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The International Writers Magazine: Food:

The Best $5.00 Meal I Ever Had In Spain
David Russell

The beach at Malaga was our filming location. At that time, Malaga was not the house next to house, hotel next to hotel, Coney Island of the Spanish Mediterranean Coast it is today. How many years ago was it? There were just two beachfront hotels and "Dr. Zhivago" was being filmed there, which is why we had scheduled Malaga as part of our European filming itinerary, to take advantage of their down filming week which permitted us to hire some of the crew and cast without paying travel or per diem costs from our small budget regional television commercial.

My story begins the Saturday of that week. With our filming completed I was taking a weekend off at the beach, including this morning stroll.. On the beach ahead of me, was this man dragging two children’s play wagons, with the wheels replaced by wooden runners, With long ropes, he hauled his wagons from an open outdoor motored fish boat to the entrance of a small facing the sea restaurant. How small? I could see six, two-people fold out tables with chairs lining two walls, almost overwhelming its interior.

In the middle of the tables sat a huge bubbling cauldron, positioned over burning wood logs. I learned that fire never went out. And the fish soup in the cauldron never stopped bubbling. On one wall was a chart in color with exes, he said, marked the fish he caught. Exed were John Dory, Bream, Hake, Goby, Sate, Mullet, Flounder, Dolphin, Scad Sea Bass, Bluefish, Grouper, Puffer, Snapper, Mackerel and Sea Trout. With fascination, I watched as he pulled from one wagon a chest of melting ice, in which were six fish he had netted that morning. Nothing fancy here. He chopped off head and tail, sliced the body into about one inch filets and toss all into the pot.

From the chart, I identified a large Sea Bass, a Snapper, a Spanish Mackerel, 2 Puffers and a Goby. From the second, wagon, containing sea water, came whichever crustacean found its way into his traps. Some lucky days, it was a Spiny Lobster, others small Octopus was on the menu, except there was no menu. And from sands near the water’s edge, came buckets of clams, some as meaty as our New England Quahogs.After carefully showering sand off the shell fish, they found their way into the pot. This pot, other eaters remarked, was refilled daily, seven days a week. There was no down day for this fisherman nor his pot.

From a paper sack on the counter came six mashed, tomatoes, casually tossed after the fish. From another, three sweet onions, rapidly diced and shoveled in on the side of his small, obviously sharp hatchet. As were three smashed cloves of garlic. A handful of coarse salt and a tablespoon of sugar joined the bubbles. And as final ingredients, from shakers I later read, was added tosses of Cayenne, Chili, paprika and a handful of Bay leaves. The mouth-watering. arousing aroma that permeated that small space had to be 5-star.

Since I had watched all the action, I got the first table for lunch that day, where I learned of his non-existent menu. What you were served lunch or early dinner was a huge bowl of bubbling fish soup, The good stuff from the bottom plus two mussels from a smaller pot on an electric burner, covered with a ladle filled with broth, after he had scooped the scum from the top and deposited with a wrist flip into a small metal container on the floor alongside the cauldron. Each bubbling bowl was delivered without benefit of towel or mitt, by his calloused, gnarled hands. My wife should have been there, she always sends soup back to the kitchen to be "warmed up". This was as hot as soup could be. -

When my bowl came, the other tables were already filled and I could hear voices of people outside, waiting. Everyone seemed to know Gino, the owner, and aside from myself was a local. No way would I attempt to dip into that bubbling plateful. Though I could see at least three chunks of whole fish amongst the floating fish flakes plus three already opened clams and the two mussels. While the soup cooled following the leads of others, I broke off a piece of the quarter loaf of the Spanish version of a French bread (served with a dab of butter, I learned, when he remembered to stop at the market), placing it in my spoon which I dipped into the now beginning to cool broth, and cautiously took a nibble.

Oh my! What a taste. A rich full bodied fish taste, not only from the broth but the slivers of his blend of floating fish. Soon between sips of a local white wine from a demi bottle (Coke was the alternative drink, served with a glass into which an ice chip had been dropped). I began to make great dents in my fish bowl.
The fish, the clams and mussels disappeared with appropriate sighs of appreciation.

Watching others go to the pot to refill their bowls, I realized the rule was "Eat-All-You-Want", but refill your own bowl. I managed two bowls at lunch and another two at an early (for Spain) dinner at 6. When ready to leave, I noted the accepted practice was to put your bowl, spoon and glass into a bucket of sudsy water on the platform outside the door, after leaving on the table what you thought the meal was worth. Walking away, I noted a couple of dozen people waiting, some lounging on beach chairs, taking the sun. The next day, Sunday, my last in Malaga, I did a final lunch at Gino’s.

When I prepared to leave, obviously Gino thought I had laid too much money on the table (equivalent to U.S. $5.00).He motioned me back, holding up his hand "to wait". From a fresh bread, he cut a "Hero" sandwich sized chunk which he sliced open, then scooped a piece of fish from the pot, letting it’s broth drain till it was almost dry before he slapped it on the bread making a sandwich which he wrapped in newspaper and presented to me, smiling.

-Back at the hotel, as a late afternoon snack, along with a cold beer, I finished the sandwich with relish. A great tide-me- over till the Hotel restaurant opened for dinner at nine o’clock, where I spent five times what lunch had cost, but didn’t enjoy it half as much.

© David Russell September 2008

What inspired Monet’s Paintings?
David Russell
Looking at his body of work, it would seem that everything he saw that was water related found their way onto his canvases: boats, ports, shorelines, stormy and calm waters; with obvious palette changes as he matured.

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