The fresh produce on Majorca is second to none, and there are all sorts of little gastro gems just waiting to be discovered. Check out my chef's guide to eating off the beaten track
Majorca has had a huge influence on my passion for Spanish food. My mother lived there when she was young, and my brother and I have visited just about every year since we were kids, joining aunts, uncles and cousins in Estellencs on the northwest coast.
The island’s summer produce is second to none – the very best tomatoes I’ve ever tasted, fabulous aubergines and wonderful fresh fish. I’ve so many memories of the local food: picking tomatoes with Antonio, who looked after my grandfather in the village; boat trips to deserted coves for fantastic Mallorquin picnics; and dishes like coca, a crispy dough base topped with spinach, pine nuts and raisins, claimed to pre-date pizza, and tumbet, a savoury cake layered with aubergine, peppers and potato, drizzled with tomato coulis and thyme. Our Sunday treat was ensaimada, a fluffy spiral pastry stuffed with icing sugar, originally introduced by the Moors.
Nowadays, for an authentic taste of the food and lifestyle, you have to take the mazy, challenging road less travelled. Head west out of Palma on the Ma-1, then follow a rough, winding route from Andratx to the coast. Estellencs, a medieval village little changed over the centuries, sits in an amphitheatre of mountains (the start of the Serra de Tramuntana that forms the heart of the north’s national park), looking down a dramatic coast of cliffs and turquoise water.
It’s peaceful, rustic and rather charming, riddled with Mallorquin houses with stone walls and shutters. It’s not the place for my spoilt friends used to St Tropez. The area isn’t about glamorous yachts; it’s about the tinkling of goats’ bells and the sound of crickets, the smell of pine and summer fig trees, and shabby beach bars with rickety wooden rails leading over rocks into the sea.
My favourite Estellencs restaurant is Montimar (00 34 971618 576). For as long as I’ve been visiting it has been run by a good friend, Guillem, who doesn’t try to be elaborate, concentrating on ingredients he can source locally, including fruit and vegetables from his father-in-law’s finca. Try the suckling pig or frit mallorquin, where flash-fried offal from milk-fed lamb is served with caramelised potato, aubergine, pepper, fennel root and chilli. He also grills an excellent dorada (bream) with lemon and thyme and gambas de Sóller – I don’t like commercially farmed prawns but these are wild Majorcans, with an amazing sweet flavour.
At about £45 a head for a really good dinner with a decent Rioja Reserva, Montimar is phenomenal value. It comes with epic mountain views and, if you’re there in late August, a prime seat to watch the fiestas in the village square. It’s not Estellencs' only restaurant. Son Llarg (00 34 97161 8564), with a similar take on fresh local produce, is also worth a visit, but we tend to take a small boat 30 minutes up the coast – it’s also driveable, and you’ll want a hire car in these parts – to Ca’n Toni Romero in the tiny village of Port d’es Canonge. It might not have the views but there is a lovely courtyard for al fresco dining.
It focuses on traditional, excellent Mallorquin cooking. Nothing fussy. Nothing poncey. The spiny lobster stew, with a simple yet fabulous stock with herbs, oil and massive amounts of garlic, mopped up with crusty bread, has real flavour. I even go for it in August, when the temperature's 36°C and you can’t imagine eating stew - it’s still wonderful.
You should also try the caproig, a fleshy white fish served with caramelised onions, or the raor, with its marvellously delicate taste. It’s only found in local waters and in Japan, and can only be caught one month a year, when you thread live, wriggling shrimps over the hook. Naturally, it’s like gold dust - but worth every penny.
Although we stay in the house that once belonged to my grandfather, Estellencs has the small but perfectly formed Hotel Nord. Sympathetically restored from a centuries-old house, it fuses mellow wood beams, cream décor and terracotta floor. Original features have been delightfully incorporated into the mix, with an old olive press now called into action as a table decoration. You often find lovely serene hotels are outside villages and you miss out on local life during your stay. Not here: it’s right in the heart of the community and you’re very much part of things.
It's a great base for exploring the area. You could head up the coast to hire a boat at a larger harbour like Sóller – a fabulous way to discover deserted coves and shingle beaches where you may not see another soul all day. But I’d recommend some of the great walking, with Puig de Galatz rising 1,023m directly behind the village. I’ve been known to set off at 5am with a rucksack packed with cheese, apples and water, reaching the top with its extraordinary views of Palma at 8.30am, and clambering back down before it gets too hot.
Alternatively, you can take a shorter hike to the saddle of the hill, passing olive groves where some of the gnarled, twisted trunks are a thousand years old. The route takes you to the landlocked Puigpunyent, where an exquisite 17th-century finca has been transformed into the Gran Hotel Son Net. It makes a great lunch or one-night stop, but you could also contact them before setting off to let them know you’re arriving on foot from Estellencs. Hopefully they’ll let you cool off in the spectacular swimming pool.
If you really like your food, there’s one trip that's definitely worth making: El Mercat de l’Olivar in Palma. My second favourite market in the world after Barcelona’s Boqueria, it’s open from 7am to 2pm, Monday to Saturday, in Plaza Olivar, and I’d go just to marvel at the heaps of fat fish and the amazing colour of the vegetables. It’s pure spectacle.
My final restaurant recommendation would fit in well with that excursion. Ca’n Jordi (00 34 97149 1909) isn’t off the beaten track. In fact, it’s near Palma Airport in Ciudad Jardin. The heaped counter at the front of the restaurant lets you look your fresh squid in the eye before negotiating with the waiter whether you want it deep fried, in its own ink or grilled in lemon and olive oil on the plancha.
For once, the produce isn’t purely local – squid is flown in daily from Galicia – but it still easily justifies the £45 per head price tag for supper. I’ve been known to choose a flight for a certain time of day just so I can eat there as I arrive or am about to depart. It really is that good.
Where to stay
Hotel Nord - lovely restoration of central village house, with simple, elegant décor and charming original features. Doubles from €88.
Gran Hotel Son Net - elegant pink-washed finca with traditional décor including four-posters and beams, and a spectacular pool surrounded by mountains, palms and topiary. Doubles from €200.
Scott's Galilea - wonderful views from suites and cottages scattered down a hillside, with white and blue décor, famously comfortable beds and sun-washed terraces. Double suites from €140.