El Saladero, just a few metres from the fish market at La Caleta de Vélez, is a chiringuito that on offers many types of fish grilled on the skewer. SUR
Skewers aren't just for sardines: Chiringuitos on the Costa del Sol that also grill other types of fish

Skewers aren't just for sardines: Chiringuitos on the Costa del Sol that also grill other types of fish

The same slow-burning fires that are used mostly for cooking Malaga province's iconic 'espeto' dish can also be used to cook a wide range of other marine life including cephalopods and shellfish

Javier Almellones


Monday, 3 June 2024

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The sardine is the undisputed king of the slow-burning embers used for grilling fish in old, traditional fishing boats at the chiringuitos that line the beaches of the Costa del Sol. But it is not the only fish that can be grilled on a skewer, a cooking method that is as basic as it is attractive to the diners that flock to the beach bars and restaurants. This tradition can be observed on any trip to the beach, from Manilva to Nerja, where the same heat source is used to grill other fish and even cephalopods or shellfish.

The range is so wide that it includes fish smaller than the sardine, such as the anchovy, to some that can weigh more than three kilos, as is often the case with the succulent sea bream. Turbot, red sea bream, grouper, megrim sole, sea bass, pinta bream, red mullet, mackerel or gilt-head bream are just some of the wide range of fish that can be found cooking on the beach during high season.

"There is no fish that can't be skewered, because you can find the right way to skewer all of them", said Miguel León, recognised as one of the best skewer cooks in Malaga province. At his family-run chiringuito La Mar Bonita in La Carihuela (Torremolinos), he makes the most of the 'boquerones' (anchovies) when they are of a good size, which he grills with care and skill on the same fire used for grilling sardines.

Vicen Beach. On Sacaba Beach at Vicen Beach chiringuito you can also find calamares espetados (skewer-roasted squid).
Vicen Beach. On Sacaba Beach at Vicen Beach chiringuito you can also find calamares espetados (skewer-roasted squid). J. A.

The technique and the skewer used to grill these anchovies are the same as those used for sardines. "There is no added difficulty in making them and they take even less time to grill", said Miguel León, who also has his own home delivery business. "They are increasingly in demand, but we only offer them as an off-menu extra when they are large and plump, because if they are small they are too dry." This dish is also accompanied by a special sauce created by the restaurant itself that is reminiscent of the traditional cuisine of fishing families in this area of Torremolinos, although it has a secret ingredient that La Mar Bonita jealously guards.

They also dare to try boquerones (anchovies) at El Saladero on the Axarquia coast. This is confirmed by Juan Jiménez, co-owner of this restaurant located just a few metres from the fish market in La Caleta de Vélez. "Only when they are fresh and come from our port can they be cooked like this," he explained. Scaly fish are the ones most suited to this ancient way of grilling. On the coast of Malaga the dish acquires a certain 'je-ne-sais-quoi' thanks to the area's preference to burn olive or holm oak wood, whose flames are then fanned by the usually gentle sea breezes before being reduced to embers, ready to start grilling. However, in the case of large fish, the way they are skewered changes radically since, instead of piercing from under the tail as happens with sardines or the aforementioned anchovies, the stainless steel skewer is inserted through the mouth. As such they are placed face down into the embers on the 'espetos' boat.

Cooking time is also important and will depend on the size, thickness and weight of the fish. A mackerel is not cooked in the same way as turbot or sea bream, to mention just a few of the possible candidates to be skewered. Beforehand, the fish must be gutted, cut and sprinkled with coarse salt. A fish weighing more than three kilos can be cooked this way, but it takes more than an hour for them to be ready to eat.

Wide range of fish

The repertoire is relatively wide at Vicen Playa, one of the most reputable beach bars on Sacaba Beach: "Here we only work with wild fish, which we can either bake or grill", explained Rafael Jurado, manager of this family-run establishment. From red mullet and mackerel that are relatively smaller in size to red sea bream, gilt-head bream, John Dory, pinta bream and snapper are some of the options on offer to diners. Turbot can also be cooked, although one of the peculiarities of this white fish, its natural gelatin, is lost over the coals. "On the boat it tends to dry out a lot and we don't recommend it as much", is Jurado's advice.

La Mar Bonita. Located in La Carihuela district of Torremolinos, this chiringuito makes the most of the boquerón.
La Mar Bonita. Located in La Carihuela district of Torremolinos, this chiringuito makes the most of the boquerón. J. A.

The espetos boat is also kind to cooking other sea life not of the scaly variety. Thus, for example, you can find certain parts of some marine life on the skewer that acquire a very special flavour and texture. This is the case with cod loin cooked on the spit, one of Vicen Playa's specialities. "We started cooking it because a foreign customer asked us for it and when we saw how it turned out the first time we were pleasantly surprised by the result", said Jurado. From then on, they improved the roasting of this part of the cod even more and managed to turn it into one of the star dishes of the espetos boat. Normally it is served with potatoes and pil-pil (mildly spicy) sauce, which makes this charcoal-grilled cod loin even juicier. "We work with high quality cod from Norway, which is frozen at sea and stays almost fresh with its flavour intact", said Rafael Jurado.

At La Mar Bonita, in addition to the large scaly fish, another off-menu speciality is in great demand - yet another loin cut from a very large fish, namely bluefin tuna. "When it is in season, fresh and of high quality, we suggest it a lot to be grilled, because it is spectacular", said Miguel León.

Also monkfish loin

The prized monkfish loin is also grilled. It is not very common either, but it has been seen in establishments with as much tradition as El Saladero in La Caleta de Vélez. "Some people think that after being grilled it is going to be dry and they are surprised by how juicy it is", said Juan Jiménez, owner of this chiringuito, which has won several awards and other distinctions for its firm commitment to quality.

Another important chapter in the book of skewering covers cephalopods, which are also a relatively common sight on the embers typically alight to cook sardines. This is especially the case with the European, or common, squid which is often available in many beach bars and beachfront restaurants. After roasting the squid it is usually served with a garlic and parsley-based sauce, a good accompaniment. The key is to achieve that point where it is at its juiciest that so delights the palate having caught the smokiness of the espeto boat. It is usually done with a squid of a certain size, weighing at least half a kilo. Octopus is another possible candidate, although they usually only skewer the limbs when large enough, as is the case at Vicen Playa. If they are small, there are some places that cook them whole.

Shellfish also have their place on the espetos boat, but they must be large to be worth it. From king prawns to the common lobster or the spiny lobster, there are options to try them in many eateries. However, special care must be taken to ensure that they are not excessively dry, but still well-done. In any case, the majority of these large shellfish are not usually native to these shores and have been frozen for the most part. It is advisable to ask the restaurant about their origin so as not to be disappointed.

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