Gastronomy - Espeto

Espeto is a traditional way of cooking freshly-caught sea fish, most often sardines. © Michelle Chaplow
Espeto is a traditional way of cooking freshly-caught sea fish, most often sardines.

ESPETO – THE MALAGA FISH-ON-A-STICK BARBEQUE

If you’ve ever eaten at a beach restaurant, or chiringuito, in or around Malaga in summer, then you’ve probably seen, smelled, or tasted an espeto of sardines. This is a traditional way of cooking freshly-caught sea fish, most often sardines but also sea bream and even shellfish and calamari, speared on a long flat stick (espeto or espetada) and barbequed over a hot fire on the beach. The espetos of sardines look especially beautiful, with rows of shiny silver fish turning golden in the heat. Espetar means to spear, drive through with something.

What is an espeto, and how is it made?

Espetos are usually made of bamboo cane trimmed into a flat blade-like shape, with one sharpened end; occasionally metal skewers are used. As with many traditional Spanish dishes, an espeto of fish is the essence of simplicity – the fish is covered in sal gorda (coarse sea salt), speared, six per espeto, and cooked over an olive-wood fire until golden, tender and tasty, with that unmistakeable smoky barbeque flavour. Eating fish cooked on an espeto is a big tradition in Malaga city, where you can even see a statue to the espetero (man who uses the espeto) on the Paseo Maritimo Antonio Machado.

Note that sardine espetos are only available while this fish is in season – from May to October. However Malagueños will tell you that the best months to eat sardines are only those without an “r” in them – so May to August. Sardines are extremely healthy, with high levels of Omega 3 oils, as well as being a sustainable fish.

Delicious barbecued sea bream on the beach, a summer essential! © Michelle Chaplow
Delicious barbecued sea bream on the beach, a summer essential!

Where can I find espetos?

You’ll see fish cooked on espetos in many restaurants around Malaga city – not just on the beach, in the centre too - and in seaside towns throughout the province – Alhaurin de la Torre, Torrox, Mijas, Torremolinos, Fuengirola, Benalmadena, Marbella, San Pedro de Alcantara, Estepona, Pedregalejo, Torre del Mar, and Nerja, as well as towns on the Costa Tropical, in neighbouring Granada province. They are also used all along the Mediterranean coast – Murcia, Alicante, Castellon, Tarragona, and in Galicia, whose coast is the Atlantic Ocean.

In many towns, they still grill sardines in old wooden fishing boats filled with sand, though modern security concerns are putting a stop to this tradition in some places. In Estepona, for example, the four old wooden on the beach where people cooked their own espetos have been replaced with iron boat-shaped receptacles, which are stronger and safer, if less picturesque. The “boats” are located on La Rada beach from June to September, and those wishing to use them should get permission from the Delegacion de Participacion Ciudadana at the Ayuntamiento of Estepona.

Some beach restaurants we recommend which offer espetos are Guyaba Beach in San Pedro de Alcantara (Urbanisacion Linda Vista Baja), Chiringuito Arroyo in La Cala de Mijas and the Beach Club restaurant of Hotel Fuerte in Marbella.

Fresh sardines cooked on the beaches of Andalucia. © Michelle Chaplow
Fresh sardines cooked on the beaches of Andalucia.

How to make espetos of sardines

Here is a step-by-step guide to preparing espetos of sardines yourself.

 Ingredients: 2kg sardines, 40cm wooden skewers, bucket of ice, coarse sea salt, lemons

Instructions

Clean the sardines under running water to remove any blood or loose scales, but don't remove their heads or gut them. Rinse well.

Put the fish in a bucket of ice while you prepare the fire for roasting them, so they're as firm as possible when pierced, and soak the wooden skewers in water - this stops them burning.

Use a metal container full of sand as a barbeque, with pieces of wood inside it to make the fire. Light the wood and wait until it has some good flames.

When the fire is ready, skewer the sardines, making sure the espeto is slightly bent so the row of sardines is concave. Pierce the sardines through the middle, from spine to belly, with the skewer above the spine. Be careful not to put the skewer too far to either side of the fish's spine, or it'll be raw on one side and burned on the other. Continue until you have about six sardines on each espeto. Sprinkle with coarse sea salt.

Put the skewers of sardines on the fire, putting the curved side up first so the sardines aren't too close to the flames. When the sardines are cooked on one side (the skin will have turned golden), turn them over to cook them on the other side.

To serve, take the sardines off the espetos carefully, put them on a plate and squeeze lemon juice over them. Eat the fish in your fingers while still hot with some bread. Best accompanied by a cold beer or tinto de verano.

The video below shows an Espeto Festival in Malaga. For more videos from Andalucian Festivals visit our YouTube page.