History can be made in the most elementary of ways. Not everything important has an epic context. There are people who have a simple notion, build it up with a little bit of faith and plenty of desire, and then carry it to fruition. Over time it becomes clear that they have done something wonderful. This is what happened in the case of Migué the Sardine Man who, it is said, set up the first beach bar and invented a way of cooking fish that has become, with time, a part of Malaga’s very identity. The marketing strategy (to use today’s phrase) used by Migué to sell his creation consisted of correcting a king, Alfonso XII of Spain.
The dish in question is espetos. This is not the name of the fish, but the method of preparation, which is very simple. First, collect some good strong reeds. After cutting them down to size, sharpen them with a knife until the point looks like a prehistoric weapon. Then, take your sardines and spear them onto the reeds until they are lined up in rows. Light a barbecue directly on the beach, and insert the ends of the reeds in the sand, but with an inclination, so the sardines are above the coals. In this way the sardines cook, but do not lose the taste of the sea. There is a connection between this way of cooking fish and the traditional Costa del Sol way of spending an evening: dancing and singing by the fire. Espetos are flamenco sardines.
Today the beach bars of the province serve them, preferably during the months with no ‘r’ in the name, since the amoragaores (masters of espeto) are of the opinion that the best flavour is achieved in late spring and summer. Many cooks depart from the traditional formula and instead of preparing them directly on the beach, they do their barbecue in specially prepared vessels.
The first maestro of the art was the brave Migué. It was the 1880s, and Miguel Martínez Soler opened his beach stall, the Gran Parada, in El Palo, a simple fishing neighbourhood of Malaga. The impressive sounding name of this simple eatery (‘the Grand Stop’) also makes reference to the railway which at that time was bringing a new vibrancy to an area that had previously been so inward looking. Migué, who was short of money at a time when work was hard to come by, started with almost nothing. At first he served clam soup to fishermen, and later he went on to bigger things. As the newspaper La Voz del Sur tells the story “He did everything himself. He fished, he sold his catch in the streets, and he cooked it.” The simple beach stall where he sold his cooked fish became the Gran Parada restaurant which was, in turn, the first of a million beach bars on the Costa del Sol.
Life is a tale of contrasts and coincidences. The story of espetos is one that involves a tragic episode. In 1884, an earthquake measuring 6.5 on the Richter scale hit, a few kilometres from El Palo. The area was devastated and more than a thousand people were killed by the quake. A few days afterwards, King Alfonso XII visited the disaster area, where he was shocked by what he saw.
Dismayed and bewildered, the king sat down by the Gran Parada. Migué swiftly placed a dish under his nose, which was tempted with the aromas of fish, salt, smoke and possibly a dash of lemon. The historian Fernando Rueda tells the story of what happened next: the king, with his royal table manners, took a knife and fork, ready to eat. At that moment, Migué intervened and reprimanded the monarch: “With your fingers, your majesty, your fingers…” The king probably needed something to make him smile after his painful experience with the aftermath of the earthquake. However, his exact reaction goes unrecorded, although it is known that he followed the instruction and polished off the sardines using his fingers. Perhaps there is something subversive about getting a king’s hands dirty.
Word soon spread, and the rest is history. Migué had done something small, almost insignificant, yet today few people like to leave the beaches of Malaga without having snacked on a tasty portion of espetos.