There’s a reason why Chopin had a love affair with Mallorca. This island is absolutely enchanting. It’s beautiful, yes, but also soulful. And because it’s snowing and cold and I’m feeling a bit cooped up, I’m reminiscing (a lot) about Mallorca. So today, I’m going to share what I’m missing about the Spanish island via this story I wrote for Life & Thyme.

The drive up made me aware of bones I didn’t know I had.

Liz, an expat from Connecticut and the driver currently navigating the steep climb like a boss, revs all four cylinders to handle hairpin turns while somehow keeping the van upright on the unpaved road. Each rock and groove jostles my body to and fro and I can’t help but laugh. In the near distance, the golden evening light accentuates the texture of an aged stone exterior. We come to a stop in front of the fourteenth-century former monastery titled Son Rúllan, our rustic home for the week in Serra de Tramuntana. Bidding our fearless driver adieu, we are greeted by Carmen Ruiz de Huidobro, founder and host-in-chief of Españolita Trips. I am one of seven travelers on this intimate, all-inclusive culinary retreat, the first of its kind in Mallorca. Pleasantries exchanged, I step through the weathered arched doorway and step back in time. White walls and wood beams frame the vertical foyer, the scent of wood and plaster permeates the space. Pebbled flooring spills out before me, pressing through the soles of my avarcas with each step. Short staircases lead here and there. A painting of Jesus Christ, recessed in an archway, sits atop a wooden console illuminated by candles. I’m a little bit in awe of this place.

A sky like turquoise,

a sea like lapis lazuli,

mountains like emerald,

air like heaven

– From Fréderic Chopin’s letter on Mallorca

I leave my bags in my lofty room—complete with surreal views of the sea and mountains—and venture through the maze-like house. Every corner reveals a surprise, a new delight. A tap sticks out from the wall, who knows for what. Fresh oranges huddle in a wooden bowl next to carafes of water. Canisters of sea salts and herbs perch on earthen shelves in the kitchen. Spanish music echoes off the stuccoed walls and sprigs of wild flowers stand alert in slim vases on every table, indoors and out. The back of the house extends the invitation to explore: alcoves cloaked in foliage, cushions propped and ready for relaxed conversations, a labyrinth of stone pathways beckoning for a peek. Looming silhouettes of trees and mountain—eerie yet beautiful—split the burnt orange and indigo sky. I’m standing in a dream.

“Deepi, my love, can I get you anything?”

If it’s possible for a question to feel like a warm hug, this would be it. The query, wrapped in a rolling Spanish accent, belongs to Ruiz de Huidobro who is standing behind me, hands full balancing food and plates. To ask for anything more seems selfish, really.

“I’m good, Carmen, thank you,” I respond with a smile and follow her to the outdoor dining room unrestricted by doors or window panes. My eyes scan the table as Ruiz de Huidobro places her items on the rich, worn wood partially masked with food, dinner ware and elements of nature. Bread. Check. Tomatoes. Check. Olive oil. Check. Sea salt, cured meats, cheese and wine. Check, check, check and check. I join my fellow travelers at the table to experience my first meal in the Balearic Islands.

Peasant Food

“We really wanted to greet you with a traditional, Mallorcan dinner,” says Deborah Piña Zitrone, culinary communication specialist, olive oil expert and co-host of the retreat that has just commenced. “When we refer to the Mediterranean food culture, we always refer to the Mediterranean trilogy: bread, wine and olive oil. This is called pa amb oli which literally translates to ‘bread with olive oil.’ It isn’t anything very elaborate, just a selection of the best, locally sourced ingredients.” Partaking in pa amb oli involves some key steps, beginning with a specific type of tomato. “We have a variety in Mallorca called ramallet tomatoes: they are small and have a very tough, thick skin, are not sweet but more saline and have a very particular acidity,” explains Piña Zitrone. “So they are not good for eating but you can spread them on bread.” I begin to slowly rub the red fruit across the coarse surface of Mallorcan bread, letting the juices and pulp absorb into the hearty brown slice. A drizzle of local olive oil, this one courtesy of Solivellas, and sprinkle of aromatic sea salt by Flor de Sal d’Es Trenc—my new obsession—completes the process. We politely pass and share the medley of accompaniments meant to be enjoyed with our adorned starch: Menorca cheese, dried figs, pickled sea fennel, and nora, a cooked pork sausage containing raisins and apricots. Each ingredient—sacred to Mallorcan culture—is simple yet refined.

The next morning, I decide to take advantage of my jetlag and head downstairs to the back terrace; it’s just after dusk. The stillness of the Tramuntana mountains and Balearic Sea is ethereal, the silence occasionally broken by the bleating of sheep and the cowbells dangling from their necks. I follow the faint clinking of dishes coming from the kitchen and the first person to greet me is Barbara Iten, a sweet and gentle transplant to the island who is assisting Piña Zitrone during the retreat. She shows me the breakfast spread of fresh fruit, warm breads, avocado, jamón ibérico, cheese and Son Moragues marmalades, and asks me how I like my coffee. I genuinely feel as if I’m staying in a friend’s home. This is not the kind of food you will find on hotel menus. There are no scrambled eggs or hashbrowns to cater to American palates. If it’s not true to Mallorca, you won’t find it on the table.

We spend the first part of our day visiting the Pollença market and swimming in the aquamarine waters of the Cala Murta cove. Appetites ready, we arrive back at Son Rúllan where the dinner table has been transformed into multiple cooking stations, complete with mixing bowls, rolling pins and an array of ingredients. The outdoor, wood burning oven is preheating, awaiting our Coca Mallorquina, a traditional flatbread topped with simple ingredients such as trampó—tomato, onions, peppers—a dish that is typically served at social gatherings. “The vision for the retreat is to celebrate food that we cook and eat in Mallorca. It’s not fancy food. What we call traditional Mallorcan cooking today is really peasant food,” says Piña Zitrone. She goes on to explain how social structure led to the island’s current gastronomy. “Mallorca had a medieval society where there were the very poor and the very rich. So there were two different types of food: simple for the poor and more elaborate for the wealthy. Because of a short famine in the nineteenth century, there was not enough food available so only the poor heritage was preserved.” 

The Perfect Host

Ruiz de Huidobro meanders up the stone path, three bottles of wine expertly grasped between her fingers. There is an air of ease in her style of hosting; no frantic running around, no sweating the small stuff—a skill she learned from her mother. Ruiz de Huidobro was groomed from a young age on how to be a good host: how to properly set the table, serve food and drinks to guests, and make them feel welcome in her home. “Hosting is so ingrained in Spanish society,” she says. “Everyone entertains at home without any effort.”

While the other guests attend a ceramics workshop in a neighboring studio, I steal a few moments with Ruiz de Huidobro—as she clips and arranges olive branches for a centerpiece—to ask her why this retreat is so important to her. “Spain can be explained not only through food, but through so many other things,” she says. Her years in the U.S. had her longing for her childhood home, and ultimately spurred the creative process which led to the birth of Españolita Trips. “I asked myself a series of questions: what do I miss since I’ve been living in the U.S.? What places are inspiring from my country? What makes me want to share these moments with my kids? I realized it was a mix of everything: tastes, smells, views, textures, colors,” she explains. “I had to find a way to compile all these things and present it to people, so I could inspire them to find their own magic in Spain.” Ruiz de Huidobro’s parents fell in love with Mallorca while she was still in her mother’s womb. They purchased a finca—a piece of rural land with a house—not far from Pollença where she spent her youth exploring the island that would become her second home. “I realized what I was missing about Spain was not the city life of Madrid, where I’m from, but the rusticness of this countryside where I grew up.”

Her holistic aesthetic and attention to detail goes beyond the dinner table to the entire house where she seamlessly weaves fabrics, colors and textures together—all to enhance the rustic vibe of Son Rúllan. It’s an art Ruiz de Huidobro has honed while working in film as a production designer in Los Angeles. This property is her set; she wants you to not only see, but to feel. “We are taking your hand and showing you around, and maybe it’s a little out of your comfort zone,” she says. “We’re doing this for the traveler. It’s about what they feel through the experiences we’re putting together. My heart is here in Mallorca. It’s romantic without it wanting to be romantic. I haven’t felt this anywhere else.”

The Art of Cooking Rice

Every nudge of the poker forces the timber to respond with crackling orange sparks. “This is what I call an experience. We are doing an activity that is related to our way of life, but that is new for you,” Piña Zitrone says with a smile. Instead of standard wood, our culinary expert is cooking over a fire of vine cuttings, a style known as sarmiento. The smell of the fire is intoxicating. The venue for today’s meal is the Bodega Ribas vineyard in Consell, the oldest winery on Mallorca. Iten is busy setting the outdoor table; the view for lunch will be of gnarled vines, rocky soil and distant mountains. Our very own movie set.

This afternoon’s lunch—which is currently cooking in a clay pot balanced over the open fire—is arroz caldoso, or rice with broth. Olive oil, green onions, artichokes and rice swirl in water. Chunks of sobrasada, a local raw cured sausage made from ground pork, paprika, salt and spices—supplied by producer, The Can Company—is the final addition to the mixture. “Black pig is native to Mallorca. It is free range and loves to eat grains and figs. He’s a foodie pig,” laughs Piña Zitrone. “The meat is very tender and is naturally organic. All cured meats in Mallorca are made from minced meat.” It’s the dehydration of the meat in high humidity and mild cold that gives sobrasada its characteristics. Historically, pork has been the major source of protein in Mallorca since the Middle Ages, after the rule of the Moorish Empire came to an end. There would be a yearly slaughter of the pig in the winter, called matança, whose meat products would sustain a household for months, a practice that still occurs in some homes today.

As we scrape the last bits of savory rice from the bottom of our bowls, Iten cuts portions of a traditional dessert native to Mallorca called ensaimada. The spiral-shaped, flaky pastry contains lard—called saïm which stems from the Arabic word, shahim, meaning “fat”—instead of butter, which goes back to the practice of using every part of the pig. Filled with a burnt sugar custard and dusted with powdered sugar, it is the perfect end to a picturesque lunch.

The next couple of days are a blur between picking and preserving olives—including a tasting of local olive oils—to a lively night out in Palma enjoying a tapas dinner. The previous day was spent aboard the Bonnie Lass cruising the northern shore of Mallorca, sampling gourmet canned seafood and soaking up copious amounts of sun. An enviable day at sea though I have to admit, today’s paella lunch is the event I’ve been waiting for since I first read the itinerary. 

After running her own paella business in the U.S. for several years, Ruiz de Huidobro knows her way around a paella pan. Noticing a tilt, she kills the flame and jams a piece of thin wood under one of the stand’s legs. She re-ignites the gas and the blue ring of fire appears once again. Elaborate swirls of olive oil gleam on black metal, now motionless. The pan is level as water in a glass.

First to sizzle are red shrimp from Sóller, a quick fry before they’re plucked out. Then chunks of chicken, partially cooked and removed. Next comes the squid, bell peppers and sofrito. The ingredients are leaving remnants in the olive oil, layers that will enhance the taste of the final dish. “Olive oil absorbs properties and it gives its properties. That’s why it’s a flavor conductor,” chimes in Piña Zitrone who is co-cooking today’s mid-day meal. Paella contains many of my favorite ingredients, specifically rice. So naturally, I turn to Piña Zitrone for a proper explanation of what constitutes as authentic paella. “When we cook dry rice, we can call it paella but we have to be careful. Because, for example, Valencian paella has a very strict list of ingredients. If you don’t use those ingredients, you can’t call your rice a paella,” she says. When it comes to cooking this dry rice, there are two methods: Alicante style and Valencia style. “In Valencia, they make the broth first: they cook the ingredients, add the water and prepare the liquid. Once the liquid is done, they add the rice.” The Alicante way—how it is done in the Balearic islands and what I’m witnessing today—involves first cooking the individual ingredients then adding in the rice, so that all the flavors meld together. Only then is liquid added. Piña Zitrone adds in a final thought. “Cooking of the rice is the most important factor, probably, at a Spanish table. They will discuss this for hours. If the rice is overdone, you will lose your reputation as a cook,” she says with a laugh. “It is unforgivable. Don’t show up for a while.”

Preserving the Past

The culmination of our week-long culinary retreat is a dinner party at Son Rúllan. Guests begin to arrive—some are local artisans whose products we’ve had the pleasure of enjoying all week—and we mingle amongst them as the sun dips and live music fills our ears. In the midst is Barbara Mesquida Mora, a passionate local winemaker committed to preserving Mallorca’s culture and identity through her craft. She uses the once abandoned indigenous grape varietal, Callet, in her wines which are produced on her biodynamically cultivated vineyard in accordance to nature’s rhythms.

We are called to attention by Piña Zitrone who is asking us to enter the outdoor dining space without speaking. An old ritual is about to take place and our silence is a show of respect. The guest of honor tonight is Pastry Chef Tomeu Arbona—a guardian of historic Mallorcan recipes and cooking techniques—who is sitting quietly at the end of the room. As his wife begins pouring olive oil on the large farm table, Chef Arbona starts to sing an old harvest song. He takes his wife’s place in order to roll and stretch dough until it nearly spans the width of the wooden surface. Scooping lard from a vessel, his fingers smear the white fat; the dough is rolled and twisted into a rope, then coiled onto a pan. He softly croons a children’s bedtime song as he ceremoniously lays a white cloth on top of the raw ensaimada, putting it rest. The entire ritual is captivating. To bear witness to an act of such deep cultural significance is humbling. It’s as if Chef Arbona has bared his soul to the entire room. 

The mood has shifted to a more jovial tone as we gather in the foyer for the traditional farewell dinner. Chef Arbona has prepared a traditional sweet and savory stew made with turkey, quince, dried figs, sweet potatoes and onions, and covered the entire dish with mini ensaimadas to be cooked in the outdoor oven. I observe the chatty conversations between locals, transplants and travelers. Though we’ve experienced this culinary retreat together, everyone will have their own version of Mallorca to take home.

“I want guests to leave Mallorca with inspiring ideas, ones that ignite passion and creativity—those things are key as a traveler,” says Ruiz de Huidobro. “I want them to discover Spain in a real way and for us to share our passion for hosting.”

Originally published on Life & Thyme (February 16, 2018).

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