tell that a dish is unique to an area when local people defend the best way to enjoy it tooth and nail. King Alfonso XII experienced this when he was offered Malaga's sardine skewer (espeto) -"not like that Your Majesty, [eat it] with your fingers". The history behind it is embedded in the imagination of the 'Malagueños' much like Semana Santa is.
Times are continually changing but there are some things that never change. One of these is the preparation of the espeto. Something apparently simple but at the same time incredibly unique. Sardines (between five and six of them) are threaded one-by-one onto a metal skewer then brought to the exact point of readiness over charcoal embers which imbue the terraces of the beach bars with their characteristic aroma.
Last Tuesday it was time once again to pay tribute to tradition and to crown the chiringuito (beach bar) that prepares the best sardine espeto.
The final of the fourth edition of the Ruta del Espeto, organised by SUR and sponsored by Sabor a Málaga and the Diputación provincial authority, with the collaboration of Cruzcampo and the beach bar association of the Costa del Sol, was held in El Balneario in the city. The coveted award went to the Las Palmeras chiringuito and by public vote, La Cepa Playa.
The crown for the best espeto was disputed between five establishments in the province. Each one had just fifteen minutes to prepare two espetos that had to convince the jury composed of six professionals in the hospitality industry and chaired by SUR food critic, Enrique Bellver.
Going through to the final from among forty places that had entered in the competition were La Cepa Playa from Fuengirola, Pepe's Beach from Estepona and Las Acacias, Las Palmeras and Narval Marisquería, from Málaga.
Las Palmeras was founded in 1981 in Pedregalejo and is run by the third generation of Enrique Murillo's family.
"This award makes me feel very proud. We owe this to my grandfather. He opened Las Palmeras, then my father took it over and now it is a great honour for me to be able to carry on with the business," explained the owner after receiving the award from the jury for the best designated espeto.
Tradition is written in bold at Las Palmeras, and not only in the preparation of the product. One of the keys to success is also looking after the staff and keeping their loyalty. The example personified is Cristian Barna, Las Palmeras' 39-year-old espetero.. He was hired twelve years ago by Bernardo Murillo, Enrique's grandfather, and had arrived in Malaga from Romania. His first words were for the person who gave him a chance when others only turned their backs:
"He was the one who taught me this trade and I am very grateful to him. He was very demanding, but thanks to him I have been able to win this award now," he said in gratitude. Cristian emphasised feeling especially satisfied "as it is the first time I have participated in this contest".
Asked about the secret of a good espeto, he highlighted two key aspects: good ingredients and keeping control of the fire. The espetero, he added, will never be good if he thinks that he is preparing sardines to get by, waiting for a more comfortable job to come along.
"If you don't like it, it will be impossible for you to stick it out," he stressed. An opinion also shared by Jorge Cortés, the espetero of La Cepa Playa, a business founded in 1959. "It's a job where you have to endure a lot of heat, but if you do it with passion you'll also enjoy it," he explained.
Commitment to local products
At the awards ceremony, SUR's director of New Business, Federico Moret, stressed that "the reason behind the initiative of the espeto route is to support Malaga products, which is something that the newspaper carries in its DNA".
The vice president of the Diputación, Juan Carlos Maldonado, paid tribute to "the daily work you do to move forward your businesses, in these difficult times".
"You are the real architects of the economic recovery of Malaga," he said.
The head of the Southern region of Cruzcampo, Fernando Carrión, was also grateful:
"For allowing us to be part of the family of the hospitality industry".