The gambas al ajillo, a Mallorcan speciality, is a dish of prawns done with a generous dose of garlic and olive oil
The proprietor of the establishment in which we were dining that evening spoke no English. I had jabbed my finger at a couple of dishes on the illustrated menu, and he’d violently shaken his head, his lower lip sticking out firmly, as if to say, “No, that will not be served at my restaurant today!” But when my finger settled on the image of a dish of shiny green peppers, slick with oil, adorned with little flakes of white sea-salt, he nodded his head vigorously. Suddenly his face broke out into a merry grin, he rolled his eyes heavenwards, kissed his fingertips and then waved his hand in the air.
Clearly, he approved of my choice of pimientos de padron, Mallorca’s most popular vegetarian tapa. With the restaurant otherwise empty (I had been forewarned that showing up to dinner as “early” as 8 pm in Spain was unusual) it seemed, for the time being, that dinner was going to be a cosy affair comprising me, my travel companion, and the rather animated proprietor of Casa Rufino Tapas and Paellas.
Before I had the opportunity to let my mind wander further, however, he had bustled back from the kitchen, bearing a large tray. In addition to the padron peppers was a sizzling earthenware dish with prawns in olive oil and garlic (gambas al ajillo) and a dish of choricitos—mini versions of the Spanish chorizo sausages. This then, was the moment of reckoning. I gingerly picked one of the peppers from the plate, holding it by the stalk, and, after giving it a moment to cool, I bit into it, hoping for the best.
Celler Sa Premsa in Palma, an establishment housed in an old wine cellar serves the most authentic sobrassada, a typical Mallorcan sausage
At that precise moment, I found myself suddenly transported back to a rainy day at home in Bengaluru, with the smell, and subsequently the taste, of fried chilli pakoras. Of course, these particular peppers lacked a coating of deep-fried gram flour on them, but it mattered little. The mild taste of the peppers combined with the kick of the olive oil, and the sharpness of the sea salt came together to do a magical little jig on my tongue. Soon I found myself reaching for another pepper. And another after that, until the plate was empty. And after I had bestowed appropriate amounts of attention on those heavenly garlicky prawns, and then the bite-sized choricitos, I could see quite clearly that Mallorca and I were going to get along just fine.
It was my quest for traditional food of the island that led me to the Celler Sa Premsa in Palma, an establishment housed in an old wine cellar, complete with a high ceiling, old paintings tacked up here and there, and massive wine barrels nestling in the walls. I’d been assured that I’d find sobrassada, a typical Mallorcan sausage that was also the island’s most famous export, right here. It was with an air of expectation, then, that I sat there tucking into bread, aioli (a dipping sauce made of garlic and olive oil) and olives that seem to be a pre-meal staple on every Spanish table. I’d been repeatedly told that one would be hard-pressed to find food more authentically Mallorcan than sobrassada. Which is why when the amicable waiter set the plate down before me, I found myself a little underwhelmed. It contained precisely four slices of fried sausage, swimming in a bed of orange oil. Surely, this couldn’t be the famed sobrassada that I’d heard so much about? Somewhat reluctantly I began to pull away the casing around one of the slices, after which I cut away a piece and popped it, with some trepidation, into my mouth. And I was in for a pleasant surprise. The sobrassada wasn’t as tangy as a chorizo, and the fact that it had been fried had given the surface a slightly firm texture, but inside, it was soft and almost pâté-like. Even the oil, which I was told was such a fiery shade of orange due to the generous amounts of paprika that go into the making of these sausages, was surprisingly enjoyable. And I found myself finishing rather a lot of bread, topped with the slices of sausage, and dunking some of it in the oil too.
Local Mallorca cheese
Image: Vaishali Dinakaran
It was a good thing, then, that the other dish I’d ordered was somewhat lighter on the palette and the stomach. Tombet, also spelled tumbet, is Mallorca’s answer to ratatouille. The dish, which is often served as a side (although in my opinion it makes a pretty good main), consists of fried slices of potato, aubergines, red bell peppers, and zucchini, all layered in an earthenware dish, slathered with tomato sauce and baked. That tumbet, I was told later, relies heavily on the local produce of the island, which is why the tomatoes that are traditionally used for the dish are Mallorcan ramallet tomatoes.
Indeed it was the ramallets that caught my eye every single time I found myself in a supermarket in Mallorca. It seemed like they were everywhere. Mountains and mountains of them piled high in baskets, or strung together and hanging from hooks on the walls. After all, it wasn’t just the tumbet that relied on these island tomatoes. It was the pamboli too. I was told that while the Catalans ate their bread with olive oil, and some tomato on top of that, the Mallorcans do the opposite. Generous amounts of tomato on slices of llonguet (the local bread), served with olive oil, to drizzle on top.
Varieties of sobrassada sausage
Sometimes, these slices of bread and tomato even come topped with jamon Iberico (Iberian ham), olives and capers that transform the humble bread and tomato dish into various kinds of tapas. In fact, it was over some pamboli at brunch that a friend who lives on the island recommended that I visit Mercat de Olivar, an old-fashioned market hall in the centre of Palma. There, she said, I’d get a true taste of Mallorca’s local cuisine.
The beauty of the Mercat de Olivar (mercat is Spanish for market), as I discovered, is the fact that it serves as a one-stop shop for Mallorca’s local produce. I walked into the market not quite knowing what to expect. And soon I found myself spoilt for choice. Hanging before me were whole legs of cured ham, sausages covered in garlic powder, onion powder, herbs, chilli, massive sobrassada sausages hanging from the ceiling of tiny stalls, mountains of botifarron (a Mallorcan blood sausage), and slabs and slabs of local Mallorca cheese. There was also a room dedicated entirely to fresh catch from the Balearic Sea—prawns, shrimp, lobster, squid, sardines, anchovies, and fresh grouper that is the star of mero a la mallorquina, a dish where the fish is covered with vegetables and baked. Other stalls in the mercat were dedicated to vegetables, fruits, spices, fresh meat and even traditional Spanish crockery.Pimientos de padron
Image: Vaishali Dinakaran
But what fascinated me more than the local produce was the fact that the Mercat de Olivar turned out to be the perfect place to sample local food. It was there that I ate my first ensaimada, a type of Mallorcan pastry coil made with flour, water, sugar, eggs, yeast, and the most important, if somewhat unhealthy, ingredient—lard. The lady at the counter was kind enough to point me in the direction of the ensaimada llisa (a plain ensaimada that comes dusted with powdered sugar) that looked rather doughy and heavy. But when I bit into it, I found it was soft, light and somewhat flaky. And, thanks to the generous amounts of lard, was also very moist. Telling myself that I ought to save room in my stomach for other Balearic delicacies as well, I reluctantly left the ensaimada stall, resisting the temptation of the vast variety they had on hand—topped with apricots, custard, pumpkin, chocolate and even, believe it or not, jam and sobrassada. Yes, sobrassada really was everywhere!
Having consumed some bocadillo (sandwiches with assorted fillings, some of which contained more of that sausage so ubiquitous on the island), I turned my attention to the sopas mallorquina, another one of Mallorca’s vegetable dishes that I’d heard a lot about. What I didn’t realise, until I caught sight of a dish of the “soup” was that it was more like stewed vegetables. Plenty of shredded cabbage, chopped cauliflower, red peppers, onions, and some ramallet tomatoes are put into an earthen pot and cooked. Eventually the top of the dish is covered with crusty bread that helps soak up the broth, leaving behind the cooked vegetables. It makes for a filling meal. One that can be described, quite accurately, as hearty. And once again, it is a dish that relies on the island’s rich crop of vegetables. Since I no longer had any room in me for more food, I skipped the highly tempting dish of lomo con col (another Mallorcan favourite—pork loin cooked in cabbage leaves with slices of sobrassada and botifarron sausages). Instead I opted for a long walk through the city of Palma, which in the day, looked lovely.
Tombet, the Mallorcan version of ratatouille
However, as I was to discover a few days later, Palma truly came alive at night. The old town, with its tiny cobblestone lanes, quaint cafes, and little boutiques at every corner, looks particularly lovely under the cover of the yellow glow of streetlamps. And it was on a slightly chilly evening that I discovered that Palma’s biggest gift to its inhabitants and tourists alike is Tapas Tuesday. Once a week in the centre of the old town, an assorted collection of little bars end up hosting an evening dedicated entirely to tapas, and the drinks they are served with. It takes a little while to locate these bars though, and I found myself hurrying from one tiny little street to the next through the winding labyrinth that is old town Palma. Eventually, I chanced upon the series of little tapas bars, and, since I was so hungry, I stopped at the first one. Here, I was introduced to the tiny fried sardines that nearly every Spanish menu offers, and albondigas (Spanish meatballs in tomato sauce). Once suitably fortified, I continued to wander through the streets, watching youngsters eating, drinking and generally making merry. Tapas Tuesday, it seemed, was more than just about grabbing a tapa and a drink at a bar at a nominal price. It was, instead, about people. People having a good time on an island that, it seems, is all about celebration.
Susana Bonet, a Mallorcan food enthusiast whom I met on my last day in Palma, can trace her family tree on the island all the way back to the 13th century. According to her, a number of Mallorca’s traditional dishes stem from the concept of eating as a community—a tradition that has been kept alive on the island till today. She spoke to me of how the island relies, in addition to olive oil, seafood and local vegetables, heavily on pork. And that when it’s time to slaughter an animal, there’s plenty of work to be done. Not only are there pork shoulders and legs of ham to be cured, but there are a host of other activities carried out as a community. And that she herself is involved in the family tradition of preparing sobrassada. She spoke of how the meat is mixed with fat and paprika, before being stuffed into sausage casing and sewn up, either with a red thread to indicate the sausage is spicy, or a white thread to indicate that it is mild. The lard is saved for the making of ensaimada, empanandas and various other savoury dishes. And that it was only during this season of slaughter or matanza that frito mallorquin (also called frito matanza) is prepared. It is a form of tapa typical to the island, and something of an acquired taste. It consists of a dish of offal (usually lungs, liver and kidneys) cooked together with an assortment of vegetables (artichokes, cauliflower, broad beans, fennel) and served with fries. Susana assured me that if made right, frito mallorquin is delicious. After urging me to try it, she gave me a little parting gift, of some homemade Mallorcan hot pepper jam, before hurrying back to her office.
After Susana left, I continued to sit at the corner table at the cafe for a while, looking out at the sea. And I realised that despite the many wonderful meals that I enjoyed in Mallorca over the course of a month, it was the people that truly made the island special, and the food taste better. Whether it was the gentleman I introduced you to at the beginning of the story, or the waiters at the Bar Andaluz who, after having plied us with lovely stuffed mussels, would not let us leave the bar without some Herbs de Majorca (a Mallorcan herb liqueur) and coca de cuerto (Mallorcan sponge cake often flavoured with orange). Or the waiter who insisted on piling my plate with far more paella than my stomach could hold, or the chef who bustled out of his kitchen to tell me that he could add some chicken to the arroz brut (a soupy rice dish cooked with game meat, rabbit, pork or seafood) that I’d ordered, to give it a little extra flavour. But most of all, I will remember a lady passionate enough about Mallorcan food to take time out from a busy day of work to talk to me. I certainly will have to go back to sample more of it. Yes, even the frito mallorquin.