Andalusian Days (I): Malaga, nouveau-glitz on the Costa del Sol

As the cathedral bells strike ten, the streets of Málaga are settling into to the cadence of daily life. School children in uniforms cruise in rowdy packs; nuns in black habits and clogs squeak open heavy church doors; souvenir vendors roll out racks of postcards, flip flops, and beach towels displaying the ubiquitous silhouettes of ruffle-skirted flamenco dancers. The aroma of espresso seeps out from the the entrances of cafes, merging with a myriad scents of buttery pastries, oranges, grilled bread, olive oil, lush flora of bougainvillea, jaracanda, and roses in bloom. And to think that, back in the windowless D.C. office where I spent the last year working my first post-grad job, ten am is the time I start to debate whether it’s acceptable to have lunch at eleven. Here the day has barely begun.

For those on the hunt for food, mornings in Andalucia are the golden time for a visit to the market. Such is the aim of our makeshift team, a lean trio consisting of Julian, a young videographer from Bogota with dreadlocks and ruddy cheeks, Trinidad, an infatigable Malagan tasked to be our guide, chauffeuse, translator, PR rep, liaison to local tourism boards, and, it turns out, jokester, nick-namer, and fable-teller, and me, a French/Chinese/American specimen flown in to test the wildest limits of what the human liver and stomach can handle.

Simone, a young German who adopted Malaga as her new home in 2008 and delightful tour guide from Spain Food Sherpas , shows us towards the central wet market, el Mercado de Atarazanas. The building is housed in an old shipyard renovated with impressive cast-iron architecture designed after Les Salles in Paris. The main doorway into the market is a 14th century marble Nazareth arch, a nod to Andalucia’s history of Moorish occupation. Dangling legs of jamón Iberico crowd above counters stuffed full of sausages, chorizos, salchichons, and pot after pot of cremas, which are different kinds of lard flavored with all imaginable kinds of meats, cheeses, spices, and herbs. The most famous, a close variant of chorizo or salami cream, is the Zurrapa, a mixture of cold fat and pulled pork dyed red by paprika and spread onto bread for a typical Andalus breakfast.

The uninitiated visitor’s awe before vats of fat is a sight most tickling to Andalucians, who embrace all parts of their pigs as the “good kind of cholesterol”. The quality of Jamón Iberico, for example, can be tested by whether a strip of fat dissolves when smeared onto one’s skin. Simone waves to a man slicing a leg of jamón with the swinging motions of an absorbed cellist, and he hands us a piece resting on his thin saw-like knife. “The key to eating jamón,” Simone adds, “is to always serve it at room temperature. Let it sweat a little.” And be not tempted to tear off the fat, a sacrilege I soon renounce in the face of popular outrage. High-end jamón comes from free-range pigs fed on a diet of acorns, and the roaming beasts are practically awarded medals postmortem based on whether they developed marbling within their muscles that adds creaminess to the most paper-thin slice of cured meat. Given my current rate of intake, my porcine self would be in good standing for the gold.

Meat and cheese stall at the Mercado de Atarazanas

To the left of the mercado’s entrance is the family run Cafe-Bar Mercado Artazanas, which serves up fresh pitchers of cold gazpacho and fried boquerones (anchovies) pre-marinated in garlic, parsley, lemon, and vinegar. Fried seafood is a staple of coastal Andalucia, but it yields a surprisingly light mouthfeel as a result of a quick tempura-style dip into piping hot olive oil instead of conventional deep-frying. “This way, the ingredient is sealed on the outside and steamed on the inside,” explains Simone. The cuisine here also retains strong Arabian and Jewish influences discernable through the use of dried fruits, nuts, and delectable wild sugarcane molasses drizzled onto salty strips of eggplants freshly fried by the brothers running the cafe-bar.

Eggplant with molasses, gazpacho, and fried anchovies in the cafe-bar Mercado de Atarazanas

The market’s true spectacle takes place in the fish section, which is not hard to locate if you follow the pungent stench of seafood so fresh it is not kept on ice but merely splashed with cold water every few minutes. “You smell it, and you hear it,” says Simone, and indeed one’s ears are assaulted with a discordant concerto of competing baritones, each deeper, throatier, and louder than the next. Like trained opera singers, the fish vendors belt out the names of the day’s fresh catches so impressively that I began to suspect the existence of hidden megaphones — but no, no, Simone assures me, only the most worthy with the most well-honed voices can run the fish stalls: “I’d have to marry one of the men to score a stall, because they are passed down from generation to generation and guarded jealously. The young man over there just took over from his eighty-five year-old grandfather. But the best is a sister in the family — she can be elbow deep in fish, but her makeup will still be perfect.”

The cacophonous gaiety of the fish market captures a vibrancy that has not always existed outside the mercado walls, but is now palpable throughout the bustling plazas and cobblestone boardwalks. Malaga is infused with the kind of vigor typical of cities undergoing an economic and cultural renaissance: the 2003 opening of the Museo Picasso spurred intensive renovations of the historic center, where newly inaugurated pedestrian streets are hosed down daily and paved with stones so shiny that they faintly betray passerbys’ reflections. In the late twentieth century, though vaguely known as Picasso’s birthplace, Malaga was far off the radar of the hordes of European tourists who preferred nearby Torremolinos to an industrial town more focused on aggrandizing its port’s deep-water docking capabilities than embellishing its beaches and marinas for visitors. Now, after a veritable rebirth, Malaga has become one of the most important economic centers in Spain, hosting, among other things, a new Pompidou center, a Thyssen museum, an annual film festival, and one of Europe’s most important botanical gardens. Flush with tourist cash, the city’s gastronomic scene has reinvented its traditions and boasts of excellent but approachable taperias where young chefs strive, perhaps harder than those in more cosmopolitan cities like Madrid and Barcelona, to elevate Andalucian cuisine to both local and world-class renown.

Antonio, for one, never intended to open a restaurant. He owns an artisanal arts and craft shop named La Recova, an unassuming storefront tucked away on a side street not far from the city’s main square. The local lore goes that, during the city’s annual feria in August, a carnivalesque drinking marathon, Malagueños spilling out from the square stumbled into the store for some shade and hydration. “Can you give us some water?” They asked Antonio.

Antonio shrugged and said: “Sure.”

“And now, while you are at it, can you also give us some food?” The party-goers implored.

Lards and jams at La Recova

Not a man of too many words, Antonio replied: “okay”, and fried up some hangover cures that were received with such gratitude that word spread and the little shop soon metamorphosed into a busy cafeteria.

Since then, La Recova has cleared some space at the center of a room filled with metal-wire sculptures and vintage bird cages, and set up a few tables with checkered plastic covers and woven straw chairs. The house specialty are cremas — served with a large slice of warm, grilled bread, they come as smoky, spreadable salami, cream of fried meat crust, and pulled paprika pork with herbs and vinegar. As an accompaniment, a mean vermut is served straight from the barrel with orange, lemon, soda, and a cinnamon stick.

Fortified by the icy vermouth and toasts of lard, we march on to La Cosmopolita, a chic but earthy cafe-bar run by Chef Dani Carnero, who proposes a “special menu” that is as unpredictable as the sudden storm clouds that race over Malaga. The restaurant, gracefully decorated with typical ceramic tiles and pastoral olive green paint, positions its cuisine midway between traditional and contemporary, and specializes in a concept that may be scandalous to tapas fiends — dishes that can be eaten with a spoon. To console finger-foodies, La Cosmopolita also fries up excellent croquetas filled with savory chicken or oxtail stew. Today the specials are pasta alla carbonara in the form of shaved white asparagus with bacony cream sauce and salmon eggs, and hearty seared kidneys in sherry sauce with tiny fried shrimps in a bed of shrimp butter.

Kidneys and shrimps with sherry & butter at La Cosmopolita

Chef Dani, a boisterous forty-something with a tan complexion and silver hair, twirls by our table to collect our cooing compliments, then returns to direct his rag-tag crew of delightfully eccentric staff, which include an espresso specialist with glistening braces and a coquettish old waiter who apologizes for occupying the women’s bathroom for too long — he had to spritz on cologne and comb his hair, he explains, and the men’s bathroom’s mirror just isn’t large enough.

A few streets down, a more modern and elaborate gastronomical revolution is unfolding in the minimalistic dining room of Uvedoble, where Chef Willy Orellana delivers a menu with the ambition of representing “Andalucia in the 21st century”. Local products and traditional recipes are re-worked into creative bites like the fast-food themed minikebab of gambas al pil-pil, in which shrimps are oven-baked in a clay pot with garlic and cayenne in a bath of olive oil, then stuffed into a tortilla with a creamy mayonnaise sauce. Though the minikebab is Chef Willy’s proudest creation, the unbeatable customer favorite is the otherworldly fideos negros con calamaritos — thin, crunchy fideos pasta blackened with squid ink and topped with seared baby squids and aioli. A couple of old ladies dressed to attend a royal wedding waddle in and eye us suspiciously before firing off a bevy of orders, clearly not rookies in the gourmet neo-fast-food game, and soon are carefully biting into the tin-foiled kebabs while perfectly preserving the integrity of their lipstick.

Squid ink fideos with calamari and aioli at Uvedoble

To see where the city’s trendiest youngsters are eating, one has to head to the Mercado Merced, Malaga’s brand new gastromarket, a concept still novel to many Spaniards of the South but a longtime runaway success in Madrid. The sleek stalls at Mercado Merced consist of a highly curated collection of first rate products ranging from fine wines to fist-sized oysters to sushi to nationally recognized Malagan goat cheese. Spanish classics like paella, tortilla, and croquetas are presented with refined twists (say, mushroom and truffle croquettes in Panko crumbs) and tip-top techniques (croquettes are hand rolled, tempura-ed, and ooze light, quasi-liquid filling). Beltrán, a long-lashed charmer who shows us around the market in an impeccable blue suit, empathetically insists on pairing a round of drinks with every bite sampled: Cruzcampo beer to ready the palate, Andalucian red wine with croquettes, vermut martinis with oysters, and gin and tonics, because, well, this is Spain. We settle at Lemon, the market’s cocktail bar, where Nuria ( the “hottest girl in Malaga”, per Beltrán), crafts each drink after inquiring about the customer’s flavor preferences, adding more or less lemon, cardamom, strawberries or blueberries to level the taste.

With Beltrán, vermut martini in hand, at the Mercado Merced

Amidst all the gorging, a grand reckoning occurs when Beltrán and Trinidad discover their mutual allegiance to Atletico Madrid, which was scheduled to play against its nemesis Real Madrid in the Champion’s League’s final the next night. Beaming with delight, they embrace and exchange sonorous kisses on the cheeks. Perhaps encouraged by the gin and tonic, Trini promises to dance on a table if Atletico Madrid wins.

“That’s the way!”, Beltrán affirms enthusiastically. “You’ll find me up there. And you, beautiful,” he turns to Nuria, “please tell me you are cheering for the Atletico.”

Nuria flashes a toothy smile, and shakes her head: “Born a Real Madrid fan, will die a Real Madrid fan.”

“Impossible!”, Beltrán wails, aghast with mock-horror (or perhaps real horror):“The perfect woman does not exist after all!” To dilute the pain, he orders another round of gin and tonics.

A gin and tonic with lemon and cardamom at Lemon, with Malagan jasmine

On the AstroTurf greens outside, glamorously dressed Malagueños are beginning to occupy lounge furniture, and Nuria abandons us to care for other patrons. She has bartended in Ibiza and Mykonos before, so cocktail hour in Malaga may seem like child’s play. And yet, perhaps not for long — after the waves of French retiree tour groups, a younger, suaver clientele is trickling, even pouring, into Malaga. The capital of the Costa del Sol is now claiming its place under the sun as the poshest city in Andalucia, and, in a country haunted by an extended economic slump, there is a different shine in the eyes of Malagueños.

Along the marina, flashy beach lounges are serving pitchers of sangria to tourists in sporty sandals. It may all seem like bourgeois glamour, but signs of a different life cannot be so easily erased. Out of the city center, the grittier working class neighborhoods of Malaga remain — blocks of salmon colored housing projects soiled by passing decades, indistinguishable from those of other Spanish cities. But few visitors will venture past the industrial port, where a newly built promenade is domed by great wavy beams reminiscent of a whale’s spine. The coarse sand of the municipal beach, la Malagueta, is dirty from fresh residue of parties past — cigarette butts and empty boxes, plastic cups, mini vodka bottles. Young people come here at night to drink, smoke, sit in circles. Trash amasses faster than it can be cleared, an unsweepable urban reality.

Some years ago in Malaga, fellow study abroaders and I had spent a hazy October weekend drinking on the rooftop of our hostel, feeding coins into cigarette vending machines in cafe-bars, and lazing on the city’s main beach with bottles of lukewarm wine dotting the edges of our towels. Clearly, the young, stupid, and romantic are still here, with each year bringing a new crop that feeds on the indolent yet feverous energy of Malaga.

Beyond the line of buoys, a colossal cruise ship sails towards us from the horizon like a mystic beast, perhaps from a distant port in France or Italy, bearing in its bowels the human cargo that has become Malaga’s new gold. Commercialism or not, the city’s uncertain beauty deserves to be admired. As the evening cools the water’s edge, the waves roll ashore gently, carrying the promises of a nascent summer.

This story was originally published on World Nomads, whose support and generosity made the project possible.

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