A Food Trip to Malaga

Around the year 800 BC the Phoenicians founded a port in southern Spain which they named “Malaca” which means to salt. At the east of the natural harbour, in an area where the bullring stands today, they built canals with sluice gates which filled with seawater and after evaporation left sea salt which was slaked into adjoining pits to preserve fish and meat. It is known that the Romans copied this method to produce garum, a fish sauce, more popular than ketchup is today. It is also conceivable that the Phoenicians were made aware of preservation by salt by the Egyptians during the second century BC.

When the Moors attacked southern Spain in 711 AD they used the Greek/Arabic word Malaqa, which has gradually been bastardised into the name Malaga, as used today.


On my travels around the towns and cities of Spain I have to admit that Malaga has never been high on my list of priority destinations. I have hit the Andalucian high spots of Seville, Granada, Córdoba and Cadiz, and somehow felt that Malaga was nothing more than a gateway for the criminal classes to Marbella or the obesity brigade en route to Torremolinos. I now apologise for that awful misconception and for dismissing one of the oldest cities in Spain with a history stretching back over 3,000 years.

I must also add that I have fallen in love with the place because of the people, the food and the culture and would recommend it as a destination in its own right.

Having discovered Teruel, by the folly of Renfe only taking last-minute bookings for trains via Madrid, I similarly found myself looking for alternatives to a trip to Jerez de la Frontera which only had high-end hotels available. The answer came in the form of a return fare from Alicante to Malaga on an overnight Alsa bus at £60 for a round trip of 600 miles, an absolute bargain by any stretch of the imagination. And so the bus departed the estacion de autobus, Alicante at 12-45am, the seats had plenty of legroom & the on board entertainment system surpassed lots of those available on long haul flights.

So after a quick shut-eye, Blyth Spirit with Dame Judi and two comfort breaks we arrived spot on time in Malaga.

Año Nuevo, Going Postal
The Alcazabar, Malaga, Andalucia, Spain.
Photo by © Año Nuevo 2023, Going Postal

The well-appointed apartment was on the scarily named Calle de Martires (Road of the Martyrs) where suspects were dragged from the main square, down a narrow passage, for interrogation during the Spanish Inquisition.

As luck would have it on the same street, at the Plaza de San Juan Bautista, salvation can be found in a tapas bar called Perro Viejo, which literally translates to “old dog.” It is here where I sampled possibly the best tapas I have ever tasted. It consisted of sardine fillets, made like ceviche with a balsamic vinegar & portobello mushroom marinade garnished with crushed chilli and saffron.

Año Nuevo, Going Postal
Scintillating flavours at Perro Viejo.
Photo by © Año Nuevo 2023, Going Postal

Having once had the misfortune of dining at a Jamie Oliver restaurant I can tell you that Perro Viejo is amazing by comparison and does not have the fat boy’s brass neck cheek of charging £8 for six queen olives on crushed ice.

It is imaginative, well run, has a fabulous menu and a good selection of wines, beers, sherries and vermut.

My follow-up dish was a tapas of ewes milk cheese made by Pablo Jiminez in a small farm near Cadiz. In Andalucia the farmers are proud to be associated with their produce, and in the case of Señor Jiminez rightly so, for he had made a cheese which was both creamy & tartly rounded.

Año Nuevo, Going Postal
Tapas of cheese with plum compote.
Photo by © Año Nuevo 2023, Going Postal

There are two cathedrals in Malaga. The Catedral de la Encarnacion de Malaga, which deals in a Catholic way with all things spiritual & the Mercado Central de Atarazanas which specialises in all things delicious for the palate and the soul. The latter is the best food market I have ever seen, split into sections specialising in meat, fish and fruit and vegetables.

Atarazanas is the Arabic word for shipyard and today’s market stands on the site where Romans and Greeks would come to repair their ships.

The market also has its fair share of characters, who are as much part of the fabric of the place as the Art Deco architecture. There is a quietly spoken man in his eighties who sells artisan bread for 70 cents, which would cost £4 at a farmers market in London; there is a fabulous lady who sells flavoured virgin olive oils for €7-99 which sell for £24 in Borough Market and a very flamboyant olive seller who bemoans people who taste but do not buy by telling them that he is saving up for a sex change.

Año Nuevo, Going Postal
An array of fresh produce at the Atarazanas.
Photo by © Año Nuevo 2023, Going Postal

There is also a woman who begs at the tapas bars, not for money but for items of leftover food and who must be successful because she is built like a Russian tank. There is also a maître d’ with a waxed moustache who aptly goes by the name of Dali Manuel and the local drunk who tells you that Casa Rosa does the best pork while tapping the side of his nose and laughingly proclaiming, “no Muslims.”

It is at this market that I also rediscovered something that my mother used to give us, spread on bread with lots of salt, the Spanish call it Manteca de Chicharrones but it is known in Northern England as pork dripping.

I bought a little tub of it & relived a memory of long ago.

Año Nuevo, Going Postal
Razor clams cooked with butter, lemon & parsley.
Photo by © Año Nuevo 2023, Going Postal

On the external corner of the Atarazanas is a stool and high table seating area cast in shadow by colourful umbrellas. It is serviced by the restaurant opposite until the street buzzes with waiters traversing the open thoroughfare with foaming beer and plates of seafood.

It is here where I discover that calamares is not a chewy glutinous mess, as served elsewhere in Spain, but a soft melting taste of fish held in a thin coating of tempura.

Round the corner from the Iglesias de la Sante Martires is the narrow street of Calle Mosquera (Mosquito Alley.) This is the home of Las Merchanas, a tapas restaurant like no other. It is run by an owner who has a fixation about holy weeks gone by, where the restaurant walls are festooned with icons and religious memorabilia & the soundtrack is provided by a rolling playlist of sombre religious music.

Año Nuevo, Going Postal
Las Merchanas tapas restaurant, Malaga.
Photo by © Año Nuevo 2023, Going Postal

The owner is also a bit of an old school Tartar, making sure that tables are fully occupied and woe betide the couple who have the audacity to sit at a table for five.

Despite the idiosyncrasies the place is packed with locals who appreciate food that is big bold, tasty and excellent value for money. Las Merchanas also sells “Victoria Beer” which is made with spring water and not as sweet as Mau or San Miguel.

I opted for the signature dishes of callos, a slow-cooked stew of ox tripe, chickpeas, chorizo, tomato and peppers. It was punchy with paprika & packed with intense flavour.

Año Nuevo, Going Postal
Callos at Las Merchanas, Malaga.
Photo by © Año Nuevo 2023, Going Postal

There are many restaurants on the harbour, all exuding an air of superiority with damask table clothes; watched over by charming señoritas in short skirts and bosomy tops who are employed to entice you in. They are what I call the charlatans of chuleton. Steak bars that hide behind an international menu as if their lives depended on it.

Far better to slip under the bridge and walk two hundred yards to a higgledy-piggledy collection of tables and chairs set on duckboards on the beach. What the restaurant lacks in finesse, with faded umbrellas and mismatched cutlery it more than makes up for in its honest endeavour to provide the absolute best barbecued fish.

What could be better than two dozen plump sardines speared and sizzling on their metal spikes as they lean into the heat of a smouldering charcoal barbecue?

Año Nuevo, Going Postal
Sardinas de la Playa, Malaga.
Photo by © Año Nuevo 2023, Going Postal

The flavours of the Mediterranean are encapsulated in the breadth of tapas and foods available. It is a real pleasure to journey the narrow streets and find food that makes the tastebuds zing.

And there I am, out of time, before mentioning the ruby red gambas, the sweetest tomatoes, the Iberian sirloin (as soft as calf’s liver) the pulpo a la plancha, the cerdo secreto………………… And ad infinitum into food heaven.

© AÑO NUEVO 2023