SEASIDE LUNCH IN MÁLAGA
The fact that it was Sunday, Domingo, didn't set off any alarms for me. It should have!
Even though I know, love, and even write about the tradition of Sunday lunch in France, it didn't dawn on me that it might also be a very popular tradition in Spain. But I soon learned that, in fact, it is.
As Mr Swinging and I set out on a long walk along the Málaga, heading west from the Gran Hotel Miramar to seek out a seaside restaurant offering the best of the watery realm, we were clearly overdressed for the 24-degree bright sunshiny day. (That's 75° F.)
"I'm packing less this time!" I had proclaimed in the 5-degree chilly hometown rainy weather of February 28. "There's no way I'm going to haul around summer skirts and other warm weather gear I'll never wear." But here I was, basking in the beauty of an early March day on the south coast of Spain. The water was a perfect Mediterranean blue, not a cloud was in the sky; to my right was the shore, to my left a series of attractive apartment buildings. Palm trees stocked with parakeets shaded the way.
Little did I know that every family in Málaga was also out for Sunday lunch on this beautiful day and, by my estimate, 73.9% of them wanted to eat at one of the unending series of seafood restaurants strung along the shore of west Málaga. Our first attempts to secure a table were foiled, including at the very inviting El Caleño. But, con mucha suerte, we eventually snagged the very last unreserved table at El Merlo. Sure, we were stuck in back of the room, but with the full-height glass doors wide open I was happy.
French menus I know by heart, but los menús españoles, yo no entiendo. It was only thanks to a speed-reading tapas guided tour from the previous day that I had at least a hint of the culinary landscape.
I was able to put together a lunch order – calamari rings coated and deep-fried; crispy whole octopus, also deep fried, served on a bed of paprika and olive oil; a red pepper salad bursting with fresh flavours, it had been charred, skin removed, marinated, and then firmly packed into a round mold with fresh onions on top. A dish of patatas bravas was challenging – the potatoes were cut into chunks, nicely deep fried, but then doused with a hot pepper sauce.
All around us were happy families downing plates of deep fried or grilled fish in sizes from pencil thin to foot-long beasts meant for sharing. It was later in the day than I'm used to for Sunday lunch. In France, every family would be on the Sunday dessert course by the time we ordered our first starter.
Here, at these simple seafood restaurants, what's paramount – what makes them work – is the quality of the ingredients. Everything is fresh from the sea. Cooking techniques are simple and unobtrusive, serving to bring out the flavours of the produce. As long as the kitchen can execute deep frying and grilling, the results are excellent. In fact, every eatery along the strip has its own rustic outdoor wood fire for grilling, located on the sandy strip across from the restaurant.
At 3 PM there was still a crowd of hungry Spaniards outside the entrance to our restaurant, waiting with various degrees of patience for a table. As for me, I was content, with empty serving dishes piled on the table and the the last of the wine still chilling in the ice bucket.