Mallorca is a protean paradise; noisy, black out drunk nights, beach paradises, mountain cycling, lazy dusty days, silky spy havens, never-ending midnight dinners, balconing, stray animals… Maybe you’re having too much fun to notice, but look Mallorca in the face, and it’s a hard stare back. Harsh sun, recession, olive pollen, choking dusty landscapes, body-clock killing after hours, a regional character grown weary of losing their identity to aggressive cheap tourism. Even if you don’t venture far from your all-inclusive, Mallorca will likely spit you out. And if it doesn’t? Well, you weren’t trying hard enough.
George Sand came to Mallorca in the winter of 1838 with her lover Frederik Chopin to ease his tuberculosis. She dreamt a paradise and found a hell, which she wrote about in “A Winter in Mallorca”:
“We nicknamed Mallorca ‘the island of monkeys’ because, seeing ourselves surrounded by these sneaking creatures, thieving yet innocent, we became accustomed to protecting ourselves from them with no more resentment or contempt that the Indian would feel towards the shy and roguish pongos and orang-utans. […] All the same, one cannot get used to seeing, without feeling sad, animals dressed in human form and marked with a divine seal, vegetating like this in a world which is hardly that of present day humanity.”
Her assassination of the Mallorcan character is eye-watering. It is an understatement to say she had a bad time. However, I think you have to put Mallorca in context; an island caught in the middle of the battle-scarred Mediterranean. It was conquered, sacked and pillaged over and over, and every other century the streets ran red with blood courtesy of the Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Moors, French, Barbary pirates, Spanish, Italians, Spanish, (and then with the rise of mass tourism) Germans, English and Russians. You’d probably be a bit standoffish too.
While she was unforgiving about the character, she wasn’t wrong about the roads. On travelling the treacherous roads on the island, she advises:
“[…] commit your soul to God, and contemplate the scenery in anticipation of death or a miracle.”
178 years later the drive from Alaró to the tiny village of Orient on a blistering June day isn’t much different. Murderously tiny roads took us into the heart of the sun bleached Tramuntana mountains. Deep in the island’s interior it’s easy to imagine the parched brown soil and the bare shade of the deep green olive trees as some kind of post-apocalyptic hinterland.
“In Mallorca [nature] flourishes under the kisses of a blazing sky, and smiles under the attack of mild squalls that sweep over her as they cross the seas. The reclining flow rises again with more strength, the fallen trunk grows a greater number of shoots after the storm; and as there are, to tell the truth, no really empty spaces on this island, the absence of well-made roads gives it an air of abandon or of revolt […]”
So I think George and I agree, it’s a hard stare. Where we disagree is that I consider it extremely rewarding. My case in point: arriving at Restaurante Orient “Ca’n Jaume” after the drive. You duck under a lush terrace canopy, go past the dark bar and into the restaurant, which perches almost cliff top, to arrive at breathtaking panoramic views of those tough, vertical mountains. But as spectacular as the views are, that’s only a fraction of the reward. Out of adversity often comes food, and you’re here for the food.
Our feast was extensive:
House red wine
Slow cooked lamb knuckle
Whole suckling pig
Figs in anise liquor with toasted almonds
Let’s talk standouts:
The roast piglet (Lechona Asada aka Porcella Rostida Últim Deliciós). This restaurant is famed for its suckling pig. There were instructions given at the end of the meal on how it was made, I know it was cooked for an age but as to the details, I might have been drunk by this point. The pig was beautiful, succulent, soft and fatty. It’s little piggy face so adorable and tasty. It fed my entire family for a week. I’m not sure how much more you could ask from a sacrificial swine.
Pork is iconic on the island (see/eat: sobrasada), but George (as ever) has other ideas:
“In Mallorca, I am sure, they make more than two thousand different dishes with pork and at least two hundred types of sausage. Seasoned with so much garlic, pepper, pimiento and corrosive spices of every sort, that one risks one’s life with every bite. You see twenty dishes appearing on the table that resemble every kind of Christian food: don’t trust them however; they are hellish stuff cooked by the devil himself. Finally, a pastry tart appears for dessert, that looks very good, with slices of fruit that look like candied oranges; it is a pork pie with garlic, with slices of ‘tomatigas’, or love apples, and pepper, the whole thing sprinkled with white salt that you took to be sugar by its innocent appearance.”
I fail to see what is wrong with that.
The frito was also incredible. Frito Mallorquin is an appealing dish because it is considered a treat, and even as England strives to put her pre-20th Century food back on the table, offal has not yet regained its former ‘treat’ status. As you’d expect from the simplicity of fried offal, vegetables, potatoes and herbs (bay leaves and fennel), it’s an old dish — supposedly 14th century Sephardic. There are variations, alternatives to the inclusion of offal: frito de matanzas is an excellent contradiction in squeamishness; no offal (instead non-cured cuts of meat), but translated it means the fry up after the slaughter. Frito de sangre (fried blood) is just the straight up use of blood instead of offal. This frito was the best I’ve had on the island, largely because it was made from the innards of said splayed pig.
The red wine was unreal. Jaume, the owner, is also a part-time winemaker. We drank a 2007 cabernet i callet (one of the native Mallorcan grapes). I’ll be perfectly honest, I can’t remember the tannins, the notes or the body of the wine but I do remember it blended so beautifully with the food, the heat and the company. I think that’s all you can really ask of wine. Sadly the only place to buy Jaume’s incredible wine is in the restaurant (we brought as many extra bottles as we could carry, and them promptly drank the lot). Mallorcan wine generally is incredible but hard to find outside of Mallorca. Which is a shame as they often also have the most beautiful labels:
A side of slow cooked lamb knuckle. Why? Why not.
NB, Mallorcan lamb entirely deserves its own post. Which it will get.
Figs in anise liquor, toasted almonds & herbes. I love figs. Along with bonjela and still-frozen chips, fig rolls were the thing I gorged in great quantities when I was 11. When you’re done judging me, you should try the grown up boozy figs washed down with copious amounts of herbes de Mallorca. Herbs unknown (at least to me as by this point I’m always far too plastered to be forensic), it is second only to limoncello as the greatest digestif on earth.
So this was the feast. This magnificence is the literal result of the hard stare. Arid ground to grow olives and almonds (brought by invaders), a determination to revive a wine industry decimated by philoxera, fetishism of the pig as a symbol of freedom from the Moors, creating luxury out of the poverty-driven necessity of eating the whole slaughtered animal, herbal liquors created by medieval monks to treat malaria, it all comes from the hard stare.
Personally I love that complexity of food — of this food. There’s a depth to everything that surrounds the ritual of food (in this case, of family and lunch) from the car journey, to the view, to the cooking smells, to the owners, to the dance of admiration when the pig is wheeled out, to the chatter, to the proffered extras, to the enthusiastic thanks. Everything is subtle and complex, and everything is in character to Mallorca.
I think you understand what George thought about Mallorca, and I was surprised to find that its not uncommon to find her sentiment in online reviews. For every excellent Trip Advisor review of the restaurant, there is a terrible one. And even the good ones are knocked down from excellent because of the “service”. Like George Sand, tourists continue to be offended by Mallorcans. How dare your service be any less than 5* exemplary, and how dare it not match my homogenised expectations of foreign travel, how dare it not allow me to return home gushing that the locals were so friendly because I’m a traveller not a tourist, how dare it — shut up, eat the food.
So, like the road to Orient, the road to loving the character of Mallorca may be a hard one, but it is worth the climb.
“And yet you sometimes arrive safe and sound, thanks to the steadiness of the carriage, the strength of the horses legs and even perhaps to the indifference of the driver, who does not interfere, but crosses his arms and peacefully smokes his cigar, despite the fact that one wheel runs on the mountain and the other in a ravine.”
Also published on Medium.