Dinner at Ca N’ignasi was a parade of delicious oddities. An empanada that looked liked a tribal crown got its earthen color from cuttlefish ink in the dough. A coca, a type of flat bread normally topped with roasted vegetables, was capped by strands of briny whitebait.
By the time I got to the pork loin, stuffed with crumbs made from a coiled pastry called an ensaimada, I was thrilled: If this was what the Spanish island’s cuisine was like, I was in for a few excellent days.
But Ignasi Coli Planas, the plumber moonlighting as an amateur chef who had prepared all these dishes, dashed my hopes. “Oh no,” he said in a tone somewhere between mournful and defiant. “You’re not going to eat this anywhere else in Majorca.”
On my one previous trip to the island, the largest of the Balearic chain, roughly 125 miles off the coast of Barcelona, I had met the chef Fernando Pérez Arellano, who had recently moved from Madrid. “The produce here is phenomenal,” he told me at the time. “And there are all these strange dishes you don’t find anyplace else.”
Strange dishes? I was intrigued. Research revealed a slew of indigenous preparations. And so, to discover for myself what Mr. Pérez Arellano meant, I devised a plan: drive from one end of the island to the other along the scenic MA-10 highway, eating all the way. But first, I needed some context.
Getting to the highway’s starting point in the northeastern corner of the island would mean passing through the interior town of Inca, where, as luck would have it, a local cooking club (or gastronomic society, as they’re called in Spain) was based.
A few weeks before my trip, I emailed Mr. Coli, the society’s founder, to ask if the group had any dinners planned. He quickly invited me to a lunch showcasing the island’s historical recipes, which is how I found myself eating that extraordinary succession of dishes, marveling at the combination of sweet and savory flavors.
During the meal, Mr. Coli and his friends regaled me with stories about other local delicacies, including wines made from a local grape that the Majorcan missionary Junípero Serra took to California; and a billowy confection of meringue, almonds and orange called a tortada reial, introduced by the Austrian Archduke Ludwig Salvator when he settled here.
Jaume Colom, a society member who runs the winery Finca Son Bordils, explained this extraordinary inventory to me with an appeal to history: “Majorca is a crossroads. The only species indigenous to it are bats and spiders. But everyone else — Romans, Moors, Jews, Brits — has come through. And because Majorcans are not conflictive people, we welcome them. You want to stay? ‘Stay,’ we say.”
I reconciled myself to not finding the cod-stuffed ensaimadas and tomato rice I ate that first night, but I hoped to find evidence of this cultural mix.
The following day, I started my route in Pollença, kilometer 0 of the MA-10. The town, founded by Catalans in the 13th century, retains its medieval feel, not least for its rather extreme brand of faith: On Good Friday, locals re-enact the crucifixion with a statue of Christ outside the chapel that sits 365 steps up from the main square.
On this particular Sunday morning, however, the people spilling out of the square’s imposing church seemed intent on spilling into the bar next door for vermouth.
I stopped at a bakery for a plump cocarroi, a kind of vegetable empanada, and was surprised to find raisins in it, adding sweetness to the bitter chard.THE MORNING: Make sense of the day’s news and ideas. David Leonhardt and Times journalists guide you through what’s happening — and why it matters.Sign Up
It was just a few steps to the Sunday market, which offered a bewildering mix of men’s underwear, kitchen utensils, and the kind of ceramic jewelry you might see at a high school crafts fair. But the produce section was something else: stands piled with elongated strawberries, thin reeds of wild asparagus and gnarled purple carrots.
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Such abundance augured well for lunch, and so I set off. Along its initial stretch, the MA-10 is relatively tame, with only a gradual incline and none of those hairpin turns that make passing the cyclists who frequent the island for training so harrowing. Instead, there were olive and almond groves, and the scent of eucalyptus.
Ca Na Toneta is a few kilometers off the highway, in the sleepy town of Caimari. On Sept. 11, 2001, its chef, Maria Solivellas, then a theater producer, was about to move to New York to start a new job. The attacks made her decide to stay home.
She began cooking at the restaurant her mother and sister had opened. “I had never set foot in a professional kitchen,” she said. “But I have a good teacher in my mom, and I have good intuition, which is the most important tool for a cook.”
She also has the Balearics’ bounty. Lunch started with cheese from the neighboring island of Menorca, which got its saltiness from the proximity to the sea of the cows whose milk it was made from. The coca here, its crust crisp and delicate, was topped with laminates of baby artichoke and caramelized pancetta.
Most of the vegetables Ms. Solivellas serves come from her organic garden, the olive oil from her uncle’s orchard, and everything, with the exception of that Menorcan cheese, from Majorca. “When tourism started here, everyone left the fields and went to work in hotels,” she said. “So our culinary culture was lost. Here we’re trying to use flavor to re-educate people about what Majorca is.”
The idea of re-education seemed strange, when Majorca’s culinary idiosyncracies kept popping up in unlikely places. The Sanctuary of Lluc, for example, has been a pilgrimage site since the 13th century. The monastery on the site closed long ago, and the former cells have been turned into lodging for hikers and cyclists.
I stayed there and found a jolly receptionist, and a tumbet, another of Majorca’s indigenous creations, amid the frozen pizzas offered in one of the restaurants. The tumbet, a kind of ratatouille made from thin slices of zucchini, red pepper and potato swabbed with a tangy tomato sauce, was surprisingly tasty.
The next morning’s drive brought me to Puig Major, the island’s highest peak. The views became more astonishing, just as the risk of turning one’s eyes from the twisting road became more perilous. I feared for the donkeys snacking on highway grasses, and then for myself as an errant lamb jumped into my lane.
I stopped at the glassy Gorg Blau reservoir to meet Andreu Genestra, a young Michelin-starred chef, for a picnic. Mr. Genestra’s restaurant is in the Hotel Son Jaumell, far from the MA-10, but he insisted on preparing a traditional torrada for me.
“This is what we Majorcans do when we go to the mountains,” he said as he lit a campfire. “We grill sausages.” He squeezed oranges for juice to go with the botifarra, a pork sausage spiced with cloves and cumin, and the spreadable sobrassada, tinted red from Majorcan paprika.
I asked him about the diversity of Majorcan cuisine. “Other places in Spain had mixes of culture, too,” he said. “But as an island, we’re more isolated, so it was easier to conserve our identity. People are always surprised to find such a deep-rooted cuisine here.”
I certainly was. From Gorg Blau, it wasn’t far to Fornalutx, an achingly beautiful village where the morning mist gets caught in the valley’s sharp crevices. At its far edge, the cooperative La Tahona presses its own olive oil, and sells it directly from barrels to customers who bring plastic bottles to fill.
Even more than olives, this part of Majorca is known for oranges. A century ago, the island was France’s main supplier of the fruit. “Our ancestors used to send oranges by the boatload there,” said Sebastiana Massanet, who with her husband, Joan Puigserver, owns the Ecovinyassa grove. The two grow dozens of varieties of citrus, including the locally bred Canoneta orange.
When they converted to organic farming a few years ago, they began offering self-guided tours. Moving from tree to tree, reading the signs that described each variety, was a hypnotic experience; by the time we reached a shady patch by a stream set up with cushions and a bowl of oranges, I felt like Alice in Wonderland. That, said Joan, was the point: “You can’t do this for the business. You have to be a bit romantic.”
There were more treasures to come: the mansions built in the Art Nouveau-inflected style of Catalan Modernism in Sóller, and the restaurant Béns d’Avall, just outside the town that serves its elegant dishes beside a sparkling cove. In exquisite Deià, I visited Robert Graves’s house and bought homemade orange marmalade from a woman who stepped outside her living room to sell it to me.
But it was Valldemossa that struck me the most. Maybe it was the Charterhouse, the former Carthusian monastery turned winter lodging for George Sand and Frédéric Chopin. Or the way the steeples of the town’s churches jutted up against the mountains. Or maybe it was the potato coca.
I learned about it when I stopped into S’Hort de Cartoixa, a jewel box of a grocery store featuring organic tomatoes and spinach, and a wide selection of Majorcan goods. The owner, Joana Maria Font, opened the shop because she wanted to help a new breed of small producers flourishing on Majorca.https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/uri/embeddedinteractive/0b332636-54c7-5734-b9ae-0378f7d88cbb?
She sent me off with the admonishment that I couldn’t leave town without trying the local specialty and directed me to the family bakery, C’an Molinas, that makes it.
All the cocas I had known were flat, so I was surprised to find Miguel Cañellas shaping dough into fluffy balls, and even more surprised when I learned those rolls were sweet, with mashed potatoes incorporated into a sugary dough.
Mr. Cañellas led me back to his ancient oven, a child’s nightmare right out of Hansel and Gretel, and spoke about the tradition. “It was my grandfather’s recipes,” he said. “Now there are other people who copy us, but we’re the only ones with the original recipe.” He stuffed a bag of rolls into my hands. I protested that that was far too many, until I tasted one: addictively soft, yeasty and sweet.
Lunch was at another of Ms. Font’s suggestions, Can Marió. With its lace curtains and homespun oil paintings, the dining room looked as if it were trapped in the Franco era. The food was old-fashioned too, but in a good way, featuring a bread and vegetable mix called sopes mallorquines and escaldums, a chicken stew sweetened with raisins and pine nuts.
The next day brought me to Banyalbufar, another gorgeous village set between sea and mountains, and to Son Vives winery, where Ramón Darder makes wine from Malvasia grapes. He showed off his small vineyard, and then suggested I go to Toni Moreno, a restaurant in an old fishermen’s neighborhood called Port des Canonge.
I ordered the arroz brut instead of a shellfish rice, which would have been the logical choice in a fish restaurant. It turned out to be a soupy mix of rice, rabbit, pork and vegetables, hearty but uninspiring. But the meal was saved by spectacularly fresh grilled prawns and by the owner, Pep Llorenç Ferragut, who came beaming to the table with grilled calamari and an unlikely garnish of grilled pineapple.
It worked in a way that now seemed familiar. The chard-and-raisin coccarois in Pollença; the salty cheese and quince salad at Ca Na Toneta; the outdoor botifarra and orange juice in my picnic with Mr. Genestra; the potato coca and chicken escaldums in Valldemossa — all occupied that delicate, delicious line between savory and sweet.
After lunch I drove on, continuing to lackluster Andratx, where the MA-10 ends. Ignasi Coli had been right. I never did find the complex, layered dishes that he had prepared.
But in the bounty of its produce, and in that ever-present juxtaposition of the salty and the sweet, I found a Majorcan cuisine that was alive and well.
Sweet and Salty: Majorca’s Traditional Cuisine