One of my favourite childhood scent memories, and a favourite smell to this day, is sardines grilling on an open fire on the beaches of Southern Spain, where we used to spend family vacations. We used to go every year to a little fishing village called Los Boliches, which has since been absorbed into the municipality of the more partying-orientated Fuengirola, though Los Boliches still retains its own sense of identity along this stretch of the Costa Del Sol.
In the early days, from the mid-seventies to the early 80s, the main road along the seafront was still lined with little fisherman's cottages, before they gave way to new developments in recent decades. Early every morning, shortly after midnight, the fishermen would push their boats out into the Mediterranean, and return later in the morning with their catches, just as holidaymakers were settling onto the beaches for a day's sunbathing. Enthusiastic local kids would help the fishermen haul their catches and boats out of the water, dragging them up the beach. The daily catch would end up in a few of the beach shack seafood restaurants, or get sold at local markets.
There was a very strong sense of the sea, and the fishermen's livelihood, being a central part of Los Boliches, as there was in many similar towns along the coast, many of which had not yet totally succumbed to tourism. Every year there would be a festival of Santa Carmen, the Virgin of the Sea. During this festival a garland-covered effigy of the virgin would be carried from a local church, on the shoulders of local sailors in white uniforms, along the narrow village streets to the seafront, led my the parish priest. The whole route was lined with participants and onlookers, and the air was fragrant with incense. As the reached the water, by now a huge throng of people behind them, they waded in shoulder deep for a blessing of the waters - and thus the fisherman's lives - before making the return journey. Fireworks followed, and a general fiesta took place for several days. Many fishermen lost their lives along this stretch of the Mediterranean each year, and a regular sight around town was widows who dressed in black for the rest of their lives after they lost their husbands.
Every few hundred yards you'd have a beach shack, called a "chiringuito", which over the years have modernized without losing too much of their charm. Each chiringuito - the one we went to, and I still visit, is called Los Nausfragos - also ran the sunbeds and other amenities on a stretch of beach. You could get a couple of sunbeds and a parasol in the morning, head up to the shack for lunch, or have them bring you something down, maybe head back home for a siesta during the really hot part of the day, and then resume your beach-activity in the late afternoon. These restaurants specialize in the seafood they get from the fishermen each morning, and also have a few other dishes - pork, chicken, hamburgers for the fixed-in-their-ways touristas.
My favourite things to eat there are some simple grilled monkfish or red snapper, or maybe some deep-fried whitebait, or a paella. And the sardines. The smell of them cooking is unforgettable, and punctuates walks along the promenade in the evenings, as one gets closer to another chiringuito. They grill the sardines, which are large, in old fishing boats that have been filled with sand - five or six each on a bamboo skewer, in front of a fire built using old olive wood, which imparts its complex smoke. The sardines, which had been sprinkled with sea salt before grilling, are served with a splash of extra virgin olive oil and a couple of wedges of fresh cut lemon. Washed down with a cold San Miguel or Mahou. Really simple, and probably just about perfect.
[photo coming when I get my scanner working!]