The island’s famous sopes mallorquines. | Andrew Valente

Mallorcans used to claim in the 1960s that the island doesn’t have a winter. The legendary Riki Lash, in his Bulletin column and radio show, was fond of saying ‘Mallorca, the place where the sun spends the winter.

Both statements were only partly correct even in the literal sense: Mallorca has always had wintry weeks and at some time between December and February we always see snow on the mountain tops.
And although the island gets more winter sun than London, Manchester or Glasgow, a pale version of the sun spends only a part of the coldest season here.

There are plenty of weeks when well-lined jackets, gloves and scarves are not fashion accessories but necessities. This is also when we love to see a steaming bowl of soup on the table. When prehistoric humans invented the crudest kind of pottery, among the first dishes they made were hot-pots and what we now calls soups. Once it was discovered that boiling water could make raw meat and veggies more chewable and incredibly tasty, a relatively easy step forward was the tossing of chunks of meat and a variety of vegetables into a rudimentary pot and then marvelling at what had been invented.

A Mallorca beans dish.

Today’s foreign residents and visitors to Spain are still filled with wonder when they discover the incredible range of soups, potajes, veggie stews, paellas and other rice dishes Spanish cooks have managed to produce. How do they do it?

It is achieved by a very simple process that has been refined over the millennia. It is called a ‘sofrito’ and it’s a culinary method used in Mediterranean countries such as Italy and France. But only in Spain has it been raised to a fine art that produces some of the world’s greatest soups and stews. The sofrito originally consisted of the sautéing of finely chopped onions, leeks, spring onions and garlic and then stirring in the other major soup ingredients.

Although tomatoes were first brought to Spain from the New World at the end of the 15th century, they were used only as a decorative plant because they are one of the nightshade family and were thought to be poisonous.

Even paella tastes better with ‘sofrito’.

Cooks in Italy were the first to try tomatoes as a culinary fruit and began to use them in the 18th century. They got off to a flying start and that’s why tomato sauce came to have such an essential role in Italian cooking.

Cooks throughout the Mediterranean were soon adding chopped tomatoes to the sofrito and using it as a base for stews of all kinds plus soups and dishes based on pulses, especially lentils, chickpeas and the huge family of white beans.The chopped onions (or leeks or spring onions, depending on the dish) were merely stirred around for 10 minutes or so before adding garlic and the other ingredients.

Spanish cooks went the other way, however, and turned the sofrito into a thick jam-like paste that was achieved in anything from 45 minutes to an hour of ultra slow cooking. That’s what adds such superb tastes to Spanish soups, stews, all the bean dishes, rices and others that are traditionally eaten with a spoon.

These dishes are so important to Spanish culinary culture that they have a generic name: ‘platos de cuchara’, which translates literally as ‘dishes with a spoon’, meaning those eaten with a spoon. We eat all kinds of elegant soups and consommés with spoons but they are not ‘platos de cuchara’ — only robust rural dishes are given that name.

Meatballs are great when made with ‘sofrito’.

So if you want to do a ‘plato de cuchara’ that comes anywhere near to emulating a Spanish one, you must first learn the rules for making an authentic ‘sofrito’. The most important rule of all is that a ‘sofrito’ must be cooked on a very low heat. If you don’t have the patience for such methods, you’d be better not trying: your ‘sofrito’ will never be a success.

Start by chopping two large onions as finely as possible and sautéing them in 150 mls of virgen extra olive oil in a suitable frying pan over that very low heat I’ve mentioned. Stir from time to time and after 10 minutes add six plump garlic cloves, also finely chopped, and gently cook for another 10 minutes. Peel eight medium sized Mallorcan ramellet tomatoes, chop finely and stir them into the mixture over a higher heat, adding a little water or stock.

When the mixture comes to a simmer, lower the heat and cook for another 25 to 40 minutes, always very gently and stirring frequently. By that time the mixture will be of a thick jam-like consistency and your ‘sofrito’ will be ready to use as the base in the kind of dishes I’ve already mentioned. If you don’t have access to ramellet tomatoes, ripe plum tomatoes are the next best variety and you will also get passable results with canned tomatoes.

This is a basic ‘sofrito’. Depending on the recipe, it may also contain chopped leeks or spring onions and it may require a small amount of fish stock, sherry or white wine. Most Mallorcan cooks towards the end would add some finely chopped parsley or any other herb they like. There’s another important point you must always bear in mind: don’t be tempted to add more tomatoes to the above amount of onions: a ‘sofrito’ is never a tomato sauce.

Mallorca’s classic lomo con col.

Many newcomers to Mallorcan cooking are under the impression that as tomatoes are so tasty, an extra few will make the ‘sofrito’ much better. But the fact is that a ‘sofrito’ containing too little chopped tomato will always be a more authentic one. Mallorcans never get the proportion wrong and we should aim to do likewise.

If you follow all of the above rules you, too, will make Mallorcan-style ‘sofritos’ and you’ll be well on your way to doing those soups and potajes like those served on menús del día and which you admire so much. And just in time for cold weather days.