The Andalusian city of Malaga is treasured for its ancient churches and prestigious museums. It is admired for the beauty of its ancient streetscape and plazas. It is famed for its brilliant sunshine and white beaches. It is known and respected for all these things, but most of all it is loved for its wonderful food; for its tapas and its wine, its deserts and its seafood and all the other dishes around which life in Malaga revolves.
Beginning the day with a quick meal
Malaga is a typical Andalusian city, and for a typical Andalusian beginning to the day, the usual dish is a thick slice of toasted bread sprinkled with virgin olive oil and eaten with strong morning coffee. Olive oil is Andalusia’s most famous produce and its flavour pervades the entire cuisine. Every province has its own excellent oil, and no household would be without its own stock of extra virgin olive oil. In addition, there are table olives, which may be raw, pickled, or cured with a variety of flavourings and eaten at any meal.
If olive oil is not a desired topping on the morning toast, there’s also cured ham or jamon serrano, another regional specialty. The best ham comes from a pig native to Andalusia. Known as the iberico, this small brown pig is fed exclusively on the acorns of oak trees, and the ham produced from it is sometimes known as pata negra, because the pig has black hooves.
Real iberico ham is very expensive, and is always eaten raw, with bread. The most famous source of this delicacy is the village of Jaburgo, in the Sierra de Arecena in Huelva province. Of course, for the less finicky eater, any sort of cured ham will do and there are many other varieties to choose from, often eaten with a little cheese.
A simple meal in the middle of the day
Andalusia’s single most famous dish is gazpacho, a simple cold soup best savoured on a scorching hot day just before lunch. The dish is made of blended bread, olive oil and garlic, into which any number of additions can be made. The most well known variety includes fresh tomatoes, onions and cucumber together with lemon juice and vinegar to bring out the taste. There are varieties that don’t feature tomatoes, including the famous ‘white’ gazpacho of Malaga, in which the addition is simply blanched crushed almonds. The dish is served with muscatel grapes, and is a wonderful way to begin the next meal.
Lunch is the opportunity to try Andalusia’s favourite dish. Tapas are an immensely popular finger food, which in past days was served free with every drink. That practice has more or less disappeared, alas, but tapas are still an amazingly cheap way to sample the cuisine.
The earliest records tribute this marvellous tradition to King Alfonso X, who advocated always nibbling some food while drinking wine. In later centuries, drinkers would request a tapas — a word meaning an object used to cover something — to place over the mouths of their wine glasses, so that the wine wouldn’t evaporate and the dust wouldn’t get in. A small titbit would be placed on the tapas, and thus the tradition was born.
There are an innumerable number of tapas dishes, and no two diners would ever be able to agree on the best, but the recommended way to sample each would be a tapas-crawl. Much like the British pub-crawl, a visitor can drop by as many bars as possible to sample their wares, and if a particular dish strikes a fancy, simply order a racion, a bigger portion.
Surrounded by friends and family for the main meal of the day
Tapas are considered a finger food, and perhaps one or two dishes are generally eaten before dinner, the main meal of the day. Andalusian life begins early and ends late, so dinner can be anywhere from 8 to 10 at night, and may not finish until 1 in the morning. There is little hurry however, as an Andalusian life revolves around congregating with family and friends to share the day and chat about life. This social get-together is almost always over food, and dinner is the best time.
Given Malaga’s location on the southern coast of Spain, it’s hardly surprising there is a huge variety of seafood available. Fish, mussel, shellfish and many other delicacies are grilled and served with a light garlic lemon sauce, or baked in salt, or lightly fried in olive oil — in fact there are countless ways to cook the food. If the day happens to be a special occasion, or a fiesta day, another famed dish makes its appearance. Paella is a golden rice dish cooked together with seafood, vegetables and other additions. It is traditionally cooked outdoors and men have charge of the cooking.
For centuries, Andalusia was under the rule of the Moorish empire, and during those days, the region was known for its extravagant cuisine and its love of spices, while the rest of the country subsisted on barely palatable peasant gruel. The Moorish rule had a marked influence on the cuisine, and nowhere is this more prominent than in the desserts.
Flavoured with aniseed, cinnamon, almond, sesame and honey, these dishes are traditional fare on all the major celebrations of the year, from Christmas to the fiesta days. There are hundreds of recipes, and some of the most sought after delicacies are those made by the nuns in the region’s convents, who have guarded their recipes for centuries. In wine-making areas such as Jerez and Montilla, the winemakers make use of egg whites to clarify their wines, and donate the unused yolks to the nuns to make into sweets. From these, the good sisters would make yemas or candied egg yolks. Other dishes include tocino del cielo (a rich custard), almendrados (almond biscuits), and pan de higo, (fig roll), but as each province has its own specialty, the offerings are innumerable.
No meal would be complete without a drink, and the south of Spain is justifiably famous for its sherry, where the majority of the grapes are grown in the province of Cadiz. There are many types of sherry from the Manzanilla to the Oloroso, each made in a particular town or district. There are also many varieties of wine available, and Malaga is particularly known for its sweet wine. A glass of sherry is usually taken as a pre-dinner aperitif, but if a glass is called for at the end of the meal, no one will be surprised, and wine can be drunk almost any time of day.
Enjoying the excellent cuisine in the pleasant company of friends and family is a wonderful way to experience the Andalusian way of life, and the most common pastime in Malaga for both visitors and locals alike. Whether the longing is for some light finger-food, a more substantial dinner dish or a craving for sweets, there are literally hundreds of dishes to choose from. There is only one appropriate way to eat the food however — with much joy and laughter, a thorough enjoyment of life and of course, a fine appreciation of the food.