My host for the morning, Antonio of 'Cómete Menorca' sees me take a break, as I plant myself in a bright red director's chair on one of the café terraces outside Ciutadella's 19th-century fish market. It was the ideal place to take a short breather from the vibrancy of the city market. “There are two things popular across the world that were invented in Menorca,” Antonio asserts with a smile. “Salsa mahonesa and the silla menorquina!”
Until that moment it had not really occurred to me to think where the ubiquitous canvas folding chairs had originated; I had assumed in the States. Yet the design is said have been popularised on Menorca over a century ago. The story of the creation of mayonnaise (or should I say 'mahonesa') however is a little more controversial. Yet it's undeniably a big part of the island's fascinating culinary culture and history.
My morning had started deep in the countryside, at a farmstead called Finca Torralbet, as part of a new travel experience where guests can visit local food producers, regional markets, and learn about seasonal foods. The high point of the day is to help prepare and then enjoy a lunch hosted by local restaurant association 'Cómete Menorca' in collaboration with Chef Silvia Anglada and her partner Toni, both passionate advocates for sustainable farming, and healthy, tasty, seasonal food.
Travellers are coming to Menorca not simply for the island's Mediterranean climate, pristine coastal waters and sandy coves, but for its vibrant Balearic food scene. Menorca's refreshing lack of tourist developments, combined with a traditional, rural way of life, has made it the ideal destination for slow travel, where visitors can relish experiences of nature, history and local cuisine.
I welcomed the opportunity to join a food tour; these experiences are a growing travel trend and a compelling way to become immersed within the island's culture. The market in Ciutadella, the former capital of Menorca, is one of the liveliest places in this peaceful, architecturally-rich city. Cafés and bars with terraces furnished with colourful director chairs and simple wooden tables surround the fish market and adjacent food traders. A visit here is to become engaged with the rural economy of Menorca, one that is being protected and developed by associations and cooperatives that recognise the value of the island's sustainable way of life.
Chef Silvia Anglada regards Finca Torralbet as one of the best places to source homemade cured pork sausages such as the paprika-flavoured sobrasada and artisan Menorcan cheeses made from the milk of the estate's sheep, goats and cows. Fish and meat though are sourced directly from the market - and part of the fun of this tour is to see professional chef Anglada deftly navigate the stalls and vendors, as she is choosing produce for the day's lunch.
Our arrival at her restaurant Es Tast De Na Silvia was the reward for our long morning out in the countryside and market. Once inside this classic stone building, found in a narrow street in Cuitadella's historic centre, one finds a welcoming space that is bright and elegant, with white-washed wooden furniture, and tables dressed with natural linens and vases of wild flowers. The place had a wholesome yet sophisticated ambience.
Chef Silvia beckoned us to join her in the large open-plan kitchen, with its large central island. Little time was lost in preparing the meal while her partner Tony explained the wines that would accompany the dishes.
Wine production is seeing a renaissance on the island, with a growing number of boutique wineries opening alongside the island's rural hotels and guest houses. Hotel Torralbenc, a stylish rural hotel, twenty minutes west of the capital Mahón, reminded me of the gourmet food and wine hotels of South Africa's Western Cape, or northern California. It has opened a small winery and 2018 sees the launch of its first red, white and rosé vintages. It's an interesting base for a holiday on the island.
With my stomach rumbling, we took our seats at the table, for the highlight of this Menorca foodie experience; a multiple-course lunch of small plates, each celebrating the late spring produce of the island - spicy sobrasada with organic honey; then a rocket fritter with a subtly sweet and flavoursome tomato sauce; an unusual carob cracker with butifarra sausage; delicate scorpion fish, freshly caught off the island's deep reefs; tender Menorca beef; and finally, a board of cheeses from Finca Torralbet.
The presentation of the menu reflected a fine dining restaurant; yet the style was unpretentious and of course almost everything was sourced locally that morning. It's a captivating and satisfying experience. Es Tast De Na Silvia is a certified Slow Food restaurant on Menorca; their approach to hospitality and dining complements Menorca's 25 years as a Biosphere Reserve, validation of the island's unique natural environment and its commitment to sustainability.
Its diminutive size has made Menorca remarkably resourceful over the centuries, creating a diverse cuisine that not only reflects the landscape but also the island's colourful history. Menorca's strategic position in the Mediterranean, combined with its natural, deep harbours and protected anchorages has made the island an attractive prize for various invading powers. These occupying forces have in turn shaped Menorca's gastronomic identity, from the British leaving a heritage of gin distilling on the island, to the French adoption of Menorca's 'salsa mahonesa'.
Mahonesa or mayonesa?
As our meal ended, the conversation inevitably turned to mahonesa - the sauce made famous by the French yet proudly recognised as created on Menorca - taking its name from the city of Mahón. Antonio my host, holds out an old recipe book, Art de la Cuina (art of cuisine) by Friar Roger, a mid-18th century text in the local Menorquín language. Among its recipes are different interpretations of aioli, the garlic and olive oil sauce, regarded as the precursor to mahonesa. This is cited as proof that salsa mahonesa was created on the island before the French arrived. The French may have tweaked the recipe and made it their own, but no one on Menorca will let you be in any doubt that it's a Menorca creation - just like those comfy director chairs.