Looking for restaurants in Mallorca? Want to know where to eat in Palma? Food and travel writer Lucy Gillmore takes us on a foodie road trip through Mallorca, stopping off at roadside restaurants, hilltop villages and olive oil farms.
Clambering into a battered old four-wheel drive, I buckle up as we career up a rock-strewn track to see the newly planted vines on the Son Vich estate. This 300-hectare property is in the Serra de Tramuntana, a rugged mountain range in north-west Mallorca that was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2011. At an elevation of 600 metres the vines are the highest on the island. It’s an experiment – the estate’s owner, Don Gabriel Sampol, has planted rows of almost-extinct indigenous gorgollassa vines. Now, it’s a waiting game.
Don Gabriel bought the old finca in 1981, turning the grand house, built in 1900 and cradled by groves of olive and orange trees, into his family’s winter residence. The surrounding terraces, with an irrigation system dating back to the Moors’ four-century occupation of this Mediterranean archipelago, he planted with vines – including tempranillo and two other indigenous grapes, manto negro and callet.
Halfway up the mountainside we bump to a halt. Don Gabriel’s son, Fernando, wants to show me the ruins of an old charcoal-maker’s hut, hidden in the trees. Until the 1950s, carboners, or charcoal-makers, would head into the woods in spring and summer, living in stone huts and eking out a living slow-burning wood in large, round, earth-packed pits to make charcoal, once an important part of the Serra de Tramuntana’s rural economy. The mountains are also littered with the remains of icehouses – large pits were dug to collect the falling snow which, compacted into ice, was sold in the capital, Palma, to preserve food.
At the top of the track we wander round a dilapidated farmhouse, an ancient olive press leaning against the crumbling wall, the ruins of a pigsty in the yard – and check out the spindly rows of young vines. Production on the estate is small-scale and everything is done by hand, the traditional way. “How to get the grapes down to the winery is the next problem,” Fernando smiles.
Back in the winery, he uncorks the first bottle. Marges (the name means dry-stone wall) is a white made with a red grape, manto negro. It’s light and fresh, with tart grapefruit and fragrant pear and pineapple on the palate. Next, he opens another manto negro, this time a spicy red: Supernins. The name is a homage to the people who used to live in the valley, the olive oil producers, charcoal-makers, dry-stone wallers and winemakers.
“It’s all about the fruit,” says Fernando, as he swirls the wine in his glass and inhales: dark berries and rich, smoky caramel. It’s also all about age-old traditions and heritage, I am learning. This is not the Mallorca of the tourist brochures: the bling, the beaches and the bars, marinas crammed with gawdy super-yachts. This is a different side to the island.
Son Vich is not open to the public, but the foodie folk at Mimo can organise a private tour as part of a day spent exploring the Serra de Tramuntana. Mimo was founded in San Sebastián in 2009 to help tourists navigate the local culinary scene through pintxos walking tours. Over the past few years, the company has added other destinations to its portfolio and now offers food experiences in Seville, the Algarve and, most recently, Mallorca.
Zigzagging through the Tramuntana, the slopes clad in oak and pine trees, and peppered with a jumble of Instagram-able honey-hued villages, Mimo’s man in Mallorca, Bastien Martinole, explains the attraction – the area’s rich agricultural past.
It was the Romans who introduced olive trees, cereal crops and vineyards, while the Moors built watermills and the irrigation canals that thread the landscape. Mimo offers gourmet walking tours of the capital, Palma, but its focus in Mallorca is the Tramuntana.
I’m staying nearby at the Gran Hotel Son Net, an old finca dating back to 1672 that’s now a luxury gourmet retreat. It’s steeped in the area’s history and has its own vineyards – plus a restaurant. The night before my Mimo tour I had tucked into meaty mushrooms and a soft egg in a rich, earthy broth, followed by crisp suckling pig with apricot chutney, house-made sauerkraut and red mole – washed down with a light malvasia white wine from the vineyard a stone’s throw from my table.
“Malvasia often has a slight saltiness from the sea,” Bastien tells me. I had braved a spectacular, if hair-raising, rollercoaster drive along the coast the previous day, stopping off in the picture-postcard village of Estellencs, also famous for its malvasia. “Most families have a couple of terraces each and sell the grapes to the local cooperative,” Bastien explains.
Our next stop is another sprawling estate – premium olive oil producer Son Moragues. Our guide, Bernd Hagmüller, greets us at the gate – again it’s appointment only. Originally a dry-stone waller, he is one of a small team who have spent the past 10 years restoring the 100-hectare olive grove. Some of the 10,000 olive trees are around 800 years old, the trunks gnarled and twisted. We walk among the terraces as black vultures wheel overhead, before making our way to a small stone hut for an olive oil tasting and lunch in front of a roaring fire.
Warming the glass in our hands, we inhale deeply. The extra-virgin olive oil has a green hue and smells of cut grass and tomato leaves. Taking a sip, the spiciness catches the back of my throat. There are olives on the table, and rustic bread rubbed with thick-skinned tomatoes, drizzled with the oil and sprinkled with salt. On the fire, butifarron (traditional sausage) is sizzling.
As we eat, Bastien tells me about traditional local specialities. In Mallorca the cuisine is hearty and meat-based, with dishes such as roast lamb, suckling pig and snails cooked in a spicy broth. Surprisingly for an island, fish is not a staple – although the town of Sóller is famous for its prawns. And it’s green Menorca that is the centre of dairy production in the Balearics.
I am taking a cookery class at my next destination, the elegant Son Brull Rural Sanctuary in the northern Tramuntana, near the small town of Pollença. The chef, Rafa Perello, teaches guests how to prepare traditional Mallorcan dishes and, as I grab my apron, he enthuses about the island’s natural larder.
“We buy olive oil from our neighbours, and have our own vineyards and kitchen garden here. In Mallorca we eat a lot of lamb and pork but it’s all small-scale production. The old traditions are also kept alive, such as the matanza, where families rear a pig for a year – the native black pig is small, around six kilos – then in November everyone comes together for the slaughter. The whole animal is used, nothing wasted. One of the local specialities we make is sobrasada, a spicy sausage.”
We are preparing coca Mallorquina (Mallorcan-style pizza) and a baked fish dish with tumbet (like a vegetable lasagne with layers of aubergine, red pepper, courgette, potato and tomato sauce). We stuff the red mullet with a fragrant mix of spinach, garlic, pine nuts, tomato and paprika.
For dessert we’re baking an almond cake – after the phylloxera epidemic that struck Europe during the 19th century and wiped out most of Mallorca’s vines, much of the land was replanted with almond trees and, today, almond pastries are a speciality on the island.
I leave armed with a folder full of recipes to try at home. The seasonal tasting menu in Son Brull’s award-winning restaurant, 365, however, is in another league. Highlights range from a tartare of lampuga, red pepper and apple – slithers of fish and a sharp citrus kick on a crisp cracker – to the earthy chewiness of squid, yellowfoot chanterelle and Mallorcan sausage. The highlight, however, is a sweet, rich revelation: a deconstructed cheesecake with black chanterelle, the moreish mushroom sorbet cloyingly creamy and robust.
Before leaving I head to Palma for a couple of days, checking into Boutique Hotel Sant Jaume in the heart of the historic old town. Its Mediterranean restaurant, Fabiola Gastronomic Garden, gives traditional dishes a contemporary twist: here, bravas, the rustic potato dish, is turned into an artwork, the precise oblong bricks served with mayonnaise and black garlic aïoli.
It’s less than 10 minutes’ walk from here to the city’s main market, Mercat de l’Olivar – check out the cheesemonger S’Aglà for the best Mallorcan and Menorcan cheeses – and elsewhere in the city a handful of gastronomic markets have also sprung up, including Mercado de San Juan and Mercat 1930, in an art deco building overlooking the marina, where you can also join cookery workshops (mercat1930.com).
The international tourism that has generated a renewed appreciation for these types of markets has also fuelled a local spike in Mediterranean fusion cuisine. This is especially evident at Fera, where Austrian chef Simon Petutschnig combines Asian and Mediterranean influences in dishes as eye-catching as the space’s contemporary art.
I start with rustic Mallorcan bread smeared with kimchi butter and beetroot aïoli, before moving on to a California roll of steak tartare, the soft meat wrapped in a crispy leaf with a sweet black squid ink macaron on the side. Petutschnig’s use of lighter Asian flavours, such as yuzu and ginger, balances the richer Mediterranean produce; his suckling pig is matched with hoisin, sweet potato and himeji.
He dubs it borderless Mediterranean cuisine, and it’s anything but hearty, rustic mountain fare. This is the face of modern Mallorca. But on this, the biggest of the Balearic islands, there’s room for both.
Written by Lucy Gillmore, February 2019