Mindful Journalism on Menorca
This October I was invited to Menorca, by the Centre of Gastronomic Studies of Menorca to speak at their 1st Congress of Gastronomic Journalism. Menorca is a glorious isle with a microclimate bringing moisture and warmth for olive groves, vineyards, vegetables and pastures. It is often called the ‘green’ Balearic isle due to its environmental credentials with fertile soils, unspoilt beaches and a more peaceful pace of life than its party neighbours. Menorca, named a biosphere reserve by UNESCO in 1993, is one of the world’s most sustainable destinations, awarded the 'European Region of Gastronomy' in 2022 by IGCAT
Having been occupied and invaded on numerous occasions over the centuries, it is steeped in fascinating history with culinary influences from many quarters – and famously the home of “mayonnaise.” Yes, mayonnaise has its origins in Mahón, the island’s capital, and from there was brought to France around 1756.
Our host, Pep Pelfort, took great pleasure in sharing the intricacies of Mahónnaise with us all on the Sunday morning as we gathered at the Pati de Sa Lluna Cloister & Centre for Culture Gastronomy at Alaoir for a tour of their magnificently restored buildings, complete with development kitchen and a vibrant exhibition of local dishes tucked away in the cloisters. Out in the sun-drenched courtyard we sampled local olive oils, cheeses and charcuterie as Pep masterfully created the original delicacy with only the assistance of a fork – no gadgets here. The result was certainly sublime Mahónnaise with rich golden yolks, a smooth silkiness from the local oil and the faintest hint of sharpness from the nip of fresh lemon.
On arrival I was greeted at the airport by Pep’s wife and daughter who drove me to the luxury Artiem Hotel in Es Castell ,home for the next few days. I was first to arrive and sipped a cappuccino, drinking in the Mediterranean views. By nightfall, food writers and journalists had checked in from across mainland Spain, Saudi Arabia, France, Greece… and me representing Scotland. First stop was the Museum of Menorca where there was an exquisite exhibition entitled “The Flavour of Menorca.” Beautifully designed to educate and inspire, the ancient cooking utensils were artfully displayed and the incredible animated light show of cows being milked through to the famous Mahón cheese being produced was quite bewitching. This famous delicacy, a delicious and fragrant hard cheese, was evident at most meals – Menorcan pride in their famous formatge, made locally from cows’ milk.
Several hours later, the night was sufficiently young to embark on a Menorcan banquet of seismic proportions, yet so remarkably balanced and nuanced one could enjoy every mouthful and sensation without feeling any trace of guilt from over-eating! We dined on dainty portions of fish soup velouté, horse tartare, pigs’ cheeks with romesco, tongue in garlic sauce, slow-cooked cows’ liver, preserved rabbit in oil, followed by tomato and apple jams with goat cheese and a finale of dark chocolate served with local olive oil and sea salt – a specialty. Remember this is all part of the “Mediterranean diet.”
Remarkably relaxed and well-rested, we were up bright and early for day one of the Congress in Es Mercadal. So often one sees little of a country when at a conference. On Menorca they went to great lengths to share their hospitality around the isle: the four points of the compass, coast and countryside. I also heartily approved of the catering arrangements: instead of ubiquitous conference fare, the congress programme included a list of local restaurants and cafés offering food over the two-hour lunch break – what a great idea to bring the delegates out into the local streets and support family businesses.
The speakers’ lunch was at the splendid Villa le Blanc Gran Meliá, bathed in sunshine and fringed by the sparkling Mediterranean, where platters were shaped like fishing boats and small irresistible dishes kept appearing from the kitchen. I’ve never experienced a lunch break quite like it!
Our presentations ranged from Digital Gastronomy and Sustainability to From Babylon to Trip Advisor and The Underwater Iceberg. With round table discussions and animated debates, we talked well into the evening. My own presentation was entitled “The Proof is in the Pudding,” presenting my views on the pearls and pitfalls in gastronomic tourism. It is available here (in English) at 6hrs 43mins 30 secs https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=26-D0YtLUmI The full day is available online however we were blessed with simultaneous translators on the day so how’s your French, Catalonian and Spanish?
We also took part in setting down “the Menorca Ethical Declaration 2022 promoted by the Association of Gastronomic Journalists and Writers of the Balearic Islands, born as a result of the celebration of the Congress of Menorca Gastronomic Journalists and Writers” and setting the standards for the future. It was an honour to play a small part in this historic moment.
Our final plenary lunch was at Far d’Artrutx Lighthouse, a striking landmark on Menorca’s southwestern extremity. With the automation of the lighthouse the buildings were converted into a restaurant but it is still a historic site of significance on the isle. As you can see from this collage of dishes, the meal certainly lived up to the spectacular view and together they made for a memorable experience.
Due to flight times, I tarried until the following day, enjoying a slow breakfast with a bespoke omelette and regional pastries. These sweet recipes are passed down through generations influenced by Muslim, Catalan, British and French cuisines and reflecting seasons and festivals as the year progresses. This particular one pictured is crespell filled with quince. I strolled along the streets of Es Castell and bought some Mahón formatge, taking one last fond gaze at the skyline across the wide estuary leading to the port at Mahón. Contemplating the vista, it was easy to imagine the trade, invasions and even pirates from olden days, and it is still a very active waterway for business and pleasure, indeed the second biggest natural port in the world.
Throughout my stay the warmth and hospitality I received was second to none; the Congress was fascinating and the food sublime. It was indeed a pleasure to meet so many passionate and accomplished people and to be welcomed to this magical isle.
This year Menorca received the icing on the cake as we say, when local chef Pau Sintes Juanico won European Young Chef for 2022 with his vegetarian dish based on aubergine combined with local herbs, the Mahón formatge and honey: using traditional products and innovating a classic recipe, Barquetes d’alberginia (Aubergine little boats) that recall the maritime heritage of Menorca [excerpt from IGCAT press release, Nov 2022]. Among the team of prestigious judges present in Trondheim Trøndelag (fellow European Region of Gastronomy where the competition was held) was Scotland’s own Paul Newman from Errichel.
The recipes and history, the people and places all need far more chapters to do them justice and will certainly be revisited. The folk of Menorca have not only created feasts of produce, recipes, information, food tourism opportunities and exhibitions for their year of Gastronomy, they have also created a lasting legacy with developmental kitchens for their chefs, stunning Museum installations, books for reference, links with schools and education and a civic pride some places can only dream of. Even the driver to the airport was anxious that I had tasted their produce and told me, “On Menorca we say grapes with cheese taste like a kiss.”