To Gatwick Airport for the 09.40 flight to Mahon (or Mao as they spell it locally – pronounced Maan according to Pious Bob) for some spring sunshine, or more accurately to continue the record breaking warm spell we were having in the UK. Why Menorca? Perhaps least known of the three main Balearic Islands, it has a long history going back to the Bronze Age. The island has many sites from this period including navetas, stone buildings shaped like inverted ships, and T-shaped stone structures called taules, believed to be places of ritual sacrifice. Many other peoples traded with or colonised Menorca including the Carthaginians, Romans and the Moors. Of particular interest was the British occupation (1708-1754, 1763-1781 and 1798-1802). Sir Richard Kane was the first British governor of the island. He moved the capital from the beautiful Moorish city of Ciutadella to Mahon which had the considerable advantage of a three mile long deep water harbour for the Royal Navy to shelter in. Kane also built a road from Mahon to Ciutadella, and introduced Friesian cattle from the milk of which is made the delicious Queso de Mahon cheese, the more mature (curado) version of which tastes not unlike a vintage farmhouse cheddar. Aside from this rich history another strong point is that the island has mostly escaped the mass tourism of Ibiza and parts of Mallorca, and certainly outside the main season the roads are quiet, as are the streets of the two main cities. I think we were particularly lucky (Mrs. MAE and I) with sunny weather and temperatures pushing 20 degrees centigrade.
Our hotel, the Casa Ladico, a “boutique” establishment of just 14 rooms was a real find (*****). It is centrally situated within walking distance of a number of excellent restaurants. The public rooms are spacious and beautifully decorated. There is a quiet walled garden with a small pool. There is a café restaurant open for lunch and dinner in the high season. A very relaxing breakfast is included, with, among other delights, freshly squeezed orange juice, ham and local cheese, and ensaimadas – large, light and airy, sugar dusted pastries said to have originated in the Moorish occupation. A top quality coffee machine and various snacks are available gratis through the day. Our room had one of the best showers I’ve ever used, a comfortable sitting area, and a super king sized bed. A balcony overlooked the garden. We were very well looked after by Sonia and Luisa who recommended and booked us into some excellent restaurants, and provided us with maps of how to find them.
On the first night we went to a nearby wine bar called Anatea (*****) run by a very friendly couple. We enjoyed our visit so much we returned on our third night. Seating is on high stools and on both occasions it was full of locals enjoying themselves despite our arriving at 8 p.m. – very early to eat in Spain. The food is tapas based. We enjoyed a large plate of delicious Bellota ham, though we felt they could offer a smaller portion as well. Patatas bravas came with two sauces – one very hot, one garlicky. Chicken croquetas were pleasantly crisp. There are well chosen wines by the glass and a very good house vermouth which makes a tasty aperitif.
On our second night we walked to Ses Forquilles. The entrance didn’t look very welcoming, partly because the road was being resurfaced. There is a bar on the ground floor where tapas are served. We were shown upstairs to a high ceilinged dining room painted a shade of pinky red not dissimilar to the “British red” that 18th Century houses are painted in Mahon. At first the atmosphere was somewhat cool as we were on our own (often a problem when eating out before 10 p.m. in Spain) but another couple soon arrived. We started with some artichoke chips and a large, mildly curried, chicken croqueta. Mrs. MAE enjoyed a perfectly cooked solomillo ternera (sirloin steak) while I had some very tender medium cooked pork presa with aubergine. Meat dishes come in two different size portions. Both were lightly garnished but we felt the need for some chips in addition. We finished by sharing the delicious house speciality apple tart which had a creamy filling. Good Cava and wines by the glass. Like many Spanish menus it isn’t easy to know what to choose for each course but be prepared to be flexible and share dishes. (****)
On our last night we visited Ses Forquilles’ sister restaurant El Rais down by the quay, which specialises in rice dishes. The name suggests this though the Spanish for rice is arroz. Perhaps it is the Menorcan word. We learned elsewhere that Menorcan Catalan (“Minorqui”) dialect borrowed words from English during the British occupation in the 18th Century e.g. grevi means gravy! The restaurant has a first floor terrace which would be perfect in summer . We ate in the second floor restaurant which had a very good view of the harbour by night. We began with some halved baby artichokes with a “veil” of smoky very fatty bacon, cooked in a wood fired oven. Much better than it sounds. We followed these with some steamed gyozas (sort of Japanese dumplings) filled with mixed meats. Good too, though a touch of frying before steaming them would add more flavour. Then it had to be rice (although there are other options including various local fish dishes, lamb and pork). We shared a Valencian style pork and green bean paella cooked in the wood fired oven which gave it a pleasing smoky taste. The rice was perhaps a little on the al dente side. Rice dishes are conveniently available in three different sizes. Again a small selection of interesting wines by the glass. A small downside was that there was no key to the allergen letter codes on the English menu which rendered them incomprehensible, and the good looking (according to Mrs. MAE) young waiters didn’t have enough English to help. Nevertheless El Rais is very much recommended for an mix of traditional and adventurous food made with local ingredients. (****)
In case you get the wrong impression we didn’t just eat. As mentioned at the beginning, the narrow old streets of both Mahon and Ciutadella are pleasant to stroll around by day and night and the former in particular has plenty of shops worth investigating and the market in the former Carmelite Cloister (the Claustre di Carme) has fresh produce, jewellery, and shoes including the traditional abarcas sandals. I’m not usually a big fan of the small town museums but the Museu de Menorca (in another monastic cloister) displays the history of the island in an accessible and modern way. We were fortunate to arrive there at lunchtime on a public holiday when a tasting of Menorcan food and wine was about to start. Toothsome little lamb patties, aubergine canapes, and fried fish goujons went down very well. A gallery well worth a visit is the splendid Ca n’Oliver (Oliver Palace) in the same road as our hotel. It is an eighteen century merchant’s house which has been beautifully restored and houses fascinating collections of a variety of Menorcan art from various periods as well as temporary exhibitions. In addition I would recommend a boat trip round around the three mile long Mahon harbour as a way to get feel for Mahon’s history. We also took a bus out to nearby Es Castell, which was a British garrison town, with an adjoining pretty harbour called Cales Fonts, surrounded by fish restaurants which gets, I’m told, quite lively on summer evenings. Further out of Mahon is the Parc Natural de S’Albufera des Grau, an area of protected wetland which is excellent for birdwatchers in the spring and autumn. There are well signposted walks. Take binoculars if you can find room in your luggage. The whole coastline, whilst not as spectacular as that of northern Mallorca say, is worth visiting. In the south we enjoyed a walk along the lovely beach and dunes at Son Bou which would be packed with sun worshippers in summer, and a visit to the holiday village of Fornells in the north has the bonus of the Torre de Fornells, a sturdy fortress buit by the British during the Napoleonic wars.
I don’t think you can really give a star rating to an island, but, if your man was pressed to, Menorca would score a maximum for an early or late season short break.