Returning to the Scene of our Times #2

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Over the intervening 25 years, I’d been back, alone, several times, for short periods, never longer than a week. And leaving was always a wrench. But this time, and late last year, De and I returned to the valley and stayed for ten days.

We stayed, not in Fornalutx (and upon reflection were relieved we hadn’t) but in a comfortable apartment in the heart of Soller, with views down to the torrente – which runs through the town, fed by the melting snow off the Tramuntana. In times past, the torrente ran thick with garbage and discarded household goods. I once rode an old mattress with a friend down to the Port one winter when it was raging. But today’s Soller has acquired civic pride, and the torrente outside our window was alive with noisy ducks of many varieties, which we fed daily with stale bread.

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The craggy peaks of the Tramuntana, with dark green vegetation scrambling up their sides above the olive groves, were also visible from the window of our apartment, as they are from practically every building in town, a reassuring reminder of the human scale of the town.

We were there in early November, which means, in a small town with a large tourist population in season, that many restaurants were closed. But this suited us. We had a well-stocked kitchen and we knew where to go to stock the larder. To the deli in Calle Luna, still run by Pep, who taught me about Jamón so many years ago. It’s the gastronomic centre of town, selling the best sobrasada, a raw pork sausage cured with pimentón, which holds a similar status on the island to Vegemite in Australia, except that it is an artisanal and not an industrial product: the finest cheeses from the island and further afield; a wonderful selection of local wines and much more to please the palates of two Australian gastronauts.

I recall years ago when I first noticed the scungy looking legs of jamón on the carving rack. Pep offered me a slice. I’d never tasted anything like it. He told me the price, even then something like $150 a kilogram. I blanched. He said, ‘Señor, who eats a kilogram of ham?” I bought 100 grams. This time, we visited daily for wine and other delicacies.

I loved that Pep was still there, his shop was still there. Coming from a city where food is dictated by fashion and fad, I love that I can return here in 5,10 years time and know that I will always be able to get the dishes I love and remember. In a Spain currently obsessed with what the author and journalist Xavier Domingo called ‘the scourge of creative cuisine’ on the island of Mallorca the time-honoured dominates.

We also renewed our acquaintance with the butcher in the market, another Pep who still made wonderful sausages and sells scrawny, flavoursome chickens. It was winter, and although the vegetable stalls were limited, wild mushrooms were abundant. We ate well at home.

I have always had a thing about the little pies they call empanadas de guisantes or sometimes empanadas de xixols, a local word for peas. Having tried them from several bakers in Soller, I’ve chosen this one from a a little baker behind the cathedral, Forn de Can Frau, as the best. Moist, crusty pastry. Now you know.

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We had come to the island after 15 days on the mainland, mainly in Andalusia, and had eaten there both well and very badly ­–­ the worst meal the most expensive. But the very best meal we had was in Palma at Celler Sa Premsa which has been there since 1958. I first ate there in the early 1970s. This time I had as a main what I would have had then. How do I know? I have it every time. Lechona, baked suckling pig, with perfect crackling and moist, sweet meat. To start, plump preserved white asparagus on a large plate with a large handful of pimientos de pardon, and a dollop of allioli.

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Another memorable meal was the pamboli at S’Hostal in Montiuri. What’s pamboli? Literally bread (pa) and (amb) oil (oli). Another Mallorquin culinary cultural touchstone. When first we lived in Fornalutx, a young girl from the village took to visiting us, ostensibly to practice her English, but always at lunch time. Lunches were a feast of leftovers from the fridge, cheese, olives, left over meat, left over dishes, fruit…everything. After a few meals like this she said to us “you eat something different every day for lunch,” We replied “yes, what do you eat?” “Pamboli” she replied.

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We had our pamboli at S’Hostal with a friend from those days, Tomás Graves and his wife Carmen. Tomás’ book Bread and Oil examines every principal ingredient, and all the ways that pamboli can be embellished: with seasonal vegetables, cheese, jamón and other embutidos (cured meats). Tomás, along with his late brother Juan and others, had a rock and roll band, the Pamboli Band. We couldn’t have had better companions for this meal in this small town in the centre of the island, known everywhere for its – pamboli.

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During our first stay on the island, a plan was announced to build a tunnel through the Tramuntana to open up the Soller Valley to Palma. This plan was vehemently opposed by many in the valley, including me

At the time, to get to the valley was not easy. You could come by boat to the port, or drive the coast road through Deía, a precarious journey skirting precipitous drops to the sea, or drive over the mountain, an equally precarious and difficult road involving some sixty switchbacks. Or you could catch the small and very slow train from Palma.

These natural barriers meant that you really had to want to go to Soller and the villages of the northwest, as you really had to want to go to Shangri La. And while it was not the mysterious place described in Lost Horizon, Soller was a haven, a bubble cocooned from the outside world.

In August of1 990, the second year of our migration to Mallorca, the talk of war with Iraq was on every front page.

I recorded in my diary a conversation at that time.

“They say the war will start tomorrow.”

“Oh really? (pause) I wonder if you can buy soy sauce in Soller?”

The inaccessibility of the valley added to the unreality of such a thing as the invasion of Iraq although, in reality, Iraq was not that far (and the war didn’t start until January 1991). We worried, those of us against the tunnel, el tunel, that when finished it would burst that bubble.

The tunnel was built, but the bubble remains intact. Whether that is a good or a bad thing, I’ll leave to one side. But it does go some way to explaining the way we immediately sank back into life in Soller. It took only two days. We wanted to stay. It was as if we had never left.

Yes, the streets and the villages were filled with the ghosts of dead friends. And yes sometimes the changes were overwhelming ­ – there was yet another tunnel on what had been the old road to the Port – but in essence it was the place that we had grown to love 25 years ago. Let me leave you with one story.

We were walking through Soller one day, past the railway station. ­There’s a lovely old train to Soller which is priced out of reach unless you’re a resident or a wealthy tourist, it used to be much cheaper. The extra money earned has been spent on upgrading the station and adding an art gallery. That day, there was an exhibition of Miró graphics and Picasso ceramics. In a railway station.

To go back to that question, can you go back? In our case, most definitely yes. But would we want to live there again? Alas, no. You can only migrate once. But we will most certainly go back as often as we can. It is still in our hearts.

 

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