Getting hooked on fish in Alicante
Watching the fishing boats bring in their catch of the day is a fascinating way to find out about the Alicante cuisine and local traditions.
Generally, at about 5pm, the fleet comes in to port laden with boxes of fish including wriggling squid and octopus, mussels, prawns, lobsters, hake, tuna or swordfish.
Just crackers about prawns
The northern Alicante town of Denia is so proud of its cuisine that it is battling to be known as a city of gastronomy. It also hosts an annual competition for top chefs starring the Denia red prawn.
The cookery contest attention from around Spain with Denia restaurateur and three Michelin-stars chef Quique Dacosta presiding over the judging. Quique Dacosta has said that the Denia red prawn is the best shellfish in the world – and who is going to argue with one of the world’s top chefs!
The annual competition is organised by Denia’s tourism association, fishermen’s association and hotels’ association. It is held in the indoor market so everyone can go along to take a look at the top chefs in action.
Quique Dacosta also always includes a red prawn recipe in his tasting menus at his restaurant in Denia.
One beautiful arrangement saw the prized crustacean garnished with rose petals and served with a tasty fish stock and rose water.
However, the Denia red prawn does not have to involve intricate carvings or cooking methods.
Often is best served simply. Either grill the prawns quickly and serve with salt or cook in seawater or salt water to serve.
These can be expensive, especially at Christmas when they can cost more than €200 a kilo, so a cheaper way to try them is as a tapa.
For the best quality red prawns, you will get about 25 to the kilo.
You can eat these tasty prawns throughout the year but they are traditionally served at Christmas or for the New Year celebrations.
Best prices at the market
In the markets, you will see dried salted cod, called bacalao, which is served in many recipes. The fish is soaked several times to get rid of the salt before being cooked. It is often found in stews such as aspencat where it is cooked with peppers, aubergines, onions and tomatoes.
In summer many Alicante restaurants will advertise that they are serving sea urchins (erizos). These little creatures in their spiky shells are cut in half, cleaned with sea or salt water, and eaten raw with a spoon or mopped up with bread.
Like oysters, sea urchins are believed to be an aphrodisiac.
The above delicacies from Alicante can be served as starters or tapas.
Picking the right paella
Many people will think of paella when they talk about Alicante’s regional dishes. The abundance of the special Bomba rice, which is grown in Pego near Denia and in the Albufera near Valencia, has led to an abundance of rice dishes.
The paella can include many ingredients including shellfish such as prawns and mussels, meat or vegetables. With shellfish it is a beautiful dish with the rice turned golden from saffron, bright red prawns and dark mussels.
Noodles called fideos can be used instead of rice and instead of being called paella, the dish is known as fideua.
Other popular rice dishes include arroz a banda which is rice flavoured with a rich fish stock as well as fish such as cuttlefish, tomato, onions and peppers.
If you want to try a mixture of fish, you could ask for llandeta. This is a tasty stew of mixed white fish such as monkfish, hake or bream with prawns, tomatoes, onions, garlic and potatoes.
A favourite dish is seabass cooked whole in salt. The fish is cleaned and then covered in about 3 kilos of salt per fish. It is cooked in the oven where the salt hardens. This is then knocked off to reveal a perfectly cooked, tender fish.
Anyone for eels?
You may also come across a dish called all I pebre, which is a bit misleading as it is valenciano for garlic and pepper. In fact, the main ingredient is small eels found in the Albufera, near Valencia. The eels are cut and cooked with water, garlic and paprika.
If you are looking to eat at home, the best place to get the freshest fish is in the fish market next to the fishing boats. Otherwise the daily indoor markets in each town have fresh fish and the supermarket is a very good choice too.
Pick 'n' Mix your fish
You may be surprised at the choice on offer with about 20 types of fish, including grouper, mackerel, conger eel, gurnard, sole, skate and sardines.
Shellfish could include sea urchins, various types of prawns, lobsters, mussels, razor shells, clams, crayfish, scallops, crabs, squid, cuttlefish and octopus.
You can ask for the fish to be cleaned (me lo puede limpiar?), descaled (sin escamas), filleted (fileted), skinned (sin piel) or boned (sin espinas).
Most fish is relatively cheap compared to northern European countries so it is a good opportunity to experiment with different species or try new recipes.
Enjoying a barbecue with various types and cuts of fish with a fresh salad is a simply but very enjoyable way to end the day.
Tuna and swordfish steaks or whole sardines can be marinated in olive oil, parsley, lemon juice and garlic for at least an hour and then grilled or put on the barbecue.
The Mediterranean diet made up of fresh vegetables, fruit, olive oil, beans and fish is one of the healthiest in the world. So there are even more reasons to embrace the Spanish culture when it comes to cuisine.
The Spanish will adapt their weekly menus to buy what is available in the market. If chicken is expensive, they will buy fish. If the potatoes do not look their best, they will buy rice. This ability to adapt means they can cook up an economical but healthy dish for their family.
While in the Alicante region you may want to go out for a few hours fishing at sea or buy a fishing rod, hook up, cast your reel, sit back and relax on the beach in the sun. You may need to check if you need a licence first.