Popular seafood dishes along the Costa del Sol include espetos de sardinas (sardine skewers), seafood stew and pescaito frito (deep fried fish) and a trip to one of the numerous beach chiringuitos to savour these delights is an absolute must.
The classic espeto is a very simple traditional coastal dish dating back to the late nineteenth century and has hardly changed ever since. Sardines are grilled on a cane skewer over the heat of an open wood fire. You can also, of course, cook various other types of fish, such as sea bass or bream, for example, or even a tasty squid.
The sardines are kept in ice water before skewering them. This not only keeps the fish nice and fresh, but also helps when inserting the cane. Medium-sized sardines are generally considered the best to use as they have the best taste. Large ones tend not to cook very well and the small ones dry out very quickly. The natural cane (the sort found in streams near the sea) is also generally soaked in water to prevent it burning. Metal skewers can, of course, also be used.
The fire, which is very commonly prepared in old boats filled with beach sand, is made with wood that burns slowly and maintains a low flame. Olive wood, especially its root, is considered ideal because of its slow combustion.
Once everything is prepared, the cane skewer is introduced into the back of the sardine, below the spine and at the height of the gills, so that the fish will not fall off the skewer. Abundant sea salt is usually added, which is absorbed by the fish, as well as a bit of olive oil. The skewers are quite full as an extra precaution against burning the cane.
The canes are stuck in the sand a few centimetres apart and, importantly, upwind so the flames don’t burn the fish and/or the cane. It is the general heat of the wood and not a direct flame that slowly does the cooking.
It takes from three to five minutes to cook the sardines, turning them round halfway through so that both sides cook properly. Two ways to see whether the espeto is ready are 1): the eye becomes whitish in colour and 2) the tail goes blonde.
It is a method you can also easily try for yourself, even grilling them on a tray rather than over an open fire. Once they are cooked, you can then add some lemon or lemon zest, maybe some of your favourite herbs and spices, garlic, pepper, parsley…or just tuck in. Use your fingers, messy but traditional.