Tasting Tapas in Málaga
Many visit Málaga and the Costa del Sol for the sun, the beaches or the nightlife, but what fewer non Spaniards know about it is the buoyant tapas culture of the region. Resident 'expat' and culinary expert Janet Mendel tours the towns finding the tastiest tidbits
It was a fine spring evening in Málaga when we poured out through the grand doors of the Teatro Cervantes after an early screening of the penultimate film in the annual Málaga Film Festival. We dropped our ballots rating the film in the box on the way out. Gaggles of people plus some TV crews thronged the small plaza, awaiting the possible appearance of a celebrity or just checking out the cinema crowd.
It was 20:00 - time for some refreshment. A few steps away, right on the corner of the plaza, is the Bar La Mesonera. Just ahead of the surge, we found a place at the bar and ordered cañas, tap beer, to wet the throat and whet the appetite. Within minutes people were stacked up behind us and outstretched hands reached across the bar for glasses of beer, wine and plates of tapas.
Cured Meats and Potato Bombs
Placed on the bar were platters of the day's choices. Right in front of us was a line-up of cured meats and sausages - six or more fat rolls, with colours from pink to red to orange to black, ready to be sliced to order and served on a tabla, a plank or platter. Order a surtido and you get a mixed selection of sausages to sample. If it's a surtido of Ibérico, it´s ham and sausages made from the highly esteemed Ibérico breed of pig. Expect anything Ibérico to cost a lot more than Serrano ham and ordinary chorizo.
But irresistible was the bomba de patata - a tennis ball-sized croquette that consisted of a layer of potato puree enclosing spicy ground meat. Deep-fried until crispy on the outside, the 'bomb' was delicious accompanied by pisto, a vegetable melange of onions, peppers, courgettes and mushrooms. The potato bombs appeared in other tapas bars too, but in more discreet golf-ball dimensions, usually served with alioli (garlic mayonnaise).
Most bars serve tapas as raciones, rations, or half-rations. A ración can be priced from €2 to €12. The custom of serving a tapa free with wine or beer has almost disappeared, although a few bars will present you with a little plate of olives or a bite of chorizo with your drinks order. In Málaga, 'Granada style' means free tapas. The theatre crowd was still buzzing about the movie, so the noise level at La Mesonera was pretty intense. We paid up and moved along to another bar. We strolled up the street to Plaza de la Merced, a treelined square where some of the original 19th century houses still stand. One of them is the birthplace of artist Pablo Ruiz Picasso, Málaga's most famous native son. It now houses the Picasso Foundation.
Tapas at Picasso's Home
On the opposite side of the plaza from the Picasso home is the Mesón Cortijo de Pepe. A cortijo is a farm or country estate and this bar features an open hearth like those found in farmhouse kitchens, perfect for grilling foods. We sampled pinchitos, miniature kebabs flavoured with pungent Moroccan spices and grilled over coals. Pinchitos (they also can be grilled on a plancha, or griddle) are an old Málaga tapas tradition.
Although the meat for pinchitos is pork, the Moroccan spices recall just how close Málaga is to North Africa. We detected a touch of the spice as well in the atún encebollado, fresh tuna braised in a winey onion sauce with potatoes and green peppers. The recipe, declared the waiter, was a house secret. "You'll have to come to Cortijo de Pepe to taste it." While you´re there, try the stuffed eggplant and the shrimp with garlic and pimentón (a Spanish type of paprika) as well.
At 20:30 on a Friday, this bar was only moderately busy and quiet enough that we could discuss the film, chat with the jefe and catch up with gossip. While 20:30 may seem late in the evening to you, remember that shops and offices don´t even close until 20:00. Tapas bars get busy around 21:00. Those folks who stop for tapas after work may eventually head home (or to a restaurant) for dinner around 22:00 or even later. But we fully intended to make tapas the meal.
Surrounded by Barrels
Joined by friends, we moved along to nearby Bodegas El Pimpi, a real Málaga institution. A bodega is a wine cellar where barrels of wine are kept. El Pimpi has a barrel room (with casks signed by famous personages such as bullfighter El Cordobés and Paloma Picasso), as well as a bar, a patio, several rooms for tertulias - which are round-table chats on subjects as diverse as politics, literature, art or bullfightsand, upstairs, a flamenco tablao.
Antonio Banderas, another Málaga native, shot a scene here in the film he directed in Málaga, El Camino de los Ingleses (Called Summer Rain in English, Banderas film premiered at the Sundance Festival in January 2007). Shot at night, the scene provides a glimpse out the windows of El Pimpi to the walls of the Alcazaba, the 11th century Moorish fortress just behind.
Around the corner from El Pimpi is the Picasso Museum, housing a permanent collection of 155 works by the Málaga artist, donated by his heirs. Set in the 16th century Renaissance palace of Buenavista, the museum alone is worth a trip to Málaga.
Seated at a little table in the barrel room of El Pimpi, we ordered Málaga Moscatel wine to accompany our tapas. Málaga wine, which has its own Denomination of Origin, comes in degrees of sweetness and is appreciated both as an aperitif and as a dessert wine. It makes a match especially well with sliced sausages, pâté, aged cheese and nuts. Tapas were listed as tablas, tostas, or ligeritos. Tablas consist of cured meats, sausages, ham or cheese on a board; tostas are food on top of bread, rather like chunky canapés; and ligeritos are foods stuffed in a mini-bun.
"I'm a sucker for the pringá," said one of our gang. Pringá is the leftovers from the midday puchero, a boiled dinner. It's a lot like "pulled pork" - shreds of meat, sausage and bacon. Piled on a little bun, it was absolutely delicious. We shared the pringá and also a bowl of salmorejo. Salmorejo is a really thick gazpacho, garnished with chopped egg and ham, and served with breadsticks for dipping.
Finishing off the Route
At Bodega Quitapenas we were ready for some serious Málaga stuff - boquerones, fresh anchovies, quick-fried. Malagueños are known, coloquially, as Boquerones. The boquerones came fried crisp and fresh, with a hunk of lemon. We also ordered conchas finas, venus-shell clams. Served raw on the half-shell, the briney-sweet morsels squirm when you squeeze a bit of lemon juice on them. They reminded us of the "old days," (back in 1970-ish) when we used to go to Málaga for the day and finish up at the Bar Pombo (now disappeared) and order round after round of conchas with chilled Fino wine.
Quitapenas is an outpost of an old Málaga bodega, or cellar, (established in Málaga in 1880) where wine was dispensed right from the barrels. The present bar, in the center of town, is no longer a bodega. But the seafood tapas are first-rate.
It was getting late and we were just about filled up with tapas and wine, but couldn't resist a stop at Bar Orellana, a popular spot at the top of Calle Larios, Málaga's main shopping street. Opened in 1937, the Orellana serves up typical Málaga fare such as magro con tomate, pork in tomato sauce; callos, tripe stew with chickpeas; and migas, a sort of infidel's cous cous, consisting of bread crumbs fried with pork fat and sausage. A specialty here is bartolos, a twist on fish fingers - they are marinated with paprika and oregano before being fried crisp.
Situated on a narrow street, the bar has tables outside where you can rest your plates and drinks. That´s if you manage to push your way to the bar to place an order. At peak times, that could require serious stamina! Bartenders like long-haired Rafael perform heroically. They must wake up every morning hoarse from shouting over the din of happy tapa-goers.
We had a Rioja red wine to finish - as smooth as an afterdinner liqueur - and spilled out onto Calle Larios. It was after 23:00., but crowds of people strolled on the brightly lit avenue. We strolled down the broad red carpet, rolled out the length of the street for the Film Festival, to find our car in the parking garage conveniently situated beneath the plaza at the bottom of Larios.
It was a fine spring evening in Málaga when we poured out through the grand doors of the Teatro Cervantes after an early screening of the penultimate film in the annual Málaga Film Festival