For years, my father told me about the soup.
“Best soup I ever had in my life,” he’d say, before retelling the story as if we hadn’t already heard it 400 times. He remembered every detail, from the ingredients in the soup to the song playing in the background (Simon & Garfunkel’s El Condor Pasa) to the books my mother was reading when they were traveling around southern Spain as newlyweds (all of Hemingway).
The year was 1970. The place, he swore, was Malaga, the Mediterranean port city on Spain’s Costa del Sol. The name of the restaurant inconveniently escapes him now; he remembers only that they had to hike up a mountain to a fancy hotel “with a fantastic view of the Rock of Gibraltar.” He and my mother, being young and relatively broke, could afford only the cheapest dish on the menu: a simple yet elegant soup made from cream, shellfish and sherry.
Now, this is a man who misplaces his glasses several times a day and still isn’t entirely certain when my birthday is. If one 43-year-old meal could leave such an impression on that unreliable memory, I decided, I had to hunt it down for myself.
But there was one unresolvable dissonance in my father’s recollection: Malaga is 86 miles from Gibraltar, with a nub of land sticking out into the ocean between them. Was he positive that it was Malaga? Could it have been Marbella, the resort town on the other side of the nub, closer to Gibraltar and perhaps a likelier tourist destination in the ’70s?
No, it was Malaga, he was sure.
THE WRONG ROCK
It was dark when I arrived in Malaga, too late to get the lay of the land. I checked into my pensione, a huge, creaky old house overseen by a charmingly eccentric innkeeper. As she led me past porcelain cat figurines and two ominous-looking suits of armor keeping sentry in the hall, I asked: “Is there a mountain here? With a hotel at the top?”
Her face screwed into a question mark, and I tried to explain my mission in imperfect Spanish: the honeymooners, the long hike up the hill, the best soup ever.
A look of recognition registered on her face, and she started talking fast in a mostly indecipherable Andalusian accent. But one thing she said caught my ear: Gibralfaro.
Gibralfaro? That’s almost like Gibraltar. Could it be that my dad had mixed up the names and I was in the right place after all, one step closer to tasting the fabled soup?
The next morning I set out for Mount Gibralfaro, which rises above the town and is crowned with an imposing castle fortress; at its foot are the ruins of a 2,000-year-old Roman amphitheater and an Arabic palace called the Alcazaba.
Malaga is one of the world’s oldest cities, dating to at least the eighth century B.C. The Alcazaba was built by the Moors on the site of an ancient Phoenician settlement to protect the town as the Caliphate of Cordoba began to crumble in the 11th century. Roughly nine hundred years later, the fortifications did little to shield Malaga from Gen. Francisco Franco, whose Nationalist forces took the city during the Spanish Civil War, killing several thousand civilians. The structures survived, and today tourists marvel at the Alcazaba’s multifoil arches, intricately carved interiors and tranquil gardens.
As I ascended the steep switchbacks leading up the mountain from the Alcazaba, I wasn’t surprised to discover that there is, in fact, no view of the Rock of Gibraltar — only the Costa del Sol’s dramatic hilly coastline disappearing into the mist to the south and the busy seaport stretching out below.
I imagined that the view wasn’t so different from the one my parents would have seen in 1970, when towns all along this section of coast were built up during Spain’s tourism boom. Mid-20th century apartment towers loomed over a marina filled with expensive yachts. I could see Malaga’s perfectly round bullring, dropped into the center of town like a cookie cutter. I wondered whether this was the site of the bullfight my mother had insisted that my dad take her to see during her “Death in the Afternoon” phase; she’d run from the building in tears after the first match.
My parents were probably just the kind of business Franco was going for when, aiming to turn the Costa del Sol into “the Florida of Europe,” he expanded Spain’s investment in the paradores, government-owned hotels meant to attract tourism to historic sites. There’s one inside the Alhambra and another in the castle atop Gibralfaro. The Parador of Malaga opened in 1948 and now features an arcaded stone facade, sprawling views, a swimming pool and, I hoped, a certain soup that would make this whole trip worthwhile.
Sweaty and breathless from the climb, I approached the hotel and crumpled into a chair beside an outdoor table set up near the edge of an overlook. As I scanned the menu, my heart sank. The lone soup listed — a gazpacho — was definitely not the one my father had raved about all these decades.
When the waitress came, I explained my plight: “ Mi pap ... hace 43 aos ... mejor sopa de su vida ... con mariscos y crema y jerez.”
Before I could finish, she nodded and said, “ Gazpachuelo malagueo.” It’s apparently a signature of the region and of the hotel, normally served only in the posh upstairs dining room. But she’d see whether they could make an exception for me, clad as I was in jeans and sneakers.
Fifteen minutes later, two waiters arrived. One carried a gleaming silver cloche, and when he lifted the lid it revealed a shallow white plate upon which were arranged a single clam, a mussel, a sliver of fish, a few chunks of potato and a slice of bread. The other server held a matching silver tureen, from which he ladled a pale yellow broth, scented with the caramelly aroma of sherry, which is produced a few provinces over in Jerez de la Frontera.
Gazpachuelo malagueo is like a Mediterranean version of clam chowder, only served at room temperature. The first taste was ... underwhelming. I was tempted to ask for a salt shaker. With each spoonful, though, I grew to appreciate the subtleties of the flavor, the way the tender mussel’s briny burst played off the potato’s starch, and how beautifully the sweet-and-acid sherry balanced the rich stock. The soup’s creaminess, it turns out, doesn’t come from cream at all but from homemade mayonnaise, which is integrated into the seafood broth ever so carefully to avoid curdling.
It’s a fine soup, good enough that I asked for the recipe and have attempted it at home several times. But what made it the best soup of my dad’s life probably had more to do with being young and in love than with the soup itself. Food was just the catalyst that fixed the experience in his brain all these years.
It’s always been this way in my family, the memories inextricably bound up with food. Nobody can really recall whether we went to church on Easter, but everybody remembers the bright orange tub of Schuler’s cheese and the kielbasa that Grandma would bring from the Polish deli to serve at Easter brunch. Remembering my 30th birthday dinner party is like looking at an old photograph: the features of the people seated at the table are a little fuzzy, the creaminess of the seared scallop in sharp focus.
Sometimes I worry that there’s something mildly pathological about this — and maybe there is. But what matters is that a memory gets made, inaccurate or impressionistic though it may be. A simple thing such as soup can be remembered and passed down like an heirloom.
I hope that in 40 years, I’m telling my kids about the best soup I ever had in my life, and what a nice view the restaurant had of the Rock of Gibraltar.