The fact that it was Sunday didn't set off any alarms for us, even though we know, love, and even write about the tradition of Sunday lunch in France. It didn't dawn on us that it might also be a very popular tradition in Spain. But we soon learned that, in fact, it is.
As we set out on a long walk along the shoreline that heads west from the Gran Hotel Miramar, away from Málaga Centro, to seek out a seaside restaurant offering the best of the watery realm, we were clearly overdressed for the 24-degree bright sunshiny day.
"We're packing less this time!" we had proclaimed in the 5-degree chilly rainy Victoria of February 28. "There's no way we're going to haul around shorts and other warm weather gear we'll never wear." But here we were, 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 our right was the shore, to our left a series of attractive apartment buildings. Palm trees stocked with parakeets shaded our way.
Little did we know that every family in Málaga was also out for Sunday lunch on this beautiful day and, by our 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 we were happy.
French menus we know by heart, but los menús españoles, nosotros no entendemos. It was only thanks to our speed-reading tapas tour of yesterday that we had at least a hint of the culinary landscape.
We were 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 we were used to for Sunday lunch. In France every family would be on the 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 us, we were content, with empty serving dishes piled on our table and the the last of the wine still chilling in the ice bucket.
–Diana & Marcos
photographs copyright Mark Craft
Our seaside lunch took place on Sunday, March 8 BC (Before COVID). Only five days later, on Friday, March 13, the Spanish government declared a state of emergency and locked down the country, closing restaurants and most other services, and forcing us to scramble to leave the country.