El Tintero, famous Seafood restaurant in Malaga, Andalucia

El Tintero fish counter

If you find yourself in Andalucia, and within one hundred miles of Malaga, no, even two hundred miles, it would be to your great misfortune if you missed this unsurpassable culinary experience. An experience in fish and seafood. An experience in atmosphere, in the true Spanish tradition, which I have not seen rivalled in my travels throughout Europe, the Middle East, Africa and the United States.

The experience cannot be savoured in an article, even with pictures.

But let me try to talk you through it anyway.

More fish!

Although the Tintero starts serving at about one, mid-day, be sure to arrive early to get a parking space. Every day in the summer it's busy. Sundays are busy all year round and you need to arrive early, in summer about ten, to get a parking space. The attendants will cover your windscreen with cardboard sheets if it's hot.

Then get a table. When you tell the waiter (camarero) how many are in your party, you get bread for that number and the same number of plastic plates and cutlery. Then your drinks order is taken. Try a carafe of Tinto de Verano, literally, "coloured of summer". It's  red wine with casera added (a sparkling, slightly lemon drink). Incredibly refreshing when its hot.

Barbecuing sardines

Formalities over, head for the "brasa" and "plancha" area (barbecue and grill area). Seafood and fish are displayed in the counters. In Spain the variety of prawns is enormous, and they all have different names. Gambas are small; langostinos slightly larger; gambon even bigger; cigalas are hard shelled prawns; and so on. Just have a look at the counter. There is also a counter full of fresh fish.

If you want a tailor made lunch tell them what you want and how you want it cooked. Otherwise head back to your table and wait for the fun to start.

It is very unusual for the Spanish to eat lunch before two thirty to three in the afternoon. The Tintero is the exception. In the summer the restaurant is usually full shortly after one, especially on Sunday. If you want a table later, you will have to "hover" around until one group looks like it has finished eating. The minute they leave jump in; if you're slow someone will beat you to it.

At the Tintero the menu speaks! You don't need to read one, and none will be given to you, unless you ask. Don't ask!

Let me take you through the experience.

Espetas of sardines

In Spain it is customary to start a meal with salad. So that's what usually appears first. Mixed salad (ensalada mixta), red pepper salad (ensalada pimientos), Pulpo (Galician style octopus) and so on. If you miss something, don't panic. There is a constant stream of everything.

In the meantime food is prepared in a variety of places before being dispatched to the camareros (waiters).

In the kitchens, at the back of the restaurant, are large freidoras (friers), paella pans, large pots for boiling prawns and lobster etc. This is where dishes such as cooked prawns, lobster, deep fried fish (usually in batter), seafood, paellas and so on are prepared. You can have a look at what goes on because there are large windows to the kitchen. Favourites with our children are paella and gambas rebozadas, prawns in breadcrumbs accompanied by a garlic mayonnaise.

Over to one side of the terrace area are the large barbecues, 'planchas' (grills, heated by wood fires) and espeto fires.

Langostinos

This is where the enormous variety of fish and seafood is grilled and barbecued. One section is devoted to espeto. Espeto is a Malaga specialty. Sardines are skewered onto bamboo sticks after being marinated. The skewers are stuck in sand next to the fire and left to cook. There are usually eight or so sardines per skewer. They are absolutely delicious with a little lemon juice and a large chunk of bread.

Now, I happen to believe that whoever conceived of the "chaos theory of the universe" must have been a regular at the Tintero. Apparent chaos masking a well oiled machine creating a perfectly balanced environment.

The "chaos" starts in the car park. By one-o-clock the car park is a maze. After unloading passengers, cars weave their way through looking for the tiniest opening to squeeze into, .

Anticipated excitement is written all over the faces of people heading for the Tintero.

Fish on the barbecue

What happens next can best be compared to an ocean.

At first there is almost a calm as people settle down at the tables. Some spend a few minutes arranging several tables into one long table to accommodate large parties; great grandfather and grandmother down to the newest arrival to these huge extended families. Many people are still dripping with water after showering on the beach.

Before long most tables are taken and the expectation is tangible. This is a good time to compose yourself with a long sip of Tinto de Verano and replenish supplies for the food pilgrimage about to start.

Ready to serve...

First, camareros appear here and there amongst the tables plying their wares, like white horses on the ocean as the swell gathers. The menu shouts out: "ensalada mixta", "pimientos", "gambas cocido".

Imperceptibly, the number of camareros increases as does the decibel level. The fried fish and seafood begins to appear, and the excitement builds. So does the "bidding".

"Rosada frita!" "Gambas rebozadas!" "Chanquetes!"

Then "arroz!" "arroz!" (paella).

Simply grilled fish and squid

Each camarero has loads of plates of his specialty. Each appears to try and out-shout the others. By now the relaxed "bidding" that accompanied the salads is abandoned. Customers are jumping up all over the place to "bid". Ten or more plates disappear in seconds.

Then the "brasa", "plancha" and "espeto" camareros start plying the tables. The shouting and "bidding" reaches fever pitch. The scene makes those frantic "stock exchange" clips appear mild. This is more like those underwater documentaries of a shark feeding frenzy.

Just when you think things can't get more noisy and frantic, the resident guitar serenader strikes up, competing with the camareros by offering up Spanish ballads. He too wanders between the tables.

You can almost feel your heart pumping as you try to discern what's on offer.

Controlled chaos...

The scene then changes to one of ocean breakers crashing ashore. A calm descends and there is an almost confused silence. Then suddenly camareros appear from everywhere, like a gigantic breaker smashing ashore. The scene deafening and almost confusing. In the chaos I think I hear the sweet call of "gambon plancha". I listen carefully. I do! I jump up, only a split second before others on adjoining tables. But I catch the camarero's eye; his acknowledgment is almost imperceptible, like the knowing eye contact of lovers across a crowded room. I sit, content in the knowledge that ecstasy is only seconds away.Then there they are! Huge grilled prawns with a wedge of lemon. The noise recedes into the background as I get a taste of paradise.

And so the tide of the Tintero, like the ocean, ebbs and flows late into the night, three hundred and sixty five days a year.

When even the most appetising plates start losing their appeal, you know its over. By now the plates are stacked high and glasses and bottles clutter the table. There, in the "chaos" of the table, is the bill.

Each size plate has its price, as does each glass and bottle.

To pay you have to listen for the shout "yo cobro". Weaving between the tables are two or three camareros not carrying plates. They have little note books. You need to "bid" for them as well. They simply count the plates, glasses and bottles on the table, allocate the price for each, then write the total, rounded down to the nearest euro, on the table cloth.

Then that's it. Its all over! And you feel exhilarated. Even better than the best of rollercoasters. And you have survived. A sense of pride swells within, as though you've been initiated into a secret and elite brotherhood. Never can life be the same again.

And you will have come a little closer to understanding Spain and its people! Beneath the apparent chaos, which gives Spain its unique and exotic character, is an efficient, ordered and hard working structure. If you immerse yourself in it you will be absorbed and accepted as one of the family. But no great fuss will be made! You will just know when it happens. You can make it happen at the Tintero! 

Copyright © John Campbell 2003 All rights reserved.