From gin to mayonnaise, cheese to olive oil, Menorca is a food paradise that is just begging to be explored, writes Shilpa Ganatra
There are worse places to learn how to make mayonnaise than a serene olive grove with birdsong in the air and intense Menorca sunshine beating down.
It’s a fitting place too, given the ubiquitous sauce was invented a couple of kilometres away in the capital of Mahon or Mao, where it’s still called maonesa. In this blissful setting, Patrick James, a French chef now resident in Menorca, raises an eyebrow when its origins are brought up, because the French also lay claim to it.
But outnumbered, he lets the age-old debate go, and concentrates on the task at hand: whisking up egg yolks with constant drops of Pont Modorro extra virgin olive oil, grown and pressed in this very location. After a few minutes of intense labour, the mixture takes its creamy shape. A generous squeeze of lemon, a grind of salt, and it’s served. And Hellmans will never taste the same again.
Throughout my trip, barely a meal goes by without a serving of its namesake sauce, usually served with bread or crudities. And, like its place in a meal, that’s just the start of Menorca’s culinary offerings.
Away from the fringe of all-inclusive hotels and party hotspots, Menorca has much in common with rustic Spain.
Culturally, there’s an emphasis on passion, goodness and simplicity, and that’s reflected with the abundance of local produce that go into its popular traditional recipes. There’s over 300 independent producers of food in Menorca, selling everything from saffron to craft beer. And lucky for us, this summer, many have opened their doors to visitors via Farmers & Co, an island-wide co-operative that helps organise food tours, visits and tastings.
That’s how I’ve snagged this behind-the-scenes look at Pont Modorro, a vast 2,800-tree grove owned by Teresa Maspoch and her husband Juan Corezo, the fourth generation of Corezos to maintain the family business.
Now 84, they have a hands-off approach to the labour, but still make daily visits to olive grove.
Walking around the expanse of their land, with a babbling stream running through the bridge that gives the business its name, I see why they’re drawn back.
As they explain about different varieties of olive trees — the most abundant being the acebuche wild olive, 30kg of which is needed for one litre of cold-pressed oil — their digressions are just as fascinating: they uncover a tortoise wandering around, they regale us with stories about their lesbian geese, and explain that they’re so in favour of living in harmony with nature that they refuse to pull down the monstrous beehive that’s
overtaking taking over a barn. (“Adopt me!” one of our party cries.)
The island of Menorca is around one hour’s drive from one end to the other, and the population is less than that of Cork.
It’s small and sparse, but when driving, that makes for incredible scenery of near-untouched rolling hills and fields lined with Menorca’s signature gate: a curved rustic contraption, made from the durable trunk of the aforementioned wild olive tree. The compact size makes it easy to shop as there’s usually only one local market leader.
For fleur de sal, a more intense flavouring made from skimming the natural salt from the sea, the brightly coloured boxes of Flor de Fornells are ubiquitous. And the wines produced by the upscale vineyard hotel of Torralbenc are served in restaurants well away from its location near Mahon.
An exception is gin, where the market is buoyant enough to sustain two main brands happily.
A popular drink since it was brought in by the British occupation in the 18th century, the oldest working brand is Gin Xoriguer. Their distillery is in Mahon, a stone’s throw from the many portside bars that serve the spirit and, during its baking summer months, its most famous cocktail of pomada: gin and lemonade, usually served over crushed ice. Side note: the very same Xoriguer cocktail bottles are branded ‘Pomada’ in Mahon and ‘Gin con Lemonada’ in Ciutadella, where references to pomada mark one as an outsider. City rivalry, eh?
Ask the staff for a quick showaround to have its story explained to you: they’ll point out the row of stills in operation since 1750, which run on wood from (you guessed it) the wild olive tree, and cool using sea water from the port.
Its green bottle, labelled with the windmill that gives it is name, is just as traditional as its process, making no concession to the gin trend.
That’s where Innat Gin and Glop (Menorcan for ‘shot’) come in. They’re the new, sleek and contemporary products from the same family-run operation as Biniarbolla, Menorca’s oldest liqueur company. Now where’s the gin bowl…
Menorcan produce, from their award-winning cheese to the famous ensaimadas, combine perfectly in a Menorcan meal. And there’s no shortage of places willing to show off their deep appreciation for fresh, local food. I sample my way around the island, trying stuffed red scorpion fish in fine dining restaurants, going vegetable shopping for an inspiring finca-to-fork experience, and I have a particularly exquisite chocolate pirluet in the busy, vibey restaurant of Passió Mediterrània. But the meal I can’t stop thinking about is a humble breakfast at a farmhouse hotel.
Found at the end of a winding road with serious incline, Agroturismo Son Vives is perched on Menorca’s fourth highest peak.
We’re lucky with the weather; today the sky is a deep blue and there’s a panoramic view of the north east of Menorca all the way out to the sea. There’s no neighbours, and therefore no noise — only the low moo of their dairy cattle and perhaps a whinny from their two horses in a primary green field, spoilt with one of the best views of Menorca.
In recent years, owners Paqui and Nito turned the farmhouse into 12 rooms, and with that comes a breakfast that manages to match its quantity with its quality. Served in a rustic room with incredible views to the left and to the right, my group is greeted with piles of homemade pastries, huge bowls of chopped fruit, all the juices and drinks imaginable, and that’s not even starting with the plates of food that come out. We’re then offered plates of Son Vives’ own cheeses, flavourful tomatoes, a gorgeous fig jam, homemade bread and the Menorcan favourite of sobrarasso, either served as a round of soft meat to hollow out, or, as in this case, a firmer sausage, cut into pieces. Much of the produce is made from the farmhouse’s organic vegetable and herb garden, and you can taste it. Just as my eyes prove bigger than my stomach, Nico brings out piles of halloumi style freshly-fried cheese. “And how would you like your eggs?” she asks.
Truly, this is a breakfast not for the faint-hearted or small-stomached.
Sadly, Son Vives’ breakfast is not the undiscovered gem it feels like, as locals book out weekend breakfast months in advance.
That means the only way to experience it is to stay at one of their 12 boutique rooms. Not that it’s much of a burden. They’re large, airy rooms with modern amenities like minifridges and Krups coffee machines, and all but one have a terrace. And despite the isolated location, there’s plenty to do — guests are invited to take a peek inside their dairy, take yoga classes, or take a dip in the outdoor swimming pool, which again offers sweeping views.
But really, those able to tear themselves away from their restaurant, a fine showcase for Menorcan gastronomy exactly as it should be, are steelier people than I.