It’s a searing hot, noisy Saturday lunchtime at Mercado de Olivar. Chefs whirl like choreographed dancers, performing behind counters cooled by sheets of ice that are rapidly shrinking. Scallops sizzle in a plume of steam before running the gauntlet from hotplate to my plate, presented in a delicate pair of shells slick with garlicky olive oil. After two sweet mouthfuls, I’m ready for the next act.
Despite its Balearic setting, much loved for its beach resorts, the Majorcan capital’s dining scene can hold its own against any city in mainland Spain. This is largely thanks to its thriving local population. The Balearic Islands are home to around 1.3 million year-round residents and Palma accounts for almost a third of that. Tourism has brought wealth and spurred migration: lured by the city’s balmy climate, easy-access beaches, handsome plazas and arts legacy (it’s the former home of Spanish painter Joan Miró, for one), it’s now ranked as Spain’s fifth most expensive city to live in.
Palma’s rise in fortunes is reflected in the extraordinary breadth of its restaurant scene, but amid all the contemporary buzz, there’s a real drive to rediscover traditional Majorcan food. The following morning, I go in search of Tomeu Arbona and his wife María José Orero, two locals intent on reviving forgotten island recipes. Their food project, which Tomeu calls ‘archaeological gastronomy’, has resulted in two cookbooks and a thriving bakery business, Fornet de la Soca, in Palma’s historic centre.
“Until the 1960s, when tourism started, everyone in Majorca ate at home,” María José tells me, during a break from serving pastries to a long queue of customers. While the arrival of tourism led to an explosion of restaurants and bars on the island, it also brought on a decline in traditional cooking. “Locals thought tourists wouldn’t be interested in Majorcan food, so they adapted to make more international dishes,” she explains. When Tomeu started his archaeological gastronomy project, his first port of call was to spend time with older communities around the island to record their recipes. His findings went into his books, but also the couple’s bakery.
Their recipes, María José notes, are butter-free because historically the island’s pig-dominated farms haven’t produced it. “The cocas [Majorcan flatbreads] and empanadas have a Jewish origin from medieval times,” she says. “We keep to original recipes.” But it’s Majorca’s delicious sugar-dusted ensaïmada pastries that many visitors love best.
In the subterranean depths of the bakery, surrounded by patterned tiles and paper-thin metal trays, we watch one of her staff coaxing stuffed dough into the shape of this classic pastry coil. “We make 200 small ensaïmadas and 50 big ones every day, and every day they sell out,” she says as I watch, mesmerised. The baker has wrapped the long length of dough around his wrist to stop it from trailing, and tugs at it rhythmically as he presses it into the signature shape with the flat of his palm. I buy one before leaving the shop and it’s light, chewy and deliciously sweet, stuffed with pumpkin jam spiced with cloves and run through with pumpkin seeds.
The medieval period, from which some of Majorca’s most iconic pastry recipes date, was a defining time for the city. Palma’s web of old town streets are still based on the layout of Madina Mayurqa — the muslim Al Andalus city that ruled Majorca for three centuries until it was sacked by the crown of Aragon in 1229. In the medieval quarter the following day, I eventually locate my next stop — another bakery, called Forn de sa Llotgeta, with stone arches, tiled floors and old wood-fired ovens.
I’m here to make coca — a popular local flatbread snack — with Deborah Piña. Formerly a Majorcan food series presenter on Balearic TV, Deborah has converted this 18th-century bakery into a space for culinary workshops focusing on the island’s food provenance.
“Majorcan people are very proud of their products,” she says, laying out our ingredients: a bowl of small blushing ‘red cheek’ Majorcan apricots; the king of island cold cuts, sobrasada; and xeixa flour, made from an ancient Majorcan grain. “It’s one of the most digestible wheats, with very low gluten content,” she says, popping an apricot in her mouth. “Want to try? Our fruit is very sweet.” For a millennium, explains Deborah, Majorcans had strictly seasonal diets because of the isolated nature of island life. But time has changed their food habits. In her own way, like María José and Tomeu at Fornet de la Soca, Deborah is on a mission to revive culinary traditions that have fallen by the wayside.
“Since coca is a traditional food, every person or family has their own recipe,” she says. Deborah’s version is the most ancient one — no bells and whistles, just extra virgin olive oil, water and xeixa flour. We slice the apricots, chop rosemary and pull off fleshy chunks of sobrasada to roll into tiny meatballs, our fingers turning oily and saffron-coloured.
Sobrasada is the star of the Majorcan pantry — soft and spreadable because of the high fat content of the local black pig, but also because the meat is minced to help the curing process in Majorca’s humid climate. It’s used as seasoning, eaten as a cold cut or even spread on bread. It elevates the coca we make — so deliciously thin and crisp I can snap it like a cracker — with the yin and yang of sweet and salty Mediterranean flavours. It’s Majorca in a bite.
While Palma is seeing a revival in traditional foods, it’s also an epicentre of contemporary Spanish gastronomy. Surprisingly, two of the city’s most lauded dining spots have a British link. Kent chef Marc Fosh has developed an exceptional tasting menu at his restaurant inside a 17th-century missionary, which reads as a love letter to the island’s strong produce heritage — he’s the only British chef to have won a Michelin star in Spain. Then there’s the phenomenally popular El Camino. Opened five years ago by Eddie Hart — the British owner of Barrafina in London — this contemporary tapas bar is largely credited with having kickstarted the transformation in Palma’s tapas scene.
I arrive at lunch to find a steady stream of tourists being turned away from El Camino’s discreet restaurant door because they haven’t booked. Inside, almost all the seating is around the bar counter, where 25 attentive diners at a time watch chefs labour over tapas. The standout is a midnight-black squid ink Spanish omelette topped with crispy shrimp and aioli. It’s salty, soft and indulgent; my mouth drops open when I cut into it and a pool of dark silky egg runs out.
Palma — like many Spanish cities — is also rediscovering a taste for vermouth. At the heaving La Rosa Vermutería, I try the house-made, red-wine-based 5 Petalos with a gilda (anchovy wrapped around olive and chilli) tapa. Wanting to learn more, I join a tasting masterclass at Brassclub cocktail bar led by mixologist Angel Pérez.
“All botanicals for Majorcan vermouths come from the island,” he says, as we run through Majorca’s four different artisanal brands. The key ingredient — the herbal, bitter artemisia — grows in the Tramuntana Mountains, which locals have combined with the island’s wine grapes to start making their own labels. Each iteration is unique, with varying levels of sweetness; some have notes of mandarin and grapefruit, another tastes like a lollipop. Angel presents me with a cocktail of vermouth and tonic with cherry liqueur and lemon and almond foam, sprinkled with beetroot dust. It’s a surprisingly complex layering of balanced flavours, and at around 15% ABV it’s an easy drinker. As Angel puts it: “It’s low alcohol — good for the beach.”
With the idea planted, the beach is where I end up for a final glimpse of Palma’s handsome, cathedral-crowned bay before I fly home. There’s a party ramping up, house music in the air and I’ve sand under my toes. And just like that, I’m back in the Balearics I’m familiar with. On a trip to Palma, you can have it all.
A taste of Palma
Marc’s lived in Spain for more than 20 years — and his passion for Majorca shows in every detail of his exquisite tasting menus. The seven-course set dinner weaves in contemporary, fine-dining takes on island classics, including a burrata and confit onion coca crisp, and ensaïmada ice cream. Dinner €110 (£95) per person, excluding wine.
Diners sit high above Palma’s Passeig del Born at this fusion restaurant mixing Mediterranean, Latin American and Japanese influences. Dishes include roasted octopus with red mole sauce, and a sticky sweet-and-sour Iberian pork fillet slow-cooked for 24 hours. Dinner from €150 (£130) for two, including wine.
Join locals on the terrace and ask for the small-dish menu of variados — rustic Majorcan cuisine such as frito Mallorquin (fried liver with onions and potato). Bosch’s version of Palma’s llonguets — bread rolls stuffed with cold cuts or Spanish tortillas — are much loved. Lunch from €10 (£8.50).
This 17th-century design hotel serves some of the Balearics’ best artisanal produce on its palm-shaded patio restaurant, including rounds of sobrasada and creamy goat’s cheese from Majorcan fincas. Its breakfast feast (open to non-guests) includes unlimited Cava. From €25 (£21.50) per person.
Five food finds
1. Sobrasada de Mallorca
This punchy paprika sausage has protected geographical indication and is made with high-fat minced local black pork, making it soft, unctuous and spreadable.
So thin you can snap it, this traditional Majorcan cracker-thin pizza is typically made with olive oil dough — never butter — and topped with whatever is seasonal.
3. Flor de Sal d’es Trenc
Smoked and infused with shiitake or spiked with Mediterranean herbs, Majorca’s hand-harvested sea salt comes from island salt lakes and makes the perfect souvenir — find it in Mercado de Olivar.
This stubby baguette sandwich — stuffed with calamari, sobrasada, Spanish omelette or whatever takes your fancy — is so popular in the capital that people from Palma are affectionately nicknamed ‘llonguets’.
Several bakeries in Palma claim to be the creator of this delicious coiled sweet pastry. Try it the traditional way — plain and dusted in icing sugar — or filled with custard or spiced pumpkin jam.
There are direct flights to Palma de Majorca from across the UK. Doubles at the adults-only Calatrava Mediterranean Sea House hotel, by the historic centre, cost from €282 (£240) per night, B&B. ToursByLocals offers two-hour tapas and walking tours from £186 for up to eight people.
This story was created with the support of Visit Palma.
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