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A taste of Menorca

With its surprising culinary traditions and array of tasty local specialities, the lesser-known Balearic island packs real flavour

A taste of Menorca
Fishing at Fornells. Image: Daniel Springgay

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Don’t miss: Es Tast De Na Sílvia

Sílvia seems to know exactly what she’s doing. She glides with quiet purpose, like an owl silently scanning the fields for fresh morsels. In the farm shop of Finca Torralbet, it’s rich sobrasada sausage and mature Menorcan cheese. In the arched pavilion of butchers in Ciutadella, it’s succulent cuts of beef. At a nearby fruit and veg stall, she sniffs out a huge sweet potato, and holds it up like a newborn before declaring it the last of the season.

Finally, at Ciutadella’s indoor fish market, she stands with a patient smile, as her red scorpionfish is descaled. I amble over in time to hear her make an additional request. “She’s asked him to keep the liver,” my guide says. “She’s going to add it later, for flavour.”

Sílvia’s restaurant, Es Tast de na Sílvia, is located down one of Ciutadella’s countless ancient side streets. ‘KM 0,’ says the sign outside, beneath a cartoon drawing of a snail — a symbol of Sílvia’s dedication to slow food. Her aim today is to prove it’s possible to create a high-quality menu almost entirely from Menorcan produce.

In her neat, rectangular kitchen, she goes about things with her trademark quiet purpose, showing us ingredients, instructing volunteers and occasionally explaining her methods in Spanish. By her side, Toni — her partner in both business and life — is spreading fig jam onto little bits of bread.

He brandishes a broad bean. “Normally, we just use the beans and throw the husks in the bin,” he explains. “But that’s expensive. So now we use the skins to make a panna cotta— which will be your dessert.”

The hour of the feast approaches, but there’s still plenty to do, and Sílvia turns her attention to the fish liver. This she mixes with not only garlic and parsley, but also chocolate, cognac, toasted almonds and hazelnuts to form the base of a soup.

It seems a rather flamboyant combination, but the resulting dish earns nods of approval when we finally sit down to eat. The other six courses of our tasting menu fare just as well — from the wondrously dense sobrassada mixed with honey, which we’re urged to chew well and not just swallow; to the medium-rare Menorcan red cow beef, served without seasoning but salted by the gorgeous puddle of local cheese in which it proudly sits.

We finish with the broad bean panna cotta, presented in the unpromising company of a fennel confit. While savoury desserts aren’t for everyone, I’m surprised just how much I enjoy it. More than anything else I’ve been served, this dish really demonstrates Sílvia’s complete confidence in her ingredients.

After a final toast, we say our goodbyes and head back out into the street. And for a second, I lose my bearings and nearly walk off in the wrong direction. It’s probably the Cava, I think to myself, but then I realise something — it’s the first time in five hours Sílvia’s not been there to guide me.

food in menorca

Pork sausages. Image: Getty

Best-kept secret: Casa Venecia

Perched at the end of a little pier, jutting out into one of the world’s largest harbours, the two-story, whitewashed Casa Venecia is like a floating mirage — the type of bar that appears out of nowhere, offering salvation to the lost and thirsty. Outside its rear doors is little jetty that’s often used to serve passing speedboats. However you get there, it’s a great place for a cocktail, or perhaps a glass of Biniarbolla Licor d’Herbes Dolces — a brand of the herbal liqueur popular across the Balearics, macerated with 17 types of plant, including chamomile, mulberry, and rosemary. It’s as memorable as the venue.

Wash it all down with: Menorcan gin

“Older Menorcans often drink it in the mornings,” says Alfons. “A shot of gin, then a shot of cold water. It gives them energy. It keeps them warm in winter.”

I can’t help but be impressed. But then Menorca has a rich gin heritage, dating back to the 18th century, when the islanders first began producing it for their British occupiers.

With its windmill logo, Xoriguer is the most famous local brand, its gin created in a little distillery in the capital, Mahón, using 300-year-old, wood-fired copper stills. Xoriguer’s signature gin uses vine alcohol instead of grain, which allows the botanicals to shine. Warm and flavoursome, it’s thoroughly refreshing.

But there’s a lot more on offer, and during a tasting session in the adjoining shop I try Palo, a wondrously bitter gin aperitif; a moreish cactus fig gin; and an aniseed-flavoured Glühwein (which I’m told would taste better hot).I’m then handed gin with crushed ice and lemon — a concoction drunk island-wide, and known in Mahón as pomada. According to Xoriguer’s Alfons, young Menorcans prefer gin this way. I decide that, were I Menorcan, I’d mix things up — a neat gin in the morning, in solidarity with my elders, while in the evening, some pomada in a nod to youth. But what about Alfonso? “I personally like drinking shots,” he says. “I like to sometimes finish lunch with one. It means the lunch is over.”

Only in Menora: The original mayonnaise

On the Pont Modorro estate, they make oil using several types of olive, including the acebuche — the wild olive tree that also provides the wood used to make the island’s distinctive gates. Acebuche olives yield a realatively small amount of high quality oil — which is why a tiny bottle of extra virgin sets me back €10 (£8.70). It is, however, so wondrously warm and spicy that I’d happily have paid more.

Today, the estate has a guest — locally based chef Patrick James — who’s putting its olive oil to good use, mixing it with egg yolk, salt and lemon, and patiently beating it with a pestle. After much expert tending, a familiar creamy mixture is formed — mayonnaise, the all-star condiment first invented in Menorca, but borrowed and then championed by the French. A Frenchman himself, from Normandy, James understands the irony of his role today.

“You know it’s ready,” he explains, “when the pestle sticks up on its own.” He lets his pestle go. It sticks up straight — our cue to grab some bread and start dipping.

food in menorca

Cala Mitjana. Image: Getty

Bring it home: Mature cheese

Menorca’s two best-known gifts to the world are mayonnaise and the director’s chair — the former best experienced in local restaurants, the latter visible all across the island. But, in culinary terms, at least, this is a land of many specialities, each one jostling for a space in your suitcase.

Whether it’s virgin flor de sal from the island’s salt flats, delicious paprika-tinged sobrassada or the wonderfully light ensaïmadas (coiled cakes made with pork fat), there are so many tastes you’ll want to bring home. But top of my list is Mahón-Menorca cheese. A white cow’s-milk variety, it’s tasty enough when its young, mild and soft. But it’s the hard, salty, mature stuff you’ll be crumbling into meals for weeks after you return.

Mahón-Menorca cheese can be bought all over the island, although if you stay at the hilltop farm hotel Agroturismo Son Vives you’ll get to see it being made on site. What’s more, every morning, you’ll also get to enjoy one of the best breakfasts in the Balearics (with views to match).

How to do it

easyJet flies to Menorca from Gatwick, Luton, Southend, Stansted and Bristol, with return prices starting at £50.50 per person.

Hotel Torralbenc has rooms from €181.50 (£158.50) a night, based on two sharing on a B&B basis, and has its own fine dining restaurant, serving wines from its on-site vineyard.

Local organisations Farmers & Co and Cómete Mallorca can organise excursions, including the shopping, cooking and dining experience at Es Tast De Na Sílvia, and mayonnaise demonstration at the Pont Modorro olive estate. E: visita@farmersandco.es / info@cometemenorca.com
For details, visit Menorca.es and Illesbalears.travel

Published in Issue 2 of National Geographic Traveller Food, out with the September issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).