How Majorcan cellers and taverns came to be
There is much more to Majorca than its beautiful beaches and the weather. There are some fantastic places to eat serving typical dishes which can be enjoyed throughout the year. Many of these places offer traditional recipes using the best local ingredients. There is so much more to enjoy on Majorca with its traditions and its gastronomy.
Traditionally a 'celler' had been a place where the wine was made and aged. These places were later transformed into restaurants specialising in Majorcan dishes, first aimed at the local residents, and later to tourists. Here we take you a a brief journey of how cellers came about.
In the early 1960s a brief news item in sister paper Ultima Hora told of a woman in her 90s who was taken to the Hospital General in an ambulance. It was the first time she had been in a motorised vehicle and the first time she had left her little community of Amanecer, an area with a clutch houses just a little north of the end of Calle 31 de Diciembre, and outside of the old city walls.
This was well before the time when El Terreno, within walking distance of the centre of Palma, was an area somewhat above sea level (and that little bit cooler during hot weather) where the well-off had homes to where they could escape from the searing summer heat of the city.
A cross-island journey was always a slow affair. Men who were transporting goods were never in a hurry to get from A to B – and getting to Z was done little by little and if it didn’t happen today it would happen tomorrow.…perhaps.
People on the move with their own mule-drawn carriage never expected to do it at a fast pace. Imagine getting from Palma to Inca in a cart pulled by a donkey walking at a donkey’s speed. It didn’t take an eternity, but it certainly seemed like one.
However, there were plenty of places along that island-splitting artery catering for the travel-weary. There were stopping points in places such as Algaida where the mules could be rested and the travellers could have a quick wash with cool water from a well and also something to eat and drink.
As a journey from one side of the island to the other could easily take a couple of days, many people wanted to sleep overnight. Along the old main road from Puerto Andratx to Puerto Alcudia there were roadside taverns called ‘hostals’ that put up people and mules for the night.
There used to be a place called Hostal Algaida and there was another, also on the old main road, at Buger.
The beauty of these places for those early travellers was that they ere right on the main road. No detours were necessary to get there. Travellers just guided their mules through a gate and into a haven where they could rest, eat and drink something. And sleep if necessary.
With the advent of the motor-car and buses these ‘hostals’ were no longer needed. But they didn’t go out of business. The owners turned them into the big roadside restaurants we know today.
In some of these restaurants the main large dining room was the stable where the mules were kept and fed. Although these spaces have been modernised, mementos of the old days have been kept in place such as wooden troughs where the animals were fed. They are now used as plant-holders.
Although there were ‘hostals’ at strategic points from Puerto Andratx to Puerto Alcudia, the main stop-off point, the favourite resting place for most people, was Inca.
As the geographical centre of the island it was the ideal stop on such a long journey. And Inca was well prepared to handle travellers. As it is also in the heart of one of the island’s main wine-producing areas, Inca was a major supplier of wines from the barrel.
The sales of wines to that rather large area, which was also visited by people from all over the island, was a major business and the wines were dispensed from places called ‘cellers’.
They got that name because the original ones were below ground level — in other words, authentic cellars that were cooler than premises at ground level. The better ones had several wines in barrels and people who lived nearby, as well as those who came from far away, took along wicker-covered flagons that were filled direct from the barrels.
Even in the 1960s there were wine shops in Palma called bodegas where reds and whites were sold from the barrel. When I lived in the Calatrava area many years ago I bought my red wine in a two-litre flagon from a tiny bodega in front of the Montesión church. It cost one peseta and was most drinkable.
However, travellers going either east or west across the island, often wanted something to eat. That was easy enough because the ‘celler’ owner’s wife always had country bread at hand and it was easy to serve a few slices with sobrasada or butifarrones (black puddings) and other kinds of local charcuterie.
Another option, of course, was a pamboli, rubbed with a soft tomato, drizzled with olive oil and topped with cheese or cured ham plus olives and capers.
One of the nice thing about Majorcan country bread is that it keeps well for several days without becoming rock hard and without growing any kind of mould.
That is one of the advantages of pamboli: the somewhat stale slice of bread takes on a new life when rubbed with soft tomato, drizzled with a flavourful olive oil and then topped with something salty such as cheese or cure ham.
But in days of old, even much more so than today, people had to make a living from what they could do and from the circumstance they came up against in everyday life.
The wife of the ‘celler’ owner soon saw that travellers were interested in eating something more substantial than pamboli. So she began to make larger amounts of what the family were eating for lunch or dinner and she served that as the dish of the day — although that term, much nowadays for a lunchtime meal, hadn’t been coined at that time.
All housewives were good cooks in those days — although some were better than others — and some of the ‘cellers’ started to serve two dishes instead of just one.
Then a ‘celler’ a few streets away had three dishes to choose from and their nearest rival started to offer four dishes. Then another included a dessert instead of just fruit that was in season.
It didn’t take all that long for Inca’s ‘cellers’ to become what they are today: restaurants where one went especially to enjoy Majorcan cooking and not just for an energy refill on a tiring trip on a mule driven carriage coming from Puerto Andratx, Palma or Puerto Alcudia.
Now these 'cellers' have been popular eateries for locals for many years. There extensive menus of local food, many of which involve recipes which have been passed down through families, make them a must when you are on a holiday in Majorca at any time of the year.
These 'cellers' have the ingredients to make your stay on the island extra special and give you a tast of something which you will want to repeat. One of the outstanding features of these "cellers" is their traditional deco and feeling. With the food and ambience you will get a real flavour of Majorca at its best.
Cellers are a haven for the best of island food
Long before visitors from every corner of the island were pulled towards Inca, Sineu, Petra, Palma or Algaida like a magnet attracting iron filings, Inca was already famous with the locals as a haven for good Majorcan cooking.
When the ‘cellers’ were just large and convenient places where people bought and drank wine, anyone visiting Inca or just passing through, always stopped to fill up a few flagons with their favourite red wine.
But motor cars and buses gave islanders the kind of mobility they had never known before. The first car registered in Spain was done in Palma and had PM plates. So the island was right in the front line when motors were introduced.
Soon after that, the wine-dispensing ‘cellers’ became the restaurants they are today. The ‘celler’ cooks did only Majorcan cooking, of course, because that was what they knew. They were usually working from family recipes and although the dishes were the familiar local kind, each family had variations that made their versions different — and better, according to them.
Some of the ‘cellers’ became renowned for their frit, others for their sometimes spicy hot callos (tripe) and others were dab hands at roasting meats in wood-fired ovens and producing succulent suckling pigs with crunchy skin.
Most regular visitors to Inca, and people nowadays go from all over the island for the big market day on Thursdays, have their favourite ‘cellers’, places that are chosen because of their most popular dish.
There weren’t any trendy cooks in the old days — a cook was successful and built up a regular clientele simply because he was able to give the most authentic versions of Majorca flagship dishes.
Island businesses of all kinds were mainly run by a family in the old days. Some of the ‘cellers’ have been in the hands of the same family group for decades, and that always produces a strong connection with past. That’s why you will find an unbroken line of tradition in the ‘cellers’ and other village restaurants that have been in the same family for generations.
And it is this dedication to cooking as it was done more than 100 years ago that keeps people going back to the ‘cellers’. No Majorcan, and no one with a genuine love of Majorcan products, is interested in unorthodox versions of the island’s traditional dishes.
The success of the 'cellers' can be judged by the fact that many withstood the test of time and are still continuing to serve great food in the traditional surroundings many years after they first opened.
That doesn’t mean that absolutely everything on today’s ‘celler’ menu is absolutely Majorcan. You can order a grilled entrecôte steak and it will be done to your liking. And if it’s a paella you want, they have all the ingredients and will do you a good one.
The ‘celler’ owners, like restaurateurs all over the island, are first and foremost good hosts and they want to serve you a meal you will enjoy. But don’t ask them to do a tumbet without aubergines just because they don’t agree with you.
When it comes to purist Majorcan cooking, tradition is above everything else.
So why don't you combine a visit to a local restaurant or celler on a market day to try some of these local dishes in one of the many villages around the island. On Wednesday you can visit Sineu, which hold's a very popular and old market. Also Petra has its weekly market on the same day. On Friday's you can visit Algaida with its weekly market and many cellers to choose from. Palma can be visited everyday as its markets open daily unless you want ecological products, they are open on Tuesdays and Saturdays and a flea market on Saturdays.
‘Mestre’ Tomeu: the man who taught the island’s best cooks
Everyone called him ‘Mestre’ Tomeu and although he had a surname (Esteva) no one ever used it. That Catalán word ‘Mestre’ word means maestro in Spanish and teacher in English. And that’s what ‘Mestre’ Tomeu did — he taught teenagers how to cook and many of them went on to become Majorca’s best cooks.
In the 1960s and 70s, ‘Mestre’ Tomeu had a unique place in Majorca’s gastronomic scene built up during a lifetime dedicated to cooking — and teaching how to cook.
The most important part of his working life was the time he spent in the 1960s in hotel kitchens and at the island’s main hostelry teaching youngsters the ins and outs of the cooking business.
Majorca today is particularly rich in first rate cooks and that is partly because ‘Mestre’ Tomeu was a good and generous teacher who gave legions of young boys a sound training in the culinary arts.
He was teacher who created a school: many of his students went on to teach other students at the island’s various cooking schools including the main one of the Universidad Illes Balears.
It was very much thanks to ‘Mestre’ Tomeu that hotels and restaurants all over the island have such high standards in the cooking of Majorcan dishes.
So even although ‘Mestre’ Tomeu retired in 1975, his ideas, his techniques, the meticulous care with which he trained young cooks in the basics, are still being taught at the island’s main hostelry schools.
‘Mestre’ Tomeu in 1955 was named chef at the renowned and luxurious Hotel Bahía Palace at the start of the Paseo Marítimo where he stayed for the next 12 years.
After that came the most important part of his career: he went to the Escuela Sindical de Hostelería de Baleares in the centre of Palma, a hostelry school where he gave formal training to students, many of whom became the island’s top cooks.
For the next eight years (until he retired in 1975) he was directly responsible for ensuring that standards of cooking in the Balearics hotels and restaurants were among the best in Spain.
But ‘Mestre’ Tomeu wasn’t dedicated solely to cooking and teaching. He also found time to build up a huge library of cookbooks, many of which are collectors’ items. These were donated to the Escuela de Hostelería Illes Baleares at the University after his death.
It always surprises those who didn’t know ‘Mestre’ Tomeu that he didn’t open his own restaurant. He used to say he had offers galore to start his own place but he never even considered them.
Although he had trained hundreds of young men so they could get good jobs in restaurants, he was never interested in that side of cooking. He reckoned the life of a restaurant cook was a bit too slave-like with having to be on duty at all times. There was another reason for shunning the restaurant trade: his wife was from a family of restaurant owners and was well aware of the unsociable working hours. She didn’t want her husband to be part of them.
But it was a blessing ‘Mestre’ Tomeu didn’t get involved in restaurants because had he done so he wouldn’t have been able to form all those marvellous cooks we now have in Majorca and elsewhere.
For them he was more than just a teacher. ‘Mestre’ Tomeu was a veritable guru who inspired them to go out and do greater things than they even thought they were capable of doing.
A superb collection of Majorcan recipes Xesc knocked on doors from Alaró up to Valldemosa
Xesc Bonnin is a retired cook with a mission. It’s not an impossible one but it calls for dedication and a huge amount of hard work. Xesc laments that not enough is being done to protect and promote Majorcan cooking. And that’s what his mission hopes to correct.
When I first met him 10 years go he had just published a book called S’Assassí d’es Tumbet. The title in Mallorquín translates as The Killer of the Tumbet and the cover makes it look like some kind of a thriller.
It shows a Majorcan earthenware casserole — a greixonera — holding a tumbet, Majorca’s famous dish of tomatoes, aubergines, red peppers and potatoes. A big kitchen knife has been plunged into the centre of the tumbet.
Someone has stabbed Majorcan cooking in the back, says Xesc’s book cover, and that someone is restaurant cooks and the general public. All of us have to show more respect for Majorcan cooking — now and in the future.
Xesc complains, as others have done before him, that many of the island’s recipes are being forgotten by all and sundry. In some cases insensitive restaurant cooks are the worst culprits.
As far as I know, no one has done as much as Xesc to put Majorcan cuisine on the gastronomic map. His major contribution to the cause was an amazing cookbook he put together after going round every town and village on the island, literally knocking on doors and asking for family recipes. He uncovered some amazing recipes.
He visited every village and town from Alaró to Valledemosa and also those along various parts of the coastline. His collection of unique Majorcan recipes has the appropriate title of La Cocina Mallorquina. Pueblo a Pueblo, Puerta a Puerta. (Majorcan Cooking. Town to Town, Door to Door).
Over several years, Xesc visited 54 towns and villages and ended up with 262 recipes, some of which go back five or six generations. They’re the cherished dishes of Majorcan families that have been handed down from mothers to daughters and sometimes even from fathers to sons.
In the old days, the really old days, there were no cookbooks on how to do certain dishes. Most families, even those only remotely interested in eating well, kept a recipe book in which the most sacred dishes were noted. But more often than not, the recipe was simply a list of ingredients.
The all-important method, how the dish was put together, and the little culinary tricks that helped to make it a success, were left out. Only the active cooks in the family knew about them and they were passed orally from generation to generation.
Xesc usually knew of someone in each town and village who was already well aware of the area’s culinary traditions and who also knew who had a reputation for making the best frit, tumbet, arròs brut and who could get the most golden and crunchiest skin on the roast suckling pig.
He came across 10 recipes in Costitx and Puerto Andratx alone. Most of us would have been knackered after those outings and we may well have given up all idea of going to the other 52 towns and villages. But Xesc soldiered on and collected a superb set of 262 recipes.
Majorca has some great chefs in all fields but the two mentioned above made local cuisine the dish of the day and their hard work is enjoyed by all today. Why not stop and try some of these dishes at these 'cellers' when you are here on holiday as they are open all year round.
For more information visit www.infomallorca.net