Torres de Ses Anime in Majorca, Spain
Text by Nancy Harmon Jenkins ©2008
There are actually 15 of these islands lying between the Spanish Levante coast and Sardinia, some 80 to 140 miles off the east coast of Spain. Only four are of great significance, however. They are, in order from north to south, Minorca, Mallorca, Ibiza (the closest to Spain), and, off Ibiza’s southeastern tip, tiny, ultra-chic Formentera. Each island has its own character but all together they share many characteristics with the Catalan mainland, culinary, cultural, and linguistic, though islanders are quick to draw distinctions.
Over the centuries the islands were a stopping place on almost every route through the western Mediterranean, but especially from Barcelona, Marseilles, and Genoa to North Africa. This has produced a degree of cross-cultural influences, but also the islanders’ traditional ease with foreigners, which may be one reason for the huge appeal the islands have had historically for northern Europeans who flock here in the millions on summer holidays and, more recently, in the thousands to settle in this warm and sun-blessed climate. Each island seems more spectacular than the last with broad white-sand beaches, coves and natural harbors, plus mountains that soar to impossible heights from which one looks down on a preposterously azure sea—as if it were painted each morning by the local tourist board. Cuisine, as a result of these incursions, has suffered a bit from a “chips with everything” mentality (Mallorca actually boasts “the largest disco in Europe”) but it is still possible to tease out both the roots of a delightful traditional cuisine and young chefs inventing new ideas with time-honored products of the sea and the land.
Calla de Portocristo, Palma de Mallorca, Spain
Extra-virgin olive oil, naturally enough given the position of the islands in the middle of the Western Mediterranean, is the foundation of the diet here, and it can be a very high quality oil indeed, made primarily from empeltre and arbequina olives. Although little oil is exported, it’s worth seeking out for a delicate fruitiness that marries well with the panoply of vegetable dishes from the island.
But pork fat is also important in the island pantry and pork lard is the basis of one of the most highly regarded pastries, the ensaimada, a breakfast bun made from a coil of light, sweet, yeast-raised dough that is painted with butter and dusted with sugar when it comes from the oven.
Another not-to-be-missed island pork product is sobrasada, a delicious, deep red, spicy, garlicky, soft-textured and spreadable sausage made from the meat of black pigs (related to but not the same as the black Iberian pigs of the mainland).
Minorca, the outermost of the Balearics, is still more agricultural and less touristic than the others and it is here, fittingly, that one of Spain’s most popular cheeses, Mahón, named for the capital of the island, originates. Interestingly, queso de Mahón, to give it its official name, derives its quality not so much from the unpasteurized cow’s milk from which it is made as it does from the process of aging in underground caves for six months to two years, which gives the cheese an exceptional buttery yet sharp flavor and a nutty fragrance.
There are two controlled denomination (DO) wines from the Balearic Islands, both from the island of Mallorca—Binissalem Mallorca and Plà i Llevant.
Iconic Dishes and Products of the Balearic Islands
Mayonnaise (mahónesa): It may be an apocryphal story but islanders claim that this ubiquitous sauce was actually invented in Mahón, capital of Minorca, hence the name mahónesa; not everyone agrees. A similar local sauce, ali-oli, is, like its counterpart on the mainland, redolent with garlic.
Tumbet: fried zucchini, eggplant, and sweet red peppers, baked with potatoes in a tomato sauce; a close cousin of ratatouille, caponata, etc.
Trempó: salad of sliced tomatoes, sweet onions, and fresh green peppers.
Cocas: similar to pizza, an open-faced tart, typically topped with roasted sweet red peppers and trempó; similar to the cocas of Catalonia, but here they are always square or rectangular.
Caldereta de langosta: seafood stew based on the local spiny lobsters, blue for Minorca, red for Mallorca, cooked with peppers, onions, tomatoes, and garlic.
Fish cooked a la mallorquina: any of several firm-textured white-meat fish from island waters, baked in the oven with a profuse topping of vegetables, including leeks, sweet red peppers, zucchini, and so forth.
Sopa y bullit mallorquin: Traditional Spanish cocido, only here made with spring lamb and sobrasada, a soft, almost spreadable local sausage.
Tàperes (capers): the bud of the caper plant, which, after pickling in vinegar, is widely used in sauces and garnishes.
Ensaimadas: sweet and delicate, these are spiral-shaped yeast buns, traditionally served for breakfast, with a dusting of powdered sugar on top. Originally from Mallorca, they’re found now all over Spain.