A pretty row of small boats bobs gently up and down in the water, families wander by and the ancient walls of Ciutadella look down on our harbourside table as I sit in the dappled sunshine awaiting my first taste of Menorcan cuisine. What edible and drinkable delights are in store for us I ponder; a plethora of fresh seafood, I have no doubt, but what else?
Over the centuries many different peoples have occupied Menorca from the Romans and Arabs to the French and British and it is no wonder that this has impacted on the traditional cuisine. The Arabs in particular introduced many new ingredients including rice, almonds, oranges and lemons, not to mention spices such as saffron. In addition Menorca, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, has some of the best agricultural produce of the Balearic Islands and these factors combine to make its gastronomy wonderfully varied and utterly unique.
Here is my guide to finding the best food and drink in Menorca. Each location mentioned can be found on the map at the end of this article.
People have been making cheese in Menorca for thousands of years. By far the most famous is the cow’s milk cheese of Mahón. Sold at various ages it gets darker, saltier and harder as it matures. The distinctive taste is in part due to the salty sea breezes that blow on to the meadows where the cows graze. The young cheese is mild and creamy while the older cheese is hard, with a robust salty flavour.
Tip: Only buy Mahón cheese that has the creases left by the cloth that it is wrapped in before aging. If it doesn’t have these creases it will be industrially produced cheese rather than the high quality artisan cheese you should be looking for.
Menorcan wines are unique with subtle hints of the island’s herbs, minerals and salty sea breezes. You’ll find 8 wineries on Menorca the largest of which is Binifadet in Sant Lluis, a great place to visit for a tour and wine tasting. They also have an on site restaurant serving excellent cuisine. Be sure to book in advance as it is very popular.
Tours are held every day and cost 8 Euros for 3 wines with some local cheeses. They produce 11 different wines in total of which we tried 8 with various cheeses, jams, roasted vegetables and a plethora of other dishes. Most memorable was the sobrasada, a spreadable pork sausage, smothered on crusty bread, drizzled generously with a delicious Chardonnay jam and a rather good goat’s cheese marinated in wine. My favourite of their wines was the aged Merlot from 90% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. Having aged for 10 months in oak barrels and then 6 years in the bottle, it has a intense red colour and tastes of berries with a hint of oak.
Another great winery to visit is Hort Sant Patrici where, as well as a tour and wine tasting, you can learn about traditional cheese production, the perfect accompaniment to their wines. Their aged unpasteurized cheese is superb. Tours are free and tastings start from 5 Euros.
Meat and charcuterie
There are plenty of meat options on the menus but most noteable are the pork charcuterie offerings and the local sobrasada,a raw, cured sausage from the Balearic Islands made with ground pork, paprika and salt and other spices. I first came across this spreadable sausage in Mallorca where it tends to be a little spicier and a touch more fatty.
Visit the shop Autèntic in Mahón on Plaça Esplanada for a chance to taste and buy the best of the island’s speciality produce including Mahón cheese, pork charcuterie and the local goat’s cheese marinated in red wine from the Binifadet winery.
Being an island it is no surprise that fish restaurants abound and two I particularly love are right by picturesque harbours, lined with fishing boats, one in Ciutadella on the west coast and the other in Fornells in the north.
One of Menorca’s most famous fish restaurants is S’Amarador by the bridge overlooking the pretty harbour.
Opening in 2012 S’Amarador quickly established itself as one of the best fish and shellfish restaurants on the island. Specialties include seafood stews, lobster, grilled and baked fish and a wide variety of tapas: shrimps, prawns, clams, mussels, anchovies and squid. They also have an excellent wine selection. We dined on one of the pavement tables. The interior is light and tastefully decorated with an understated charm. Here you’ll also find an inner courtyard with a large fig tree, as well as a spectacular first floor terrace.
Es Port restaurant, Fornells
Just a few steps from the harbour of Fornells this lively restaurant, Es Port, was busy for Sunday lunch when we visited, packed full of locals enjoying a variety of fish and seafood dishes including Caldera de Langosta, a succulent lobster stew made from Mediterranean Spiny Lobsters,a popular dish served for the traditional family Sunday lunch. The fish available each day, however, depends very much on what the restaurant’s own fishing boat has caught that morning.
We had a wonderful variety of dishes, some of which are pictured below, all washed down with a delicious local wine.
Clockwise from the top left:
Albondigas de cabracho y gamba – scorpion fish and prawn croquettes
Rape a la Menorquina – monkfish Menorcan style; baked with potatoes; tomatoes and bread crumbs
Mejillones de roca – local mussels from Mahon port
Zarzuela – fish and seafood soup
Sepia a la plancha – grilled cuttlefish with garlic
Paella de marisco – seafood paella
A must for any seafood lover is a visit to one of the island’s fish market in Mahón or Ciutadella. Look out for the red prawns which are reputedly among the best in the world. The markets are open from 8am to 1.30pm except on Sunday and Monday or in bad weather when the fishing boats have not been able to go out.
In the Mahón market, as well as the stalls selling a huge variety of scaled and shelled edible delights, part of it has been has been transformed into a series of small eateries selling tapas and speciality beers. The atmosphere is vibrant and a little hectic,a fabulous place to rub shoulders with the locals and get a real feel for island life.
While the French my claim this wonderful, rich sauce as their own, Menorcans beg to differ, for it was in Mahón, also known as Maó, that it was invented in the mid 18th century, admittedly by a French chef. And no where can a better mayonnaise be found than the ones made here, by hand, using local eggs and olive oil. It’s the perfect accompaniment to many dishes.
There were more than one or two surprises during my recent visit to Menorca but the greatest of all was the gin.
I hate gin or so I thought but trying the gin in Menorca was a revelation. I loved it. Admittedly it must be over twenty years since I last tried it (when it simply tasted to me how a bottle of perfume must taste). I have also found in recent years that some food that I didn’t use to like, such as avocados and nuts, I now enjoy. With this in mind I can’t be certain whether it is my taste buds that have changed or whether Menorcan gin is simply different. What is certain though is that I love Menorcan Gin, in particular when mixed with two-thirds lemonade, a popular, refreshing drink known a Pomada. I have been warned though that it is deceptively strong and should be drunk with caution.
Gin, made from juniper berries, was first produced in Menorca during the 18th century, when hundreds of British soldiers were stationed here, all demanding the drink that was so fashionable back home. It was soon well established as the drink always served at any special event on the island and still is today, with Pomada being popular at summer fiestas.
When in Mahón a visit to the gin distillery, Xoriguer, is a must. Here you can see it being made and taste a wonderful variety of gin based products free of charge. A bottle (or two) of your favourite makes an excellent souvenir or gift (assuming it survives being transported as hold luggage of course).
below: Gin producer, Sebastian Rodger, pours out a variety of gins for us to try.
Cova d’en Xoroi
And THE place to drink a cool, refreshing glass of Pomada while enjoying the sunset has to be the island’s one and only nightclub, which is also open as a bar during the day, CovaDenXoroi. The club is built in a cave that opens out onto the cliff face overlooking the sea. A stunning setting best visited out of season if you are after a tranquil, romantic view.
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