Fly over the island of Menorca, just off the eastern coast of Spain, and it’s easy to see why tourists began flocking here in the ’60s: clean turquoise waters lap against golden beaches, while lush greenery borders the picture-perfect homes that are dotted along the coastline. But unlike parts of the costas on the mainland, or the neighbouring party isles of Ibiza and Mallorca, this small Balearic island has managed to stay relatively unspoiled – in everything from the landscape to the food and culture.
Sleep: The island’s capital, Maó, is only a ten-minute taxi ride from the airport (if you’re staying for longer than a weekend, and particularly out of season, it’s worth hiring a car or bike to explore). Hotel Petit Maó opened here, two years ago, in a former 18th-century manor house. It’s minutes from the town’s heart, on a street that leads down to Maó’s busy harbour. Its six spacious bedrooms, each with cool tiles underfoot, are filtered in bright Menorcan light thanks to tall sash windows. There are no TVs and no 24-hour staff – Menorca is a place to indulge in slowness.
Breakfast is made by the hotel’s owner, Nina. There are soft buns coated in powdered sugar with fresh fruit, toast served with wafer-thin slices of Mahón cheese (strong cow’s milk), salty sheets of air-cured ham and sieved tomatoes with Spanish olive oil. We also help ourselves to chamomile tea (the daisy-like, white and yellow flowers can be spotted across the island).
Eat: As on mainland Spain, tapas is big here, but thanks to numerous occupations by the Moors, Brits, Catalans and French, the local cuisine is a literal melting pot. The most famous dish is caldereta, a Menorcan lobster stew that’s cooked and served in an earthenware pot. These local shellfish, in season from April to August, are different to their Atlantic cousins, which you’ve probably tried before, sweeter. The recipe starts out with a classic Spanish sofrito of garlic, onions, peppers and tomatoes, which bubble and melt together slowly, before raw lobster is added. Any spare juices, the stomach, liver and eggs (if it’s a female) are then ground with a pestle, with garlic and parsley, and added to the stew.
Chef Richard Tejada, who owns and runs Can Bernat des Grau (canbernatdesgrau.com) in the Menorcan countryside close to the fishing village of Es Grau, where his boats catch the lobsters, adds almonds to this final paste, to help thicken the stew, before pouring it over toasted bread. Richard will show you how to cook the dish, and other Menorcan classics, in his kitchen before eating supper together if there’s a group of you (minimum six people, €55 per person).
When we visit we can’t help but work our way through the catch of the day – Richard buys by catch rather than specifically ordering certain fish. Three lobsters from that morning make our caldereta, which we eat with a plate of chips and fried eggs from the hens that we can hear kicking dust and pecking at the floor outside the restaurant. Deep-fried sea anemones are like sweetbreads in texture with an oyster-like brackish smack of flavour. The sweetest prawns are served raw in a carpaccio with super-sour dice of nisperos (also known as Japanese plums), while another handful are thrown on a plancha with a pinch of salt and grilled until the shells begin to turn in colour and the raw shellfish inside are just warmed through. Mussels, heavy with seawater, are teased open to reveal their coral meat over the fire of the hob; they’re cooked alongside garlic, herbs and local white wine and we mop up the resulting liquor with the fresh bread that Richard and his team start baking here each morning at 6am. It’s denser than British bread, its crumb almost cake-like. Another plate of monkfish and spinach butter-balls, crisp on the outside, collapse with just one bite.
Springtime is artichoke season. We later try some grilled with Iberico pork at cool, late-night café Pipet & Co (00 34 971 36 63 68) back in Maó, along with sobrasada (a soft paprika sausage, similar to chorizo), drizzled with honey, and spread on toast. It’s so good we stock up on more for the journey home at Authèntic (00 34 971 36 62 91) by the bus station.
It’s still surprisingly cheap to eat and drink in Menorca. There are plenty of three-courses-for-€15 restaurants along Maó’s harbor. Can Joanet (00 34 971 36 03 07), for instance, which serves up delicious bowls of traditional baked pig’s trotters with potatoes. And you can grab a bottle of cava for as little as €11 in one of the pretty cobbled squares, dodging the shadows as the sun goes down, breathing in the scent of the jasmine that lines the streets. But don’t miss Mestre D’Aixa (00 34 971 96 68 01), which opened with new owners in April and is already impressing. Look out for typical Galician ‘old cow’ sliced wafer thin – half melting fat, half dark carmine marbled meat – topped with more of the local Mahon cheese, plus aged, caramelized onions, herbs and breadcrumbs, which you’re encouraged to roll like a cigar.
On the west side of the island, in Ciutadella, wear comfortable shoes to walk, explore and look up at the golden architecture. We settle in for a late lunch one day at the edge of the port at S’amarador (00 34 971 38 35 24), snaffling red scorpion fish and prawn croquettes and crisp local wine as we watch the sunlight bounce on the water, before heading back into Es Mercadel, in the centre of the island. The town is home to Casa Sucrer (cassucrer.es), a bakery that’s been operating since 1875. We fill up on brossat (a sweet bread/cheese pudding) and rubiol (the island’s own version of empanadas). Ten minutes’ drive south of here, Victor Lidon (previously chef at the now-closed, triple-Michelin-starred Barcelona restaurant El Racó de Can Fabes) has his own restaurant, Ca Na Pilar (00 34 971 37 02 12) whose regulars include many of the island’s top chefs.
Do: Go gin tasting at the last remaining distillery on the island, overlooking the water. Try a dozen or so different local spirits – you’re encouraged to help yourself to the samples – while overlooking the copper stills. The Gin Xoriguer (another spillover of the British presence here) is a taste of the island’s many herbs and is served with lemonade in a Pomada (xoriguer.es). Another new gin, Innat, with citrus, sweet, herbal notes, is worth seeking out.
Check out the various ruins across the island, too, (and the fennel, thyme, asparagus, and even peas that grow wild around them); drive up to El Toro, Menorca’s mountain for the best vantage. Here, sharing the quiet with only the residents of the Sanctuary of the Virgen del Toro, you can see the whole of the island and even as far as Mallorca on a clear day. Chase the sun as it sets back to Maó with a pitstop at Faro de Favaritx, the island’s active lighthouse.
Return flights from Liverpool, London and Bristol to Mahon cost from around £60 (easyjet.com). Double rooms at Hotel Petit Mao cost from €85, b&b (hotelpetitmao.com). More info: spain.info
Written by Laura Rowe
First published May 2016
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