Centre Pompidou Malaga art gallery

Centre Pompidou Malaga art galleryshutterstock

Aoife Carrigy travels to Malaga to find a city full of gastronomic delights

“All I ask is that you keep an open mind.” The softly spoken chef says this with such disarming sincerity that it’s impossible not to want to like his food. Besides, he’s just spent thirty minutes showing us around the greenhouse, fish tanks and lab, which his Michelin-starred menu takes its inspiration from. It’s a good opening gambit, given what he’s about to serve us. Snacks like crispy fried sturgeon skin, and peanut macaroon filled with trout pate and peanut praline prime us for a ten-course tasting menu of truly unique river fish dishes. Sliced piranha topped with cool yoghurt curd and a sunny sumac and black olive powder. Grilled offcuts of fish in a warmly spiced sturgeon blood sauce, not unlike a fishy morcilla. A ramen broth in which noodles are replaced by crunchy catfish whiskers. Tiradito (Peru’s raw sliced fish dish) of tilapia with ajoblanco (Andalucia’s beloved cold almond soup) of peanut and miso. What’s amazing is that they’re all amazing.

I first came across Diego Gallegos in 2015 when his demonstration of harvesting fresh caviar from organic-farmed sturgeon and sustainable uses for the rest of the fish was one of my highlights of Madrid Fusion, Spain’s leading annual chef’s summit. And now his restaurant Sollo – named after the Andalucian sturgeon – is proving a highlight of a gastronomic tour of Malaga.

When Gallegos came to Spain from his native Brazil he found himself surrounded by fantastic seafood but missing the river fish flavours of home. Today, the pride and joy of Sollo’s greenhouse is a closed-system river fish farm. The water is cleaned as it passes through vertical beds of strawberries, herbs and vegetables that Gallego grows for his kitchen. The resulting supply of clean sustainable fish feeds 14 lucky guests per night – each of whom has the option of a tour of the greenhouse and lab before dinner.

It’s not the only surprise that Malaga springs on us. In the achingly modern Restaurante José Carlos Garcia down at the chi chi marina, we sample another ajoblanco. Its traditional base of almond and garlic is paired with mango and adorned with a slick of liquid silver – a jet-set soup if there ever was one.

At the Málaga Gastronomy Festival we listen as a professor of economics recounts how she was inspired to establish La Dehesa de los Monteros (www.dehesalosmonteros.com) in Ronda, where she produces a unique jamon from pure-bred Iberico pigs fed on chestnuts rather than acorns.

As a sherry-lover, I’m pleasantly surprised by some of the local Pedro Ximenez wines aged in a solera system similar to that of Jerez, some under flor for a bone-dry aperitif and some oxidised for a dark sweet style.

But it’s Malaga itself that is the real revelation. I had been here fleetingly fifteen years ago, and was charmed by the Malaga I glimpsed: was one of cool cobbles, shaded squares and dark tapas bars hung with sleek jamon. I left intrigued. This time around, everyone I meet tells me how much Malaga has changed with its newly developed marina and its 38 museums and galleries. And many of these prove impressive: the Picasso Museum is second only to Barcelona’s, while Museo de Málaga’s archaeology and fine art collection offers a fascinating romp through the back history of this 3,000-year-old city.

But I’m relieved to discover that Malaga hasn’t lost the laid-back charm I glimpsed. Yes, you could fill a few days being a busy tourist. Or you could while away the afternoon on the terrace of El Pimpi (www.elpimpi.com), grazing on cacon adobo (a shark-like fish marinated in vinegar and deep-fried) or ensalada malaga (potato salad with cod, onion, orange and mayonaisse) with a moscatel seco or vermut, with the ruins of the Roman amphitheatre and the Moorish Alcazaba as your backdrop.

Traditional vermut is enjoying a resurgence and they serve it everywhere, at any time. In Recova Artesanias we sample some of this fortified wine with a late breakfast of homemade preserves spread on toast – marmelades (carrot or apple marmalade), zurrapas (pork preserved in lard) and sobrasada (spiced Mallorcan sausage). At Antigua Casa de Guardia (antiguacasadeguardia.com), the freshest seafood tapas are washed down with house vermut drawn from directly from one of dozens of barrels.

Vermut is not the only local tradition that is going strong. At La Malaguena cafe, we join construction workers and retired couples for a mid-morning snack of hot chocolate with freshly fried tejeringos, which is the local take on churros or fried doughnut prepared from a fresh yeast-free dough and cooked to order by a burly cook.

Later, it’s time to head to one of several city beaches for a fishy feast at a chiringuito. It’s worth grabbing a cab out to the old fishing villages of Pedregalejo or El Palo to sample the best of these beachside eateries, where skewered sardines are barbecued over charcoal in tin boats along with pretty much anything else that swims in the sea. Eating freshly grilled fish with the sand between your toes is the kind of simple pleasure that first attracted tourists to the Costa del Sol, before the string of fishing villages became transformed for holiday brochures. It’s a fitting end to a short break in a charming city that remains full of surprises, after all these years.

Where to shop

Atarazanas Market is the place to gawk at the spectacular seafood selection or the tropical fruit bounty of the sunshine coast. Suitcase-friendly fare includes olives of every shade, great bunches of dried moscatel grapes and fresh local pecan and almonds.

Antique grocery stores like La Mallorquina and La Recova are the go-to for speciality gourmet foods like cured meats and cheese.

Finca de Torre, Spain’s premium olive oil producer an hour’s drive inland in Bobadilla, sell single variety olive oils, including peppery pungent Hoji Blanca EVO. You can lunch at Restaurante Arte de Cozina in nearby Antequera and visit the ancient dolmens.

Where to stay

AC Hotel Malaga Palacio is a smart modern hotel with a great rooftop bar overlooking the marina on one side and the cathedral on the other.

Choose from several Paradores de Turismo in the locality.

When to go

The annual Málaga Gastronomy Festival takes place every May; events at Plaza de la Marina include cookery demos and tastings, street food and tapas and open-air concerts.