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Award-winning food writer Nicola Miller on Minorca, and how its food mirrors its terrain

During a recent holiday in Minorca, food writer Nicola Miller noticed many of the meals she enjoyed reflected its terrain, notably the sobrasada.

‘I send you this old island countryside so you may see what Minorca used to be,’ wrote Ponç Pons.

I thought of this on my first evening there as I stood facing the rocky headland close to our hotel as the sun began to set. We’d booked ten days at the edge of a resort town, and I was a bit dubious about it.

Every year, almost one-and-a-half million tourists come to Minorca, and they cannot help but leave their mark. There’s the odd ‘British-owned’ sports bar (do the owners want a medal or something?), small purpose-built resorts like Son Bou, stands filled with fridge magnets, postcards and lilos in the shape of pugs, pizzas and unicorns for sale, and AirBnB has, as usual, negatively affected the domestic supply of privately-rented homes for locals.

Nicola Miller took a trip to sample the delights of Minorca.
Nicola Miller took a trip to sample the delights of Minorca.

But large-scale hotel builds have been controlled, thank goodness, because Minorca is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and the island’s sustainable tourist industry and traditional practices aim to work in harmony with existing natural ecosystems. Thanks to this, it is still possible to see Minorca’s bone structure; its section of the Baetic Mountain System formed 65 million years ago and – effects of humanity and the passing of time aside – the island’s past is ever-present and has avoided much of the touristy pastiche that blights other Spanish resorts.

Ponç Pons sang hoarsely about “the rocky body of his beloved island” and desired to “heal the island I embrace in an intimate passion of beauty and stillness.”

We found stillness and doughty resilience as we left the bright white of the town’s villas and walked from Son Bou to Calle en Porter. We were plunged into a world of rust, ochre, raw umber and burnt sienna. Pale ravine walls the colour of homemade custard gave way to wenge-coloured boulders, soil the colour of sweet potatoes and the pale sand of the coastline. Prickly pears punctuated the less shaded parts of the walk, their fruit slowly turning from pink to red. I munched on a small, partially detached paddle, rubbing off its tiny hairs. It tasted of very young runner beans. Farmland and olive groves fed by stone cisterns built from local stone gave way to shady lanes lined with the island’s only pecan trees, brought over from the American south. As we passed a small Finca the owner shouted at a passing gaggle of teenage girls: “No fotografíes!”. They jumped.

Nicola Miller took a trip to sample the delights of Minorca.
Nicola Miller took a trip to sample the delights of Minorca.

On another day, in the opposite direction at the end of Santo Tomas beach, the quarried cliff tops through which the Camí de Cavalls trail wends its way were banded in shades of alabaster, cornsilk and bone white. Respite from the sun and breeze came from the olive trees’ silver-green leaves, soft feathery boughs of tamarisk, and the reed beds that border Son Bou’s wetland coastline. All too often, the limpid Mediterranean Sea dominates every landscape it abuts, but not in Minorca. Despite its beauty, the sea remains a subtle backdrop to the more dramatically-coloured topography.

Walking the Camin is the best way to appreciate the beauty of Minorca because, with the assistance of local landowners, it has been carefully maintained since restoration began in the 1990s. Its congruity of design – the arador-crafted olive wood gates (barreres) with their distinctive cross-bracing that keep livestock safe, the wooden railings that stop people from plunging off the edge of a ravine, and the drystone walls (parets secas) built and maintained by aparedadors – unite the two distinctly different geological halves of the island. Minorca is essentially divided along a SE-W plane: there’s the rugged, craggy, dark-red sandiness of the northern Tramuntana area, whose rocks and hills are sculpted by the Tramuntana wind and the choppy sea; and the Migjorn to the south, home to marès limestone platforms, striated ravines, farmland mesas, and the narrow calas (coves), to which tourists flock in their thousands. I wasn’t surprised to discover that an affectionate local name for Minorca is Sa Roqueta, ‘the little rock’.

Like Sardinians, the Minorcans are not a sea-going island of people. Historically, they had every reason to be afraid of the sea as they tended the land over time and endured waves of conquers and colonisers: the Carthaginians, Romans, Vikings, the Ottomans, French and English have all left their mark on the island’s landscape and its food. The ancient Camin once functioned as a defence system against an attack from the sea and still seems to operate in part as modern-day protection against the encroachment of stores and bars filled with touristy tchotchkes that threaten to erupt along the island’s coastline.

Nicola Miller took a trip to sample the delights of Minorca.
Nicola Miller took a trip to sample the delights of Minorca.

I was struck by how many of the island’s meals seemed to mirror its terrain. From the inky rockpool darkness of Arroz Nero with its adornment of charred tentacles, the reddish-orange Caldereta de Llagosta (lobster stew), and pimenton-rubbed Mahon cheese whose lactic crystals are positively geological, nearly every meal reminded me of the land from which it came. None more so than the bright paprika-red local sausage called sobrasada. Made from the meat of the black pig, a relative of the ibérico pig from the Spanish mainland, they are prized for their high percentage of unsaturated intramuscular fat and fed on a mixture of mixed cereals, acorns and figs. The production method was granted Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) in 1996, but sausages have been made on the island since the Roman empire, although production faltered during the Ottoman occupation.

Texturally more of a pâté than a sausage, sobrasada is cured in the open air for anything up to eight months. It is richly speckled with delicious fat and varies in heat according to the type of pepper used and the length of the cure. The Minorcan air isn’t so good for the style of hams cured on the mainland, but its salty, humid and maritime climate is perfect for sobrasada. It’s massively versatile too. Traditionally, it is spread on bread and drizzled with honey or jam or served with goats cheese (Nieves Barragán from London’s Sabor has a recipe for the latter in her cookbook) and used to deepen and brighten stews of cuttlefish and potato, stuffed into ensaimadas (coiled lard-based pastries), croquetas, hornazo (country bread) and lasagne with broad beans, and added to a Spanish tortilla. Minorcan children take sobrasada and cheese sandwiches (boccadillos) to school.

I bought Binigarba Black Pig Sobrasada from a little shop in Maó, but it is available in the UK, too. Brindisa sells Enebral Organic Sobrasada online, Purespain.co.uk sell hard and soft varieties, Unearthed’s soft sobrasada is available at some Waitrose branches via Ocado, and Amazon stock several different brands. It is not inexpensive, but a little goes a very long way.

Nicola Miller took a trip to sample the delights of Minorca.
Nicola Miller took a trip to sample the delights of Minorca.

This is not ‘my’ recipe per se. Sobrasada on bread is a long-standing tradition in the Balearics, but it is beautifully simple and the kind of meal that showcases good ingredients. If you can, use Spanish olive oil (I like oil made with Arbequina olives) and good honey and bread for a quick and delicious snack or merienda. On Minorca, the bread tended to be white, with a crisp crust, and usually unsalted. I prefer salted bread, so I have gone for a loaf of Woosters Bakery Wild Sourdough because of its beautiful, autumnal crust, but baguette or any country-style bread will do too. Don’t cut the bread too thinly, but neither do you want British-style doorstops. If you like, toast some padrón peppers over a flame and serve alongside; if you’re lucky, you’ll get a hot one.

To make sobrasada could not be simpler. Half an hour before you want to eat, remove the sobrasada from the fridge; you want it at room temperature. Take one large slice of bread per person and rub with olive oil before toasting under a grill until golden. Spread the sobrasada onto the bread as thickly as you like, return to the grill until the sobrasada starts to melt then cut it into halves and drizzle a little honey over the top. That’s it!

Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale

Winner of the Guild of Food Writers Online Food Writer Award 2020

Fortnum & Mason Cookery Writer of the Year 2022