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TV Review: Spain … On the Road Again – “Island Hopping”

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This week’s adventure takes place in the Balearic Islands, two of them specifically: Majorca (or Mallorca) and Minorca (or Menorca). There are several other islands which comprise the Balearics, most of them are known more for their wild nightlife and fabulous beaches than for their gastronomic temptations.

Spain’s natives have come out of their shells, so to speak, over the past 40 years or so, beginning about the same time as the country was “discovered” by the rest of Europe. Until incorporated into the European Community, the forerunner of the European Union of today, the Spaniards were much more reserved and proper, Spanish society running seemingly on pomp and formality. Plus with the Franco era, the country became much more isolated. The Balearics were also a well-kept secret. When rich Europeans discovered the Balearics, Majorca and Ibiza first became known for the idle rich playboys who steered their yachts into the islands’ gorgeous harbors. Then came the British, quickly followed by the Germans, both groups now considered the scourge of these islands. The British tourists are known for being “lager louts,” while the Germans are known for staking out prime beach spots well before dawn, marking out their large, respective territories with towels, to be claimed after breakfast and to be rigorously guarded the remainder of the day. With the lager louts came more British who catered to the louts by opening bars and nightclubs which, even with today’s more relaxed Spanish population, cause a continual stir with their ‘drink ‘til you drop’ atmosphere. And, of course, the next wave was property developers. All these louts and Germans needed places to stay, didn’t they? Construction was rampant, officials were regularly bribed to allow otherwise illegal hotels and houses, and it’s only been in the past couple of years that these matters have been addressed by the Spanish authorities. None of this is covered in this series of videos, but I feel it should have been touched on to explain the present-day mood of the Spanish, which is that rampant commercialism and tourism do not always make a good mix. The Balearics will never be what they once were, but at least the authorities now seem better prepared for the future health of the islands.

Which is where we come in on this week’s episode, with one of the distinct improvements that came to the islands with the playboys, louts, and Germans, the menu. Claudia and the Iron Chef waste little time in getting to the food. The pair start their day the way the locals do: at a place called Ca’n Juan de S’Aico, which has been around since 1700. It’s famous for its pastries and ice cream. Not just ordinary pastries and ice creams, but the stuff of legend. Another quick aside here, European pastries are light years ahead of most American made pastries for three reasons. First, most European food preparation shops and restaurants use only fresh ingredients. Everything that can be, is made from scratch. The second reason is that all, or nearly all, European offerings are made on-site. Few American bakeries make their own goods these days, the majority of the things being made in a factory setting hundreds of miles away. If not the finished product, the “makings,” meaning that in some cases, the local bakeries at most bake a preparation that’s already made when it’s delivered, except for the actual baking. And the third reason is that American pastries are loaded with sugar as a substitute for the real taste and natural sweetness which comes from natural, fresh ingredients.

Our hosts get only one pastry, but a veritable lineup of special ice cream dishes, browns, reds and whites, all different flavors. “That’s perfect, that is a texture almost like a ripe peach; the almond does not taste artificial, it’s perfectly creamy, and yet it doesn’t taste like milk,” is the way Mario describes one of them. And the strawberry dish is impossibly red, but you know it’s all natural. The chocolate is real chocolate, not the gummier, sugary, American style milk chocolate.

After breakfast, the tourist part of this week’s adventure begins with a stop at Catedral de Santa María, in Palma, the island of Majorca’s capital city. The cathedral was built in the 13th century by James II, and is a stunning example of French Gothic architecture. It seems almost a cursory stop, and our hosts can’t wait to get to the food. Even the famed Spanish architect Calatrava, who designed Milwaukee’s world-famous museum, and who designed the museum here, barely gets a mention. They also make special mention of a small area in the cathedral that’s recently been added, which is almost playful, but still fits the religious mood imparted by the cathedral.

And now comes lunch at Restauranté Malvasia, where there is no menu. When you’re seated, Chef Joan Olives í Mercadel joins you at your table and asks what you like. He then designs you your own personal menu right then and there. For lunch today, Claudia and Mario have butifarrón con habas, which is a type of sausage, and button mushrooms.

The next dish is arroz con salmonetes, rice and fish. The rice has a reddish color that comes from the ñora peppers in the mix, which makes the presentation of the dish. Mario commented that the place breaks tradition by serving a red mantonero wine with the fish dish, which is generally considered to be taboo. But this particular pairing comes up aces. What follows is another fish dish with grouper, in a sort of pie with a crust. Inside are onions, tomatoes and olives that I could see. Dessert is an almond cake with a meringue topping, served with a glass of muscatel finish. [On a sad note, at the end of this episode is a short obituary for Chef Olives í Mercadel.]

The next stop on Majorca is Ca’n Miquel Ensaimada, a bakery that will soon be celebrating its centenary. The bakery itself has been there since 1565, but the family who runs it now will be celebrating their 100th anniversary in just three years. The ensaimada pastry that he makes as we watch is huge, probably 16 or 18 inches in diameter. We’re able to watch the entire process, from rolling out the dough, the spaghetti squash, honey and lemon filling on a lard or butter base, the spiral within a spiral design, the 12-hour fermentation, and finally to the finished product with about 15 minutes to bake and a powdered sugar dusting. Considered the best on the island.

The final stop for that day is their hotel, where, at breakfast the next morning, Paltrow takes over as Mario’s sidekick. Paltrow is having her usual fruit and coffee with soy milk, which she claims is the best tasting she’s ever had, and they share some of the smaller ensaimadas, very much like the one Mario and Claudia had. Following a short tour of the island, the couple has lunch at a beach barbeque, prepared by the head chef at La Residencia, the hotel where they had stayed. A broad selection of seafood is offered, including scampi, scorpion fish, lobster, and gambas, a variety of shrimp.

For the final stop on this week’s adventure, Mario goes to Menorca and meets up with Claudia again. They team up with a pair of fishermen and share a beach-cooked calderata de langosta, a fisherman’s lobster stew.

Be sure to take a look at the companion book for the series, just published in October. And there’s a DVD set of the series coming in January which captures the entire run of episodes, along with some added attractions.

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About Lou Novacheck