Tuesday, June 8, 2010
A Peek at Menorcan Cuisine
A bit over a week ago I had the opportunity to spend a wonderful weekend in Menorca, one of the Balearic Islands off the East Coast of Spain. Settled at different points by Phoenicians, Arabs, Catalans, French, and English, among other peoples, the island's gastronomy reflects a wonderful mix of cultures and traditions and of course all the wonders the Mediterranean has to offer.
The spiny lobsters that come to the Balearic coasts are renowned as some of the Mediterranean's tastiest, especially those caught between Mallorca and Menorca. Though prepared in a variety of ways, the most famous by far is the Caldereta de Llagosta, a simple but outstanding lobster stew not unlike the French Bouillabaisse. At around 60€ for 500 grams (plenty for two people to split) it is certainly on the pricier end of things, but in my experience totally worth it.
Fornells, a small fishing town on the island's north-central coast is said to be the place to get it, so naturally we enjoyed our stew there at Es Port, a restaurant just along the port.
With seafood on a Mediterranean island you really can't go wrong - grilled razor clams, raw cockles, broiled angler fish, and squid both stuffed and fried were among the delicacies we constantly indulged in. If I were to pick a standout after the caldereta, however, I'd have to say that the garlic prawns from Café Balear on the port of Ciutadella were a cut above, so incredibly flavorful and tender I could have eaten 10 kilo's worth.
Moving onto products from land, perhaps the most well-known product would be Maó cheese, shown here with Sobrassada, a sausage typical of neighboring island Mallorca. The cheese is made from cow's milk and sine 1985 has had its own denominación de origen (guarantee of origin) and is protected by a regulating council. We tried three varieties of it - the younger cheeses are more rich and creamy and perfect with a bit of honey on bread or with black pepper and olive oil - the older, harder variety is more akin to parmesan. Another delicacy further inland would be Menorcan roast suckling pig. Being on the western coast outside of Ciutadella certainly didn't stop us from having this at "Sa Caldareta" down the street. The skin was probably the best pig skin I've ever had - thick as bacon but crispy like a potato chip, certainly my daily serving of fat in one bite, but absolutely mind-blowingly delicious.
Menorca is also known for its sweets, our favorite being "amargos", a wonderful crispy-on-the-outside but chewy-on-the-inside almond-flavored cookie. Other options are carquinyols, little crispy bite-size biscotti, and pastissets, flower-shaped cookies often filled with sweet jelly. Lastly you have ensaïmada, a circular almost phyllo-like pastry whose name comes from the saïm, or pork lard, from which it is made. They come in all different sizes, some as big as 2 feet wide, and can be either sweet or savory, filled with chocolate paste and dusted with powdered sugar, or filled with local pork sausage. We devoured a maybe 20-inch chocolate one in two sittings :-)
Finally, a trip to Menorca is not complete without going through one or two bottles of Xoriguer gin, a local gin unusually produced with wine alcohol. When 18th Century British soldiers arrived along with their taste for gin, they decided to try to make their own using imported juniper berries and alcohol distilled from grapes. The result was a gin unlike any other! The best and most traditional way to drink it is in a cocktail called the pomada - take a hearty dose of xoriguer over ice, then simply add a sparkling lemonade - Fanta will do. Alternatively you could use fresh lemon juice with a bit of soda water and simple syrup. I can't even tell you how many of these I had during my week there - so refreshing and delicious, and perfect when I want something a little different from my summer standby the gin and tonic. Needless to say I will be bringing at least one bottle of this back with me as I've never seen it in the states! We were lucky enough to visit the Xoriguer distillery in Maó and see them make the gin ourselves, not to mention help ourselves to free tasting of all the company's other products, from rose liqueur to Menorcan pastis!
I will most definitely be returning to the Balearic Islands at some point in my life, if not just for the food!