At 8.00am as I walked towards the central market in Marbella, southern Spain, the first of the numerous fish wholesalers' vans, which would later in the day be delivering to the town's many hotels and restaurants, were just beginning to arrive with their catches.
The next hour, before the retailers' shutters were rolled up, proved a wonderful time to explore the old part of Marbella right next to the market. In contrast to the rest of this rapidly expanding town of determinedly modern shopping centres and apartment complexes its narrow streets are lined with houses dating back to the late 18th century all sprouting geraniums and bougainvillea. In the early morning it was home only to subdued schoolchildren and office workers, stray cats and swifts.
By 9am the market was displaying many of the ingredients that are so exciting to eat along this coast. At least half a dozen different kinds of round clams; razor clams; langoustines, lobsters and crayfish; salmonetas or small red mullet which are quickly fried and served with lemon or grilled with olive oil; sardines; sole; bream; hake, monkfish and tuna. On the fruit stalls were the first cherries of the season as well as harissa and schwarma seeds, an indication of the culinary influence of North Africa just half an hour away by sea. But at this time of the morning the busiest stall was the café where the barman switched between making coffee and slicing two Serrano hams on to plates as breakfast for the hungry van drivers.
Although the day had started so well, disappointment was to follow. Our most highly anticipated excursion was to Ronda, a fifty kilometre drive from the coast up particularly winding roads with spectacular views once past the growing number of hillside developments. The hilltop town itself is absolutely stunning with its natural charms, particularly its gorge, ably assisted by the man-made contributions in the shape of some extremely handsome architecture and a venerable, lovingly maintained bull ring for the 'sport' which originated in this town.
But our primary reason for visiting Ronda was to eat at Tragabuches, a restaurant situated in a narrow street that runs between the bull ring and the gorge, as I had heard and read so many good things about its chef Sergei Lopez.
Although a great deal of thought and money has gone into creating a soothing modern dining room with views - and providing such niceties as toothbrushes in the lavatories and baskets for your bags so that they do not lie on the floor - the kitchen, alas, just did not convince. Initially we were induced into the tasting menu which consists of 14 small dishes but a dish of garlic, breadcrumbs and liquid nitrogen followed by a sardine puree and then a cherry gazpacho only revealed just how awry the modern scientific approach to Spanish food pioneered by Ferran Adria can go in less talented hands.
We then switched to the a la carte menu as I was intrigued by a dish of goat marinated in North African mint tea but this and the other three dishes we tried failed to either excite our taste buds or satisfy our appetite. The most interesting experience was drinking and enjoying the Pasoslargos red from cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah and cabernet franc vines planted around Ronda which will be commercially available later this year.
But if I was disappointed by my fellow restaurant critics, and here I can only apologise to any readers who may have been disappointed by my own recommendations but may at least now have the satisfaction of knowing that I too have been let down and not just on this occasion, assistance was to come from two very different but easily recognisable occupants of this part of the world - an itinerant businessman and a knowledgeable hotel concierge.
Pancho, the former, even kindly made the booking for us at El Lago which was probably just as well as if he had told me that the restaurant overlooks the first and second holes of a golf course just east of Marbella I would probably have not taken his advice. Golf and exciting food I have never thought of as bedfellows.
But while the Greenlife Golf Club and apartments have the manicured look of southern California and the restaurant itself something of the blandness of an airline executive lounge, the menu and wine list are intelligently collated and the young service team led by Paco Garcia, a graduate of the obviously successful local restaurant school, was thoroughly competent and admirably enthusiastic.
The approach and crockery are modern - a light onion soup for example is poured by the waiter on to a bowl containing Parmesan and quails' eggs - and throughout there is an intelligent juxtaposition of both protein and vegetables, of textures and flavours. From an unusually exciting wine list (which even included a Riesling from Malaga) we drank a white from an experimental vineyard in Rioja and a red from fashionable Bierzo in north west Spain. By the time the sun had been replaced by a full moon we had convinced ourselves we were definitely not on a golf course.
Antonio, the receptionist at the Hotel Puente Romano, had noticed my enthusiasm for fresh fish when I had left the hotel so early for the market, and when pressed for his favourite fish restaurant suggested Hogar
Del Pescador down by the fishing port might fit the bill provided we were not looking for the frills that are almost de rigueur on the Costa del Sol. He marked its location on a map adding that a phone number was unnecessary as they don't take reservations.
The restaurant is on Calle Guadalete between a modern furniture store Bambu on the main road and a row of tiny but immaculately kept fishermen's cottages that would have looked directly on to the sea before the construction of a modern marina. Hogar del Pescador's only modern accoutrements seem to be plastic tables and umbrellas kindly supplied by Pepsi. The rest is simple in the extreme but the fish could not be fresher. Our waiter began by warning us 'We only serve fish' before leading us inside to a large, open, refrigerated counter which contained as many different fish and shellfish as there had been in the market. Our meal - grilled crayfish, fried squid and salmonetas, a charred red pepper salad, a Dover sole and a bottle of Torres Vina Sol, came to 90 euros for three. Take cash and note that the lunchtime rush (all locals) seems to start around 15.00.
While Hogar del Pescador may appeal primarily to fish lovers, no-one will be disappointed by Ruperto de Nola which opened three months ago and is the second restaurant of Santiago Dominguez who opened the long running Santiago restaurant nearby in 1957 when he was 17 and Marbella's population was a mere 12,000. It is 300,000 today.
Ruperto de Nola, named after a 16th century writer of Spanish cook books, is as impressively smart as much of the downtown area but its greatest asset is its chef Jacobo Vazquez who produces a range of dishes that pack flavour and show true creativity rather than sheer artifice. Best of all were a modern reworking of the traditional gazpacho, chilled tomato and red pepper soup, thickened with bread but here highlighted by a sweet tomato granita, and two fillets of the freshest turbot with confited cherry tomatoes and fennel.
Not perhaps the dishes de Nola would have created for the kings of Naples five hundred years ago but very, very good indeed.
Hogar del Pescador, Calle Guadalete, Marbella (no tel no necessary)
El Lago restaurant, Greenlife Golf Club, Elviria Hills, 29600 Marbella, tel 9184.108.40.206 www.restauranteellago.com. (Dinner for 4 including wine and service 240 euros).
Ruperto de Nola, Antonio Belon 3, tel: 952.76. 55.50 approx 60 euros per person without wine and service.