Sun, sea and silver sardines: Malaga memories of El Cabra

Atarazanas Central Market 3

“It’s just down here. Come on, I’m hungry.”

I heard his voice but lost sight of Antonio as his black cloud of curly hair dissappeared around the white-washed wall and his voice floated just out of reach at the end of the alley.

I peered down, my eyes screwed up against the white hot glare of Malaga’s late June sunshine. I shrugged thinking, well, at least he knows where he’s going and padded down after him, pinned to the sliver of shade that dripped from squat houses, which seemed to have slumped against the heat.

As I reached the end of the alley – wondering why I had decided to lug my stupidly heavy DSLR and with the heat from the bleached, sand-worn stones burning through the soles my thin summer sandals – I glanced up and saw a sign for Pedregalejo.

When I rounded the corner, the mouth of the alley opened up and joined the curve of the Pedragalejo beachfront: a narrow strip of greyish sand littered with rainbow-coloured sun umbrellas, the rocky fingers of the manmade reefs pointing out into the bay.

As Antonio led me along the line of shoreside restaurants I read the names that were painted onto beached boats that had been transformed into smoking bbqs; Las Palmeras, Mar de Pedragalejo; La Paloma. We stopped under the awning of one half way along. I had a moment to glance back out to sea and scan the name of this particular place, just noticing a white-haired man in a cap leaning over something that was sizzling over the flames before I was nudged into a seat next to the promenade. El Cabra.

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Nearby, chubby, sweat beaded boys were kicking neon pink footballs on the scrubby grass, and, further towards the sea, I could hear the shrieks of local girls as they were thrown into the foaming, icy waves by sunburnt men with tattooed torsos; the girls’ thick swathes of hair scything the hot air like damp black velvet and showering unlucky sunbathers in tepid rainfalls as they sprinted past.

Tall african men sauntered around, some with at least four pairs of glasses on, clutching racks of knock-off Raybans, eyes scanning the restaurant fronts for tourists; bands of lime green, gold and tortoiseshell pushed up their foreheads like plastic bandanas.

“Only locals come here really. That and tourists if they have good guides.”

Antonio winked at me before waving away the menu and ordering wine for him and beer for me and explaining why this is his favourite place to eat the local speciality: skinny, silver sardines; freshly caught and chargrilled over the flames.

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As I wiped the condensation from my beer bottle, trying not to notice the huge picture of Xabi Alonso that decorated it (I visited after Spain had been knocked out of the World Cup and any attempt to talk about it was met with stony silence), the first plate of seafood arrived.

There didn’t seem to be much of a menu here and no one else seemed to speak much English, but, when the dishes started coming I realised that that was part of the charm. You got served what was fresh that day and were served it in abundance.

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Bowls of impossibly sweet little clams dripping in butter and sharp with white wine; huge, coral-coloured mussels steamed gently open and served with wedges of lemon to squeeze over their tender flesh; salads of bright scarlet peppers with tuna and raw onion soaked in olive oil and sea salt; towers of golden fried whitebait and rings of crispy calamari and, when I was protesting the arrival of more, the ‘sardinas’, their silver skin burnt ash blonde and curling away from the soft, salty meat underneath.

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As the meal was tapering off and Anotnio was trying to force a shot of limoncello down me, promising it was a Spanish lunchtime tradition, a blast of music startled me. I swung in my seat to see a middle aged man with a portable kareoke box that couldn’t have looked more out of place on a beach if he tried.

He looked so incongruous, standing there in smart black trousers, polished, pointed shoes and an embroidered shirt, unbuttoned to the bone of his sternum, wiry chest hair spilling over the top button and hair from his impressive mullet falling past his collar. Without hesitation, he launched into a rendition of Sinatra’s My Way in heavily-accented English, the tinny sound of his jukebox crackling against his surprisingly mellow voice.

Antonio laughed at my bemused expression and explained that the singing man was a regular fixture on this stretch of beach and he’d be round after his performance, asking for tips.

“We should dance.” he said suddenly, his brown eyes dark with mischief, before bursting into fits of laughter at my panicked expression.

“I’m kidding, I’m kidding! You British girls are so proper, so easy to make fun…unless…do you want to?”

He was looking at me through a thick fan of black lashes across the table, still grinning as his hand stretched over, palm facing up and reaching for mine.

“No!” I screeched, wrenching my arm back as though he might burn me, blushing furiously and startling the couple eating next to us.

“No one else is dancing; I can’t dance; I’ve just eaten; I’m supposed to be on a serious press trip.”

Even as I said the last one I realised how silly it sounded. I cringed inwardly, sarcastically congratulating myself once again for succeeding in maintaining an aura of professionalism at all times.

Antonio was still making fun of me when the bill arrived.

As we walked back out into the afternoon haze I caught the eye of El Cabra’s grill master and paused, asking Antonio if I could meet him.

He shurgged and helped me down the sand-covered steps before calling out to the man in an unintelligable stream of Spanish. But the man, having clocked the heavy camera poised for a shot in my hands, cut him off, grinned and turned to grab a plate of freshly grilled sardines and posed, his eyes staring of into the middle distance.

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I still look at that picture today, there’s something about it, something that reminds me of The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner or The Old Man and the Sea. It’s his eyes you see; scrunched up and burning like gimlets in the lines of his leathery face. That and the memory of the salt and the sharp lemon from the lunch.

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It’s his thousand mile stare and remembering the scratchy heat of the sand under my heels on the bay and the smell of the sea, tinged with an edge of woodsmoke and the faint tang of sweat and suncream.

That meal, that view, that picture and that memory of the silvered fish at El Cabra that afternoon has become the Malaga I remember.

El Cabra, Paseo Marítimo Pedregal 17, Playa de Pedregalejo, Malaga, Spain (+34) 952-291-595 www.restauranteelcabra.es/

I was shown around Malaga as a guest of the Malagan tourism board and Monarch Airlines. You can read all about my sunny Spanish adventuring here.

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