Spain is a vast country and its geographic regions are so diverse that the foods you find in say, verdant Galicia in the north, compared to the dry, desert region of Almeria in south-eastern Spain, vary enormously and in harmony with their climate. The province of Andalucia in the south is particularly varied, with the mountainous range of the Sierras to the north, the fertile valley of the Guadalquivir River to the west, the dry deserts of Almeria and the Mediterranean coastline to the south and Atlantic Ocean to the west.
Malaga, in the far south of Andalucia, on the Costa del Sol, has a mild climate; even in January there is an average temperature of 17C and low rainfall. So it’s an ideal destination for a short winter getaway. It is one of the oldest cities in Europe. Founded by the Phoenicians around 2,800 years ago, it has been invaded by the Romans, Greeks and Moors. Malaga is often seen as a gateway between Spain and North Africa and the Moorish influence is much in evidence even today, not only in the city’s architecture and culture, but in its food.
The last Moorish stronghold – in Granada – fell in 1492, but by then the Moors had transformed the region’s culinary history. They brought citrus (orange, lemons and limes), apricots, mangoes and almonds; vegetables like aubergines, artichokes and carrots; they introduced durum wheat, and rice from Asia. Perhaps most importantly, they developed the region’s agriculture, introducing irrigation systems and ways of growing foods abundantly. It was the Phoenicians who brought olives to Spain in around 1,000BC but it was the Romans and then the Moors who cultivated them.
After the Moors defeat, when Spain became a Christian country, the country’s cuisine was influenced by the New World with the introduction of tomatoes, sweet peppers, potatoes, chilli and chocolate.
You will see all these influences when eating in Malaga but by far the most important and obvious influence is the sea. If you like seafood then Malaga will be like a gastronomic heaven for you. And absolutely one of the best places to enjoy eating it is at one of the bars in the Atarazanas market (open Mon-Sat).
Malaga has many attractions – its art (Picasso was born in the city and it has a number of art galleries); its culture and architecture; a warm climate and the wonderful combination of a great city and the sea. Yet for me, a highlight has to be its food and the joy of eating there.
On both my trips in the last 15 months, I ate in tapas bars all the time because this is where you’ll find great food and a lively setting. The best tapas bars are about finding exquisite food and excellent wine. Another great thing is that you can choose different sized dishes, from small tapas, to medium-sized media raciones or full portion raciones. This makes the dishes great for sharing but the solo traveller/diner has no problem either. Eating alone I either ordered a few tapas or maybe a tapas or two and a media racione (or two!). You can buy bottles of wine but there’s always a good range of wine by the glass and you can expect to enjoy a glass of good wine for around €3. You’ll also find that there’s not a distinction at many bars and cafes between morning, lunch and dinner in terms of eating and drinking. Although they may close for some of the day you can still grab just a drink or coffee; you don’t have to have a ‘proper’ meal. I saw people come into tapas bars and order just one or two tapas and a drink, then move on.
What follows are some highlights of what I ate while in Malaga recently: what food I was looking for and found, and where I enjoyed the best food. I started my day with a good breakfast at my hotel; stopped for a coffee mid-morning; ate a modest lunch and saved my appetite for a bigger meal in the evening. And of course I sometimes had to fit an ice cream or some churros in-between!
Breakfast & Morning Coffee
I was only in Malaga for 3 nights this last trip but I had coffee at Cafe Central, perhaps Malaga’s most famous coffeeshop – and on the last day in La Canasta, almost next door. It’s a bakery and cafe (there are other branches in the city). You can sit at a table outside or upstairs there are more tables with just three on a tiny balcony overlooking the Plaza de la Consticion – giving you one of the best views in Malaga over its beautiful main square (my coffee was €1.50).
On my previous visit I found El Ultimo Juice & Coffee in nearby Calle Sta. Maria, which served excellent coffee. I meant to go there again – it was still open – but didn’t make it. In all these places you can get coffee, fresh pastries and juice; or even something more substantial.
If you’re looking for a simple coffee, perhaps with a pastry or cake, then down in the marina you’ll find lots of coffee stalls, most with seating areas, and you can just sip at your coffee and enjoy looking out to the sea and at boats – in the sun, if it’s being cooperative!
I like to eat my main meal in the evening, but when on holiday in cities I find I do lots of walking (I was averaging about 15km a day in Malaga) so want to sit down and have a proper – albeit light – meal.
On my first day, I’d arrived around midday after a very early start in London. I didn’t feel like being adventurous and, after checking into the hotel, headed straight to somewhere I knew and trusted I would find a good lunch – Cafe Central. It was raining so I wanted something warm and was delighted to see they sold paella by the single portion (often it’s a minimum of 2 people). I was in Malaga so the seafood paella (€13.50) was the obvious choice. With a small beer it was a perfect lunch. The Spanish tend to eat paella only at lunchtime – they believe eating rice in the evening isn’t good for the digestion – so it was also a perfect Spanish choice. I had to wait about 15-20 minutes as it’s freshly prepared. It was very delicious; an excellent paella. Paella is really a Valencian dish but it’s become one of Spain’s most famous, even iconic, dishes and you’ll find it pretty much anywhere in the country. What I liked about this Malaga version was it was quite moist – paella is often served quite dry – and although not an arroz, its ‘wetness’ made it all the more delicious to me.
The second day I went to Casa Lola for some tapas for lunch, after an early visit to the botanical gardens. The great thing about tapas bars is you can order just 1, 2 or 3 tapas – you don’t need to order a full meal. And the bars are quite happy to serve just one drink and one tapas and see you move on; you’re not ‘committed’ to stay there – many people bar hop (though not to the degree they do in San Sebastian). I ordered 3 tapas and a beer; it made a perfect light lunch. Casa Lola is very popular. I arrived at 12.30 as it opened and easily got a seat; by 12.50 it was full. When I left at about 1.15 there was a queue!
I ate Tortillitas de Gambas – a fritter with shrimps. I actually thought I was ordering tortilla – Spanish omelette – so was quite surprised when a fritter turned up! However, it was delicious, really good, and I’ve since discovered it’s a Malagan speciality.
I also had Aubergine Rolls Stuffed with Roasted Pepper (Berenjenas Rellenas are another local speciality). Another aubergine speciality is Berenjenas con Miel de caña – Deep-fried Aubergine Slices with Honey – or sugar cane syrup – drizzled over the top.
Smoked sardines (Espetos) are also popular. In cafes on the beach you’ll often see them on skewers being smoked over an open fire. In Casa Lola (photo above) they were served on toast with a mix of quail’s egg, pickles and mayonnaise.
If you like seafood then you absolutely cannot go to Malaga without eating lunch in the Mercado Atarazanas. I’d remembered this as a highlight from my first visit to the city. The market was closed on my 2nd day (a Sunday) so it was a must for Monday’s lunch. I returned to the bar I ate at before. There are a few of them along one side of the market with tall bar tables and stools outside on the pavement. It’s all a little cramped but great fun; the first visit we were even entertained by a busking flamenco guitarist and singer. Waiters take the orders and serve you. Pesca’ito Frito is one of Malaga’s iconic dishes: a mix of the freshest fish in the market, lightly battered and quickly fried and straight to your table. What could be better!
My final day – Tuesday – I decided to go back to Cafe Central for the paella again. I wanted a ‘proper’ meal as I knew I’d be eating just a sandwich in the evening on the flight home.
Churros & Ice Cream
You’ll find churros all over Spain but they’re particularly popular in Madrid and Andalucia. I have to confess to not being – I thought! – a great fan. I’d only tried them once before and the idea of fried choux-type pastry doughnuts served with thick hot chocolate made me think they’d be too sweet. However, in the interest of my blog research, I decided I should try churros in Malaga; spurred on when I passed a churros cafe near my hotel and heard a food tour guide telling people this was the best place to eat them. I went back Casa Aranda after my lunch in the market. They close between 1.00 and 5.00, so it was only because it was close and I’d eaten early that I could make it.
Often churros are eaten for breakfast – or as a late night treat (much like gelato in Italy). It turned out I liked churros a lot – but even then, I don’t think I could manage many at one time and would only want them as an occasional treat – but do give them a try!
Ice cream in Spain isn’t the big thing it is in Italy but it’s still popular and you’ll find some excellent heladerias (ice cream shops). The most famous is Casa Mira. The original is in Calle Marques de Larios but I found a new branch in Calle Cister.
I always like to find somewhere for aperitivo (aperitif) on holiday. It’s nice to sit down around 6pm with a drink (especially in the sun) and relax after a day of sightseeing before going for a meal. Many restaurants don’t open until 7.00 or even (at Taberna Uvedoble) 8.00. I seem to always find favourite places of the trip that I return to each evening (Caffe Torino in Turin; Bar de la Degustation in Nice) and this time in Malaga – Cafe Central. You’ll pay only about €3 for a glass of wine; €2 for a beer. On the last evening I opted for one of Cafe Central’s best wines and still only paid €5. Drinks always come with some kind of ‘nibble’ – usually olives, but maybe crisps or nuts. The olives (aceitunas) were quite special and probably local ones grown in Alora, a village north of the city. They were slightly crisper than I’m used to, cracked and marinated with citrus.
The first two evenings I ate in traditional tapas bars – El Otro Tapeo de Cervantes and in another branch of the ‘de Cervantes’ the following evening (the previous trip my favourite place had been their Vineria, but that was closed for refurbishment). You may also want to try El Pimpi, perhaps Malaga’s most famous tapas bar, and Los Gatos is also very good.
The first evening of my recent trip I started with Porra Antequerana, Malaga’s version of gazpacho.
It’s much thicker than usual gazpacho: a soup of tomatoes, bread, olive oil and garlic and garnished with egg (quail’s egg in El Otro) and Iberian ham. It was stunning; absolutely wonderful. I ate another version in Taberna Uvedoble on my last night. You’ll also see Ajo Blanco – a chilled almond soup – which I’d hope to try but clearly just three dinners wasn’t enough to taste everything I’d hoped for! I also ate some fried calamares the first evening, a cod dish and fried mushrooms with asparagus and ham.
At El Meson de Cervantes I had Flamenquin – pork loin wrapped in Serrano ham and stuffed with spinach and cheese.
I also had Croquetas there – a popular Spanish tapas dish of ham, cheese or mushroom filling.
The most exciting meal I had was on the last evening at Taberna Uvedoble. It’s been gaining a great reputation and there are often long queues, so it’s worth booking ahead. In sharp contrast to the traditional bars of the first two nights, Uvedoble is a modern, minimalist place. Its food offers a modern twist on classic dishes. I had a selection of tapas dishes. I had smoked sardine again, and the gorgeous porra. I had a fabulous Roasted Scallop on Roasted Aubergine with Cumin – clearly a Moorish influence. I also had tuna, which is a popular fish, served on the creamiest, smoothest cauliflower emulsion, which was sensational.
Other dishes to look out for are Albondigas (meatballs served in tomato sauce), Gambas Pil-Pil (prawns fried in garlic oil), Ensalada Rusa (Russian salad but surprisingly a local speciality), Huevos a la Flamenca (egg baked in a tomato sauce with ham and cheese) and Queso de Manchego (hard sheeps’ cheese, usually served with quince jelly).
Malagan wines are predominantly sweet, made from moscatel and Pedro Ximenez grapes. I did though enjoy a ‘dry’ version in Cafe Central one evening: made from the grapes of old vines. It cost a little more than other wines (€5 a glass) but was delicious. I saw it in the airport on the way home but at €29 a bottle I couldn’t bring myself to buy it! Sherry and vermouth are also popular; you’ll often see people drinking sangria at aperitivo time; and I saw quite a lot of ‘craft beers’.
You’ll see lots of wonderful food shops – delis with large hams hung from the ceiling; bakeries, selling perhaps Malaga cake which is made from almonds; sweet shops selling turron (a nougat made from almonds and honey); street sellers roasting almonds. Andalucia is famous for its almond trees – people often visit specially to see them when they’re in blossom – and the largest concentration of almond trees are found in La Axarquia in the province of Malaga.
For the devoted foodie though, visiting the Mercado Atarazanas is a must. The name ‘Atarazanas’ comes from the arabic name for shipyard and in the time of the Moors’ rule, a shipyard stood at the same spot. The current building dates from 1876. As you enter you see a wonderful stained-glass window that dominates the main area. Here is the best place to find fresh foods of all kinds but also foods you could buy to take home. Don’t forget it’s also the best place to have a seafood lunch at one of the bars!
Malaga is a sensory delight for the traveller who loves food – the sight, colours, and smell of fresh fish, spices, ripe tropical fruits, sweet wines and smooth chilled soups. There are so many wonderful things to try, being able to order small tapas plates is a real bonus – you can try lots of things in a short space of time!
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