Christmas, New Year, and The Three Kings festivities are now over but, here in Mallorca, we don’t let something like January get in the way of enjoying ourselves. This week sees more fiestas on the island and, as the mercury drops in thermometers, we’re pleased they involve bonfires.
Tomorrow is the eve of the feast of Sant Antoni Abat. Funnily enough, he wasn’t a Mallorcan, but an Egyptian Christian monk who lived in the desert. Visited by the Devil, in the guise of a woman, he walked across the burning embers of a fire to take his mind off the immediate and obvious temptation parading in front of him. Well, that would certainly have done the trick.
Pass the matches
But back to Mallorca: in the 10th and 11th centuries rye crops on the island were blighted by a poisonous fungus, which caused a debilitating itching disease among the population. The Mallorcans, convinced this was the work of the Devil, followed Sant Antoni’s example and lit bonfires to ward away the evil.
And to this day, on the eve of Sant Antoni’s day, bonfires are lit across the island and effigies of the Devil are burned. Locals, dressed scarily as dimonis, dance around; there’s traditional music and, this being a Mallorcan celebration, food and drink. Sausages and other meats are cooked over open fires outdoors, and a glass (or two) of warming hierbas (the local herb liqueur) helps fend off the evening chill.
Down on the farm . . .
Some years ago our neighbours Lorenzo and Bárbara had their own Sant Antoni celebrations on the farm and, along with other neighbours in the valley, we were invited along to join them. We offered to take some food and drink and it was suggested that we might like to take a dessert and perhaps a bottle of something. I decided to make a tarte tatin which, to my surprise (considering the unreliable nature of our Smeg oven), ended up looking (almost) like something Raymond Blanc would have produced in the kitchens of Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, back in Oxfordshire.
Lorenzo and Bárbara’s Sant Antoni fiesta was great fun. He lit the most enormous bonfire, and nearby we cooked delicious cuts of lamb and pork from his own farm over the burning embers of an improvised BBQ. We ate in their large garage/workshop/store, sitting on the ubiquitous (at Mallorcan fiestas, at least) white plastic chairs, either side of long trestle tables.
A few guests had brought along the traditional instrument that accompanies the singing of songs about Sant Antoni. We could only listen – not understanding the Mallorcan words of the song – but were told that the songs were verde. This being the castellano word for ‘green’, I thought it was interesting that these songs should be about ecology – and a little strange that there was so much raucous laughter accompanying the verses.
It was only when a friend explained that verde is the equivalent of what we’d call ‘blue’ in English, that everything fell into place. More laughter followed, as we explained our misunderstanding.
The deserted dessert
After the singing, it was time for dessert. All the contributions had been placed on a large trestle table. Every one – except ours – was an ensaïmada, the coiled sweet yeasty pastry that’s emblematic of Mallorca. If there’s one thing we’ve learnt about many Mallorcans in our part of the island is that, when it comes to food, they favour the traditional and the familiar. So I wasn’t too surprised to see the ensaïmadas disappearing in front of us, like plants being devoured by a swarm of locusts – while my glistening golden tarte tatin sat untouched, shunned for its foreignness. “Never mind,” said The Boss, sensing my disappointment. “Plenty for us!” And just then, two of the German guests stepped forward and helped themselves to large slices.