In the avant garde food craze of the 1990s and 2000s, one might have scoffed at the simplicity of Menorquin cuisine. Where are the gels, airs, foams, smokes (and mirrors) after all? But these days the island’s no-nonsense rustic gastronomy is becoming highly fashionable in Spain. As sustainability becomes a watchword in all our lives, what could be more sustainable than a cuisine that has existed for centuries in isolation, using the fruits and vegetables of its fertile interior and the the rich stock of the Mediterranean sea in recipes that have been handed down through generations? In addition to perfecting a variety of delicious peasant stews and a dizzying array of seafood dishes, the islanders have also mastered the art of curing meats (try the sobrasada) and making farm house cheeses (their curds are the envy of the rest of the country), whilst their British masters left them the recipe for making a great gin back in the 18th century, which is still popular today. Finally an uptake in interest of oenology has sparked a renaissance in viticulture that is leading to some credible Menorquin wines.
Menorca Bar & Cafe Scene
Menorca is all about taking it easy, so naturally the locals know how to linger for hours over little more than a cortado (expresso with a dash of milk) and an ensaimada. The latter is a circular, coiled pastry more commonly associated with the island’s bigger sister Mallorca, but also made right here on “The Little One” as well. It can be served plain, or with cream or chocolate or even with cabell d’àngel (“angel’s hair”, ie. sugared pumpkin strands). Cafes, bars and restaurants all blur into one in Menorca and on pretty much every street and square you’ll find somewhere homely to eat and drink, usually with a street terrace for watching the world go by. Just don’t expect fast service.
Great areas for bars and cafes:
- Maó / Mahón: Naturally the capital is full of places to pull up a pew and order a pomada (gin and lemonade), and your best bet is either along the waterfront or on any of the squares in the Old Town. An editorial fave is El Mirador, which has a nice viewpoint and a pleasant bustle from the afternoon onwards.
- Ciutadella: Prettier than Mahón, the former capital’s winding streets are full of charismatic refuelling points. The shabby chic Ulisses has an air of authenticity and great seafood tapas to match.
- Cova D’en Xoroi: The author’s mother shook her hips here in the late 1960s, and amazingly this hotspot is still going strong half a century later. A one of a kind venue, Cova D’en Xoroi is a series of caves that open up in the cliff face above the Mediterranean sea. You can gather to watch the sunset from within these natural caves, or boogie the night away as the moonlight streams onto the dance floor.
Spanish mainlanders start to salivate when they begin to consider their summer holidays in the Balearics. Menorca is home to some unique dishes you can’t get elsewhere in Spain (or at least not of the same quality) and there’s a comforting charm to the cuisine whose recipes have been passed down through generations and are almost entirely made from products grown or reared on the island, or fished from its waters. Here are some unmissable dishes.
- Caldereta de langosta: Menorca’s greatest hit is an indulgent creamy soup made by stewing a puree of tomatoes, green peppers, onion, garlic, toasted almonds and parsley in an earthenware pot along with of course the chief ingredient: a freshly quartered lobster. A splash of cognac enriches the result even further.
- Oliaigua: This humble vegetable soup has fed many a Menorquin mouth over the centuries, thanks to being cheap and easy to make – as you might imagine it’s a favourite with frugal madres. Ingredients include tomatoes, onion, garlic, green pepper and oil and water (oli i aigua = oil and water). Best enjoyed in summer with freshly harvested local produce and served up with toasted bread and figs.
- Stuffed squid: Feeling adventurous? Try the local dish of squid… stuffed with… more squid. For this plate the mollusc’s tentacles are chopped off and then fried with egg, milk, garlic and breadcrumbs and thrust back into its head. Much loved by many, this is not an editorial fave… buy hey you might like it!
- Sobrasada (and other cured meats): This moist and sweet cured sausage is made with choice pork loin, then minced and mixed with paprika, and seasoned with salt and black pepper. Then the mixture is stuffed inside a pork intestine and hung until cured. It’s easily recognised on account of its bright orange colour, and tastes fantastic with honey on toast. Be sure to try the other cured meats like botifarro as well. Most restaurants will have a cured meat platter option as a tapa.
- Mahon cheese: So good it’s got it’s own Denominacion de Origen, for many foodies Menorca’s cheese is justification for the journey alone. There are over 30 artisan cheesemakers on the island: whilst naturally tastes and textures vary, however on most you’ll detect citric notes and a touch of brine, said to come from the salty sea air that infuses the grass that the native cows graze on.
- Mayonnaise: Thought Mayonnaise was French? What if I spelt it Mahonnaise? That’s right, legend has it that the word Mahonnaise was the label given by the French to this creamy sauce of oil, egg, salt and vinegar after it was served to the Duke of Richelieu in Mahón during the French occupation of Menorca in the 18th century. A relative of alioli this sauce only started to appear in French cuisine following the conquest, making this etymology more than likely. Try dipping some chips in the original mixture!
Restaurants in Menorca
Whilst there have been one or two recent signs of experimentation on Menorca’s restaurant scene, unlike Barcelona across the water – where the globally renowned Adria brothers and their many disciplines ply their trade – this is not the place to catch up with the world’s latest eating trends, nor sit down for “symphonies” of 40+ courses tables glittering under Michelin starlight. Rather your best bet, for the most part, is to search out those places that do justice to traditional recipes of this wonderful isle.
- Cafe Balear: Starting life in the 1970s as a humble fisherman’s tavern, Cafe Balear has evolved to become one of the island’s best restaurants. It’s famous for its own take on the aforementioned caldereta de langosta. It’s delicious, and at €70 it better be. Other stand out plates are the swordfish carpaccio and spherical squid croquettes. All their fish is caught daily with their own fishing vessel. Find Balear on the port at Ciutadella. (photo by Restaurant Cafè Balear)
- Moli D’es Raco: We’re not sure Don Quixote would have approved, but this traditional Menorquin restaurant is housed inside a wonderful red and white windmill in the inland town of Es Mercadal. It’s a homely place perfect for sampling classic tapas like breaded mussels and stuffed aubergines, plus of course all the cured meat and cheese platters you desire. Both their meat and vegetables are sourced from their own family farm.
- Passio Mediterrania: If you have a hankering for some more fun, fusion-inspired cuisine, then the highly rated Passio Mediterrania in Mahon is your best bet. They’re not afraid to get creative with dishes like octopus carpaccio with guacamole and wasabi breaking the local mold of sticking to local recipes. Despite its popularity prices are very affordable.
Being a tourist destination pretty much any strange behaviour on your part will most likely be chalked up to your foreignness and excused. A few tips however.
- When to Eat: Lunch at most restaurants is normally served between 1pm and 4pm. This is the main meal of the day, so look out for three course “Menus del dia” that are without fail amazing value. Dinner is usually served starting at 8pm, with kitchens closing around 11pm or midnight. From 4pm to 7 or 8pm you many find that many places are closed.
- Patience is a virtue (and so is being proactive at times): Service is slow in Menorca, even by Spanish standards. They are not ignoring you, there’s just no need to hurry. Also subtle gestures rarely work in getting a waiter’s attention. Shouting and waving is acceptable. A little trick the author uses when being ignored is to go to the bathroom, and either on the way there or back, casually mention that you’d like to order more drinks / get the bill etc.
- Bills / Tips: Sometimes prices stated on the menu don’t include VAT so be vigilant in the first place, in case that tips a meal from good value to expensive. Also just check you really did order everything on the bill, especially if you’re in a large group. If there’s a mistake, assume it’s an honest one. Waiters are used to tourists tipping, but it’s not part of Spanish culture, so no need to go crazy. Ten percent is fine.
Local Markets in Menorca
Despite the rampant tourism across the island, heaps of tiny mom and pop produce stands can be found secreted away in cozy little buildings are in roadside stands. That said, if you’re looking for something bigger with heaps of fresh fish, these are some great options.
- Mercat Del Peix (Fish Market): Housed in a curious little u-shaped building from 1927, this wonderful old fish market makes for an enjoyable sortie, especially if you’re self catering and shopping for supper. Succulent oysters, clams, cockles, prawns and wriggling fresh cod, bream and swordfish are all for sale. Several tapas stalls mean you can eat on the spot as well. It’s open Tues to Sat all year round, and from noon on Saturdays they even have live music.
- Ciutadella Market: Not to be outdone Ciutadella has its own 19th century fish market, plus attractive market arcades with green and white tiles selling meats and cheeses on the Plaza de la Libertad.
Festivals in Menorca
Festivals play a major part in the cultural and social lives of the Menorcans, and at the centre of nearly every fiesta are their handsome steeds. These beautiful beasts can easily be distinguished from your average nags by their noble postures, jet black coats and rigid pointed ears.
- Sant Joan Festival: Celebrated with gusto around the country, in Menorca this midsummer festival is turned up to 11. Horses and their riders parade, joust, dance and rear on the streets of Ciutadella to an ecstatic crowd of revellers. 23rd to 25th June each year.
- Gràcia Festival: The capital celebrates its patron saint, Our Lady of Grace with processions and horse races in the streets, every September, accompanied by much merriment and drinking of pomadas. If you’re feeling lucky head to Plaça de la Conquesta to catch the commemorative bottles of wine which are tossed from the town hall balcony to the masses. 6th to 9th September.
Sightseeing in Menorca
A much more diverse destination than many imagine, here are a few things you might want to see and do in between stuffing your face with lobster stew.
- The Beaches: Sightseeing in Menorca starts with their 130 sandy beaches… that’s more than Mallorca and Ibiza have combined! The classic Menorquin beach is a sheltered cove with crystal clear turquoise waters shimmering between limestone cliffs decked with Aleppo pines. Ie. heaven. A great way to see many of them is by hiking the island’s Cami de Cavalls or “Way of the Horses”. This medieval bridle path was once a patrol route for mounted coast guards on the look out for pirates, but since 2011 its been restored as a public footway and indeed you can trace the entire circumference of the island… although be warned that’s a walk of 186km!
- Remnants of the Bronze Age: There are hundreds of prehistoric sites scattered all across the island dating back to 2300 BC, the remnants of a mysterious Talayotic culture that only exist here and on Mallorca. The most exciting are the Navetas (tombs), Talayots (circular towers) and Taulas (mysterious T-shaped places of worship) and you’ll find plenty of these still standing in the same condition as three or more millennia ago. These sites are likely to be listed by UNESCO as World Heritage sites in the very near future.
- The Towns: Maó’s physical location, on the second largest natural harbour in the world (after Pearl Harbour), make it an impressive capital whilst several British built forts, hospitals and town houses give the city and the surrounding region a unique aesthetic. The Brits also popularised gin drinking, and you might want to stop by the Xoriguer distillery for a tasting session (that’s a cultural activity, right?). Ciutadella is the old capital, beloved by the locals and more lively both by day and by night than Maó. Its crowning glory is its 14th century gothic cathedral. Fornells is also a very pleasant town, and a famous spot for water sports.
- Get Active: These days Menorca is promoting itself as much more than a beach destination, and its beautiful coastline and interior, along with warm weather, make it perfect for active pursuits like sailing, sea kayaking, hiking, horse-riding and cycling, especially in spring and autumn.
Accommodation in Menorca
Menorca doesn’t lack in incredible places to stay, but these are two we found especially fun and interesting!
- Artiem Audax: An “adults only” hotel (meaning no kids), the exterior is a bit bland and blockish, but the Audax won our approval through amazing customer service, great rooms, awesome spa and terrace swimming pool.
- Ca Na Xini: A modern boutique hotel on the grounds of wine and cheese makers Sant Patrici, if you fancy breakfasting on homemade Mahon cheese and bread with olive oil pressed from the olive trees you can see out of your bedroom window then this is your place.
looking for the very best food and wine experiences.
Since 2005, Catavino has been exploring the Iberian Peninsula looking for the very best food and wine experiences.