All Spaniards will tell you their little corner of the country is the best of all — indeed, the most magnificent place in the whole wide world.
Majorcans are especially prone to thinking (and saying) that every piece of fruit and veg grown here is the best you’ll ever come across. Some Majorcan produce is superb and sometimes is the finest I have ever known.
This is especially true of aubergines — Majorca’s are superior to every other aubergine I have tasted, including those from the mainland and from Italy and France.
When food writers of any nationality give an aubergine recipe they always tell you to sprinkle the raw slices with salt in order to get rid of their bitter juices. You can omit that step when cooking with Majorcan aubergines. That’s how good they are.
So it comes as no surprise when you discover that Majorcan housewives and restaurant cooks know how to handle this vegetable. If you’re ever in a Majorcan restaurant and can’t decide what to order, you’ll be making a safe bet if you go for an aubergine dish.
Well, that statement was always true until last week when I ordered berenjenas rellenas at Celler Pagès and was served a version that was cooked to the nth degree, something that should never happen in a restaurant doing authentic Majorcan cooking. Palma had seven restaurants in the Sixties that were superior to all others. I called them the ‘Magnificent Seven’ and Celler Pagès and Can Nofre are the only two still surviving from those days.
Celler Pagès opened in 1956 and soon became a venerated temple of fine Majorcan cooking. It was the kind of place Majorcans went to when they wanted visiting friends to experience the island’s finest dishes.
The kitchen is now in the hands of the original owner’s grandson. If the grandfather were around to see the stuffed half aubergine we were served last week, he would have given his grandson a really huge rocket.
This version simply wasn’t up to the standard that made Celler Pagès one of the ‘Magnificent Seven’. And it wasn’t just that the aubergine was so totally overcooked it would have served as pap for a baby that has just gone on to eating solids.
The stuffing was made with finely minced pork (in the old days it was minced beef) and during the overcooking the pork clumped together and was a solid piece of meat.
The sautéed potatoes, I am delighted to say, were every bit as memorable as those done by the grandfather. They were deliciously soft with a slight skin forming on the surface — the kind of cooking that made Celler Pagès one of the ‘Magnificent Seven’.
It’s always a disappointment when a great restaurant isn’t up to standard — especially when the main fault was something as basic as overcooking a dish to the nth degree. It’s the kind of mistake that should never happen in a restaurant. And when it does, there is an extremely simple solution: that dish is eaten by the staff. However, the sautéed potatoes were as good as they have always been at Celler Pagès. They are beautifully soft (but not overdone) and finished off in the low heat of a frying pan or an oven until a golden skin starts to form on the surface. Truly memorable. But the €13 price is a bit on the high side for half an aubergine. I especially liked the frito because of the same kind of sautéed potatoes (but cut smaller) and also the lovely taste of fresh fennel leaves. That’s the way most of us prefer it.
Celler Pagès, Carrer Felip Bauça 2, Palma. Tel:971-726036. Closed on Sundays. They do a €15 menú del día that is on an exterior blackboard. They open at 1pm, so it is another of those places where you can get an early lunch. The dining room isn’t very big and it can fill up easily, so it’s always best to reserve a table for lunch.
Frito mallorquín, 12 euros
Berenjenas rellenas, 13 euros
3 cañas, 6 euros
Total cost with VAT: 31 euros.
An authentic ‘frit’
T he frito mallorquín is an emblematic Majorcan dish. It’s rustic fare made with the lights of lamb or pig as the main ingredient and there is no definitive recipe.
Like most country dishes, it is done with what’s at hand — and that also means with what’s in season. It sometimes contains artichokes, peas, red peppers or other veggies a cook may have in the pantry.
One of the reviewer’s problems when ordering a ‘frit’ (as Majorcans like to call it) is that it’s often of an overall brown colour and quite non-photogenic. But that didn’t happen — the light-toned potatoes, splashes of red peppers and dots of green from a few peas, gave the ‘frit’ a bright and cheery look.
Another thing going for this ‘frit’ was that the cook flavoured it nicely with feathery leaves of fresh fennel — and that is exactly how most Majorcans prefer it.
An important part of all ‘frits’ is the potato content. The potatoes can be diced, cut like tiny french fries, or like big English-style chips, but they must be done separately before being mixed in to absorb the other flavours in the ‘frit’. That was done and this ‘frit’ was a huge success.
The menú del día is on an exterior blackboard but when you sit down and ask for a menu the waitress officiously points at the QR code. But when told neither of us had smartphones, she just stood there gave a half smile, and shrugged her shoulders.
At the Peruvian Munay, they brought us a computer print-out when we told them we didn’t use smartphones. The truly street-wise places like Casa Gallega have the menu printed on a throw-away paper place mat.
It was a bit blasé and laissez-faire for the waitress to be so unconcerned when she saw two customers couldn’t read the QR code. We had to ask her to remind us of a few dishes on the menu — and we went for stuffed aubergines and ‘frit’, which we considered to be two very safe bets…