Before we moved to rural Mallorca in April 2004, we tended to eat in the hotels where we stayed for holidays here. The cuisine would have been international, rather than Mallorcan, and I didn’t eat like a local until the day we began our lives here as expats.
Our plane touched down in Palma de Mallorca around lunchtime the day that we arrived and we headed straight to Manacor, to try a restaurant recommended as “fantastic value” by a British couple we’d met. In this establishment we would eat a three-course lunch – with wine – for five euros. Five euros! We might have paid the equivalent for two packets of gourmet crisps in a gastro pub back in Oxfordshire. It did, indeed, sound like a bargain and this proved to be the eatery’s real appeal.
Sensory overload hit us as soon as we entered the restaurant. The large dining room was packed with people and the buzz of conversation made me think of worker bees in a hive. Waiters bearing plates aloft weaved between the tables and the customers zoning in on the dessert buffet table. Unfamiliar aromas wafted from the kitchen whenever the door swung open.
A flustered waitress showed us to one of the few vacant tables, where we studied the short menú del día and made our choices before settling back to take in our surroundings. The ambience was different from anywhere we’d eaten out in Oxfordshire, but we had little time to make comparisons: the starters we’d chosen arrived on our table only minutes after the order went through to the kitchen.
For our main course, we ate roast suckling pig – a traditional Mallorcan dish that features on numerous restaurant menus. When expertly cooked, the meat melts in the mouth – and the crackling…well, it crackles in a most satisfying manner.
The quality of any dish depends, of course, on the ingredients used and this is related to the price paid. Having paid very little for our three-course lunch, we were not too surprised by the standard of food we ate that day. Suffice to say that we never went back to this place – which closed its doors a few years later.
The Mediterranean Diet according to Mallorca
One of my first impressions of Mallorcan cuisine was that it was as far removed from the much-lauded Mediterranean diet as Raymond Blanc’s two-Michelin-starred Le Manoir aux Quatr’ Saisons in Oxfordshire was from the above-mentioned eatery.
I could see that olive oil, olives, and tomatoes were healthy local ingredients common to both the traditional Mediterranean and the Mallorcan diets. Combined with the local rustic bread, these ingredients become the popular snack dish pa amb oli (‘bread and oil’). As fast foods go, pa amb oli ticks a few boxes for healthy eating.
But the amount of pork and piggy-derived products in the local diet surprised me. Roast suckling pig is only one example. That ubiquitous Mallorcan coiled sweet pastry known as the ensaïmada? See it being made and you discover that lard is an important ingredient.
Then there’s sobrasada – the cured paprika-flavoured pork sausage that is almost a staple of the Mallorcan diet (and sometimes even makes an appearance in an ensaïmada!). The most common way to eat sobrasada is to spread it thickly on a slice of rustic bread. It would be some months before I discovered that this emblematic Mallorcan product – which has protected geographic status – adds a delicious note when cooked and used in gourmet cuisine.
The role of the pig in the Mallorcan diet became even more evident when we found a good local butcher’s shop, where one counter displayed an array of embotits – cured meats and sausages – all originating from the porker from Mallorca. Pork, lamb, and chicken were pretty much the only options on the fresh meat counter and all had been reared on the island. A neighbour in our valley owned a pig farm and a wagon would pass our house almost daily, taking another batch of squealing piglets to their doom.
Pride in Mallorcan produce
I soon became aware of the importance of the fresh-produce market to Mallorcan shoppers. In Manacor, we often had to dodge the wayward wheels of Rolser shopping trolleys, as we strolled around the stalls admiring the colourful displays of seasonal produce.
Early experiences of fruit-and-veg buying at our local market taught me that Mallorcans are rightly proud of their island’s rich bounty of produce. It was a revelation to see shoppers asking stallholders where this fruit or that vegetable had come from before they bought. Not Mallorca? Then the shopper would be unlikely to add it to their straw basket or pull-along shopping trolley.
We have always bought most of our fresh fruit and veg from a family-run greengrocer’s in Manacor’s market square. When we moved here, the shop’s operation was overseen by the elderly matriarch – a tiny but feisty lady in her eighties, with a wicked sense of humour. Her main role in life seemed to be keeping an eye on me to make sure I didn’t commit the sin of buying fruit and vegetables that weren’t cultivated on Mallorca; I needed whipping into Mallorcan-shopper shape. If my gaze lingered too long on plump peppers from the Peninsula, she would shake her head and wag her finger at me, before guiding me by the elbow to the peppers from her beloved island.
The Mallorcans’ loyalty also extends to eating traditional dishes. They may have frito mallorquín or sopes mallorquines at home, but these classics are also some of the most popular choices on traditional Mallorcan restaurant menus.
Variety may not be the spice of life
In our first few months here, Mallorcan neighbours invited us to their home for a buffet supper for a fiesta, adding that guests usually contributed an ensaïmada for the dessert table. Thinking that my fellow guests would appreciate a bit of variety, I made and took a tarte tatin. Though I say so myself, it looked irresistible – but not as irresistible to the locals as the seven Mallorcan ensaïmadas also on offer.
Whether eating out or shopping for food, doing it like a local gives an authentic taste of Mallorca.
This article originally appeared in the supplement Eat Majorca, published for last month’s World Travel Market in London, by the Majorca Daily Bulletin on behalf of the Council of Mallorca.
©Jan Edwards 2018