How to eat well on the Costa del Sol

Fish market, Malaga

Yes, it is possible. You have to try hard, but there are alternatives to English pubs selling fish and chips and Sunday roast with all the trimmings, and Spanish bars selling stodgy food swimming in olive oil and garlic (not that I have anything against olive oil and garlic when they are used well and don’t swamp every other flavour). Here are our tips from two months’ eating around Málaga.

We’d already decided that the rule that normally applies in France to find good-value restaurants (follow the local businessmen at lunchtime) doesn’t work in Spain. It’s better to follow the tourists. But that technique doesn’t seem to work either in the attractive resort of Nerja. The Balcon de Europa is a lovely, broad esplanade on a headland with beautiful sea views. It’s surrounded by bars and restaurants which are always crowded with tourists eating what looks like frankly indifferent and overpriced food. We found our absolute favourite restaurant in Nerja (and indeed in the whole of the province of Málaga) by the unorthodox method of spotting a classy modern business card among the sea of garish red and yellow restaurant flyers in the tourist office. Passing from the crowded Balcon through a deserted shopping arcade, we arrived at Oliva at the very reasonable Spanish hour of two o’ clock on a sunny Sunday in June to find it completely deserted. We even asked the waitress if it was actually open.

Despite the unpromising start, we thought we’d give it a try anyway because the menu looked interesting, and we were not disappointed. Everything was excellent, but the standouts were the small things. To start, the friendly Dutch waitress brought a basket of warm, fresh bread served with a dish of olive oil and a little pot of herb butter topped with finely chopped black olives. One taste of this butter, and we were hooked. I don’t think it was entirely because being in southern Spain we’d eaten virtually no butter for a month. There must have been 50 g of butter in that pot and we ate the lot between the two of us, using tiny pieces of bread purely as supports, and slathering them with large dollops of butter.

The “pre-starter” of Parmesan crisps with tomato jam was good too, and we loved the little palate-cleaning scoop of mint granita between courses. The tomato tart I had as a starter wasn’t exceptional, but it was attractively presented, and perked up with a good home-made tartare sauce. One of my pet annoyances in Spanish restaurants is having to make your own vinaigrette when the salad is already on the plate, but at least the waitress brought a small can of organic olive oil, and a spray bottle of balsamic vinegar for my main-course salad with fried feta cheese (yes, I was easily able to order a vegetarian meal in a Spanish restaurant!). And the panna cotta lived up to our exacting standards.

We liked the pacing too, more French style than Spanish, with time to relax and chat between courses. It’s not the cheapest (our meal cost 87 euros including a bottle of very nice Chardonnay), but the quality and style of cuisine made it worth every penny. We liked it enough to go back in our last week, on a Wednesday evening in July when there were all of five other diners. I was glad to note that we weren’t the only ones using bits of bread to scrape every last smear of butter out of the pot, and gazing at it regretfully when it was empty. Now I’m making it my mission to tell everyone about Oliva, because I want it to still be open if we are ever back in Nerja. It’s only been open six months, and it deserves to be more popular than it apparently is.

Here is a whole load of other restaurant suggestions for Nerja. I haven’t tried any of them, but several sound promising. Comment if you’ve tried one of them! The one other place we ate at in Nerja and liked isn’t mentioned there: the Casa Luque, just off the Balcon de Europa. We’d asked in the tourist office for somewhere that served local ingredients in a modern way, and this fitted the bill. We had a tapas-based lunch here twice; it’s pricier than the other tapas places around there, but more refined.

Our other outstanding restaurant experience was in Málaga. This one we found by chancing on a feature in that day’s paper as we drank coffee in a bar. “This sounds good,” said my husband. “Let’s have lunch there.” So on no more evidence than that, we walked there through the lovely botanical garden and found La Moraga, a trendy tapas lounge on the beach, but a far cry from the average chiringuito (beach bar) in all other respects.

courgette and scallop pinchitos

In Spanish style we ordered four separate dishes, specifying that we wanted to share all of them. So we started with two glasses of a delicious gazpacho featuring cherries (allegedly, they were hard to detect), pistachios, anchovies, and a scattering of cheese, and a little pot of very nice foie gras with toast and cubes of membrillo — it wouldn’t have occurred to me to pair membrillo with foie gras, but it went really well. Then we had a dish of grilled scallops with courgettes, Málaga raisins, and basil oil, and half a grilled lobster on a gorgeous, creamy potato purée — we fought over the last dregs of potato, wiping the dish out with our bread. Maybe it had butter in it.

Biznaga

Even the desserts were fab — biznaga, a globe of airy mousse filled with membrillo, and — yes! — torrija, my favourite Spanish dessert, made with coconut milk and white chocolate. The portions were tiny, and it was really expensive — 14 euros for three scallops and three slices of courgette is a bit over the top, and one dessert cost as much as an entire lunchtime menu at our local bar, with the total bill coming to 90 euros — less good value than Oliva since we ate less food. But as at Oliva, it was such a pleasure to eat modest quantities of imaginatively and perfectly cooked food, instead of big piles of greasy stodge; in addition it has a view of the beach and very pleasant staff.

Note, I’m not linking to their website in protest at it encapsulating almost everything that is wrong with restaurant websites: no address, opening hours, or phone number on the home page, everything in flash, navigation items that skitter away when you try to click on them, no sample menu, and despite their prices they haven’t been able to pay someone competent to translate their site into correct English. The only thing they’ve missed is cheesy music. Instead here’s a picture of the park.

Park, Málaga

I’ve already mentioned why I don’t like the more downmarket Spanish restaurants. But if your budget doesn’t run to Oliva or La Moraga prices, I have one tip for eating cheaply on the Costa del Sol: fried fish. Everywhere around Málaga that we ate deep-fried fish, it was superb. They really know how to do it to perfection: very fresh, hot and crispy. And, paradoxically, much less greasy than anything cooked a la plancha. After Oliva, my favourite place to eat was at our local bar, where a menu del dia with drinks and coffee costs just 7.50 euros. So here’s a shout-out for the Bar Lopez in Almáchar. Go on a Friday for Paco’s mum’s paella, cooked in her kitchen and carried down the street in its pan by two sturdy men. This is true Spanish paella, with lots of rice and just a few prawns, mussels, clams, and small pieces of diced chicken. You eat it as a starter, with a green salad that actually has vinaigrette on it.

Then have a big plate of crispy fried squid, bacalao, or rosada (a local white fish) with a squeeze of lemon and some garlic mayonnaise. To drink: tinto de verano, beer, or the house white, a fruity white verdejo from Rueda that goes perfectly with the fish. Don’t bother with dessert (this is a good rule to follow in all but the most expensive Spanish restaurants). You won’t do as well as this at every bar, but in a village setting it’s easy to identify the bar that serves the best-value lunch: just follow the crowds at 2 pm. And it’s likely to be better value than any traditional restaurant; steer clear of anything with Mesón in the name, as this seems to be code for “We’ll serve you overpriced, greasy stodge”.

Jurel, Fish market, Malaga

Tortilla de patatas

Tortilla de patatas

There’s an art to making a good tortilla, and I’m not sure I’ve cracked it yet (although I’ve cracked plenty of eggs trying). It’s the sort of thing where even the most detailed recipe is no substitute for being able to sense when you’ve got it right. Even if they aren’t up to the standards of the average Spanish tapas bar (can I do those rounded edges? Can I hell!), I have been pretty satisfied with my last couple of attempts.

The key points are a) the correct ratio of eggs to potatoes, and b) the right sized, heavy frying pan. I reckon you need about one medium potato per egg, but really you need to look at the mixture and know whether to add another egg. It should be neither too eggy (it won’t hold together) nor too packed with potato (too stodgy). The mixture should fill the pan to a depth of between 1 and 1 1/2 inches — thin tortillas are hopeless, and if it’s too thick it will scorch before it’s set in the middle.

Some people slice the potatoes, others cube them. I’m in the “slice them” camp at the moment, but I may change my mind. The onion is essential — it will be too bland without. The end result should be firm enough when cold to cut into wedges or squares and eat with your hands. At the same time it’s not nice if it’s so overcooked it’s gone leathery (another reason not to do a thin tortilla).
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Restaurants worth visiting: Navarra and San Sebastian

Posada, Oitz

As I was planning this post, I happened across Pueblo Girl’s recent post about Spanish food. After quite a few 9- or 10-euros menus del dia in local restaurants, I can really relate to a lot of what she says there. Until recently Spain was not a country that was renowned for its good food. If it is now, it’s for many-starred, bank account-busting “creative” restaurants like El Bulli (now closed down) or, closer to here, Arzak and Beresategui. But these are hardly representative. All too often, Spanish restaurant food is ensalata mixta, deep-fried everything, stodgy rice, or stringy, overcooked meat in a claggy sauce with a few mushy green beans.

However, as Pueblo Girl says, it’s not all bad. With persistence and much sampling, we have found a handful of reasonably priced restaurants in the area of Pamplona and San Sebastian that are well worth a visit, serving food that would be recognised as good in other countries, not just Spain. So here’s my list of recommendations: three country restaurants, and two city ones.
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Spanish food: tapas and pintxos

Bar, Pamplona

After almost two months in Spain, I think I’m beginning to understand what Spanish food is all about. Our initial impressions were not good. With one honourable exception, restaurant cooking here seems to be bland, stodgy, and unadventurous. And revolves around meat. Lots of it (not so surprising given that it’s a livestock-raising area). The menus at all the local restaurants have many, many things in common: ensalada mixta, ensalada russa, arroz con leche, flan, natillas, and cuajada (sheep’s-milk junket) feature on all of them. Main courses are usually massive platefuls of roast or grilled meat. Low points were the albondigas (meat balls) served in thick, Bisto-flavoured gravy, and bechamel-coated deep-fried lamb chops. There seems to be little concern with freshness and flavour.

Meanwhile, shops and supermarkets in our local small town were poorly stocked and uninspiring. The spice rack in the supermarket was a particularly sorry sight. Black pepper. Two kinds of pimentón (dulce and picante). Cinnamon (sticks and ground). Nutmeg. Herbes de Provence. Yellow food colouring (cheaper than saffron). Lots and lots of packets of “paella spice”, of which a major ingredient is the aforesaid colouring. “But where’s the ginger? And what about cumin? Or coriander?” Nowhere to be seen – I ended up bringing some back from France.

But then we hit the covered market in Irún. Revelation! Of course, living in France we are used to markets, even blasé about them. Superficially a Spanish market looks much like a French one, but this was different enough that we wandered spellbound around the stalls, oohing and aahing over the produce, and left laden with a week’s supply of food.

piquillo peppers, ready to eat

First, the preserved food stall. Bottled and tinned food is considered a worthy genre in its own right in Spain, and this is not surprising when you consider: thick chunks of bonito del norte (tuna) in brine, nothing like the flaky scraps in tins; whole, roasted piquillo peppers in oil, lusciously juicy and ready to eat straight from the jar; olives, of course, in their many forms; anchovies and boquerones; cans and bottles of olive oil. Half a dozen varieties of dried beans, dried fruit and nuts are piled in bins. And of course, since this is the Basque country, strings of dried peppers hang from the ceiling.

Then the preserved meat stall. The stallholder sharpens his menacing-looking knives, ready to serve you. Jamón, of course, in multiple varieties, ranging from garnet-red to purple, edged with frills of white fat, at prices ranging from maybe 10 euros a kilo for standard serrano ham to an astonishing 80 for the best bellota. The extra you pay for jamón ibérico is worth it, for bellota I can’t yet say. Multiple varieties of salami, sausage, and lomo ahumado are also on offer. The most notable sight at the butcher next door is tiny legs of lamb, weighing barely a kilo each; it seems Spaniards are fond of milk-fed lamb. We bought one of these, marinated it briefly in a paste of olives, capers, anchovies, olive oil, and pimentón, grilled it on the barbecue, and ate the whole thing between the two of us.

The cheese stalls might not rival French ones (OK, they definitely don’t). But there are a few varieties of hard cheese, from Manchego to Ossau-Iraty, dozens of local sheep’s cheeses, and bags of raw sheep’s milk (I snapped up one of these to make my own cuajada).

Then whole stalls are devoted to that Basque staple, bacalao, again with major divergences in price, from thin, scrappy pieces stiff as a board with salt, to thick chunks of boneless cod steak at 25 euros a kilo, waiting for a long soak to be reconstituted as white, flaky fish, gorgeous when simply cooked and served with a lively salsa verde or tomato and pepper sauce. Next door, the fish stalls were piled with glossy fresh fish, with ugly but delicious hake (merluza) playing a starring role alongside beautiful sea bass (lubina), red mullet (salmonete), crabs, lobsters, langoustines, squid, and octopus.

The major “aha” from all this is that Spanish markets lend themselves to simple food that can be nibbled with drinks – that would be tapas then (or pintxos, since we are in the Basque country). Getting home, we simply laid out platters of ham, piquillo peppers, thinly sliced cheese, olives, nuts, cut some bread, opened a bottle of wine, and a lifestyle was born. If you feel the need of something sweet afterwards, a little clay pot of cuajada drizzled with mountain honey hits the spot. Or the Spanish version of lemon sherbet: buy some lemon sorbet and a bottle of cava, combine in a blender, pour into champagne flutes, serve with straws. Who needs to cook?

Spanish orange cake

I don’t know what is specifically Spanish about this cake, but we enjoyed the moist texture and fresh orange flavour. Both times I’ve made it, it has sunk a bit in the middle on cooling, but this does not detract from it in the least!

We had it plain, but you could make a simple glaze by mixing orange juice and icing sugar to the right consistency. It would probably make nice cupcakes too.
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