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For as long as he can remember, the founder of Barrafina has spent family holidays in a tiny village on the north-western coast of this Balearic Island. He takes us on a tour of his favourite haunts
Whichever way you look at the tiny speck of a Mallorcan village that is Estellencs, the backdrop is always stunning. It’s either the thickly pine-tree carpeted Serra de Tramuntana mountain range – so good, it’s a World Heritage Site – or, to the other side, it’s the Mediterranean, glistening the most perfect blue into the never-ending horizon.
It’s got a shop and a handful of places to grab a coffee, a bite to eat, or perhaps something a bit strong. The smattering of buildings that perch on well-worn stone streets are home to no more than 300 people, who have access to the best of both land – a maze of hiking trails through the range – and sea, with its own little cove. It was here that Sam Hart, owner and co-founder of London’s Spanish quartet of restaurants, Barrafina, first fell in love with the cuisine for which he’s intrinsically linked. ‘My mother grew up in Mallorca,’ explains Sam. ‘She’s half Scottish and half Bulgarian. My grandparents lived on a sailing boat but, eventually, when they had three children under the age of five living on board without a house on dry land, my grandmother said, “Right, enough’s enough.”’
Up until then, the couple’s commitment to living on the sea was such that even when Stefa, Sam’s mother, was born in Gibraltar, they only stayed long enough to get the stamp for her British passport. ‘They sailed in, she was born, and as soon as she came out of hospital, she was back on the boat,’ laughs Sam.
What twisted grandfather Vladimir’s arm, though, was the beauty of Estellencs. ‘He fell in love with the place and built a house there, where he lived until he died,’ says Sam. ‘We all go back every year (it’s split between the family) and all his old art and easels are still there – it remains very much his house.
‘It’s a tiny place,’ he continues, on the topic of Estellencs.
‘The population swells a bit in summer, but not much, and it’s part of this untouched rocky coastline, which stretches from Andratx in the south to Pollença in the north. It doesn’t have sandy beaches, but it has little pebble coves with perfect, crystal-clear water. The villages tend to be set back from the sea and are made from lovely stone going back to medieval times, all with beautiful views over the Mediterranean and surrounded by pine trees; it’s stunning.’
‘You always feel safe in the village, even for your children to run around,’ he continues. ‘The policeman comes for 45 minutes every morning, from about 11am, so if you’re going to do something wrong, you need to avoid that time slot.
‘One of my earliest memories in the village is from the bakery; their great speciality was ensaïmada, which is a Mallorcan pastry made with lard – a spiral, lardy cake dusted with icing sugar. We’d always get sent down to pick up the bread for breakfast and a couple of these ensaïmadas – I absolutely loved them and still do.’
The food routines of Mallorca remain strong with Sam and his family whenever they return, but the remoteness of the home that Vladimir built – with the one road in and out taking you via endless, tight hairpins through the ranges – means he has to follow his grandparents’ path and head to sea. ‘The best way to see the north-west coast is by boat,’ he says. ‘That way you can head up and down the coast and stop in at these tiny ports, coves and bays along the way.
‘There’s a lovely little port called Port des Canonge with a very scruffy pebbly beach but a lovely little fish restaurant called Ca’n Toni Moreno, which has long been a favourite – it’s been run by the same family for ages. Then you’ve got the cove at Deià, one of the more upmarket villages – lots of famous residents – but very charming; there’s a nice little restaurant on the bay there, C’as Patro. You’ve then got Andratx, also quite charming, right on the edge of the mountains with a natural harbour and with a great restaurant called Galicia, just set back from the main drag.’
The cuisine of Sam’s favourite Mallorcan restaurants is always familiar, making the most of the abundant source of seafood in the waters that fill the little nooks of this craggy coastline. ‘The food in Mallorca is its own thing,’ explains Sam. ‘It’s related to the food of Catalonia (both Catalan and Spanish are official languages here), so they’re pretty good at rice. And as an island there’s a lot of seafood, some of the best being the beautiful red prawns from Port de Sóller, which is just up the north-west coast; they’re really famous for that.
‘And they also do a spicy lobster rice dish, caldereta de langosta. These lobsters don’t have claws like the Scottish one, and they make a very good soup rice with it.
‘There’s also a lot of rabbit and pork on the island – really good meat – and we’re always amazed by the quality of the vegetables. There are lots of little farms growing wonderful Mediterranean vegetables everywhere you go.’
Although Mallorcan food had been grounding for Sam, he took his love of Spain to the next level after spending six months in Barcelona. He’d already spent his early working years in the city, then taken a step into hospitality with a nightclub in Mexico City. When he returned to Barcelona with a view to opening a second club, he was so taken by both the produce, and specifically the iconic Cal Pep restaurant, that he and his brother Eddie brought the concept to London.
‘I’d spent days eating in some of Barcelona’s great restaurants, going to markets like Mercat de La Boqueria and really falling in love with Spanish ingredients,’ he
‘All the smells of families cooking onions, garlic and red peppers, they’re the aromas that remind me of Estellencs, wherever I am’
explains. ‘I fell in love with Cal Pep – they did a lot of seafood and these little tortillas – and there was no real menu, just pretty simple cooking with an incredible sense of freshness, all made behind the bar, with the theatre that goes with it. We became quite good friends with Pep and asked if he minded us doing a version of it in London. He said, “Come in – I’ll show you how it works.”’
The first Barrafina opened in 2007 and has won awards and accolades ever since. Just over a decade after that first opening, the Hart Spanish story resumed in Mallorca.
‘Eddie now lives in Mallorca and he opened a restaurant in Palma called El Camino a couple of years ago,’ says Sam. ‘So when we’re there we always have a day out to go and see him.
‘Palma is a beautiful medieval city,’ he continues. ‘It was very wealthy in the Middle Ages, but when I first went there, it was quite down on its luck, a bit scruffy, like Barcelona pre-Olympics. But now it’s completely changed and is really on its uppers.
A lot of the old houses have been restored, there are boutique hotels, good new restaurants and it’s quite an international place. I see it as a sort of mini version of Barcelona – whereas Barcelona has 1.6 million people, Palma has 400,000. As well as wonderful architecture, it has great shopping - lovely boutiques, furniture stores and fashion – and a historic centre. The cathedral sits right on the water; in fact, the whole city is on the beach.’
And the best time to go?
‘The island springs to life in May,’ he says. ‘The spring rains make it verdant and full of flowers. Our house is surrounded by mountains that are covered in pine trees so it’s always green anyway and you’ve got the blue sea in the distance. Then there are all the smells... The flowers, the pine, but also, as you walk around the village, families cooking: frying onions, garlic and red peppers, they’re the aromas that remind me of Estellencs, wherever I am.’
El Camino ‘Owned and run by my brother and Barrafina co-founder Eddie Hart, this bar-restaurant in the Born area of Palma serves the best tapas in Mallorca. Yes, I’m biased - but I promise you will struggle to find anything better on the island.’
Hotel Cap Rocat ‘This lovely hotel perched on the cliffs overlooking the bay of Palma is one of the most luxurious on the island. With a Sea Club for daytime dining, amazing views and only a 20-minute drive from central Palma, it’s a real treat.’
Casa Fernando ‘This long-standing favourite is in Ciudad Jardín, a long strip of beach near the airport, serves fresh fish and seafood, simply cooked on the plancha. Look out for raors – a local fish that’s only available on the menu during August and September.’
Montimar, Estellencs ‘A charming village restaurant. Guillermo, the chef patron, has been serving delicious frit Mallorquin (fried lamb’s offal with peppers and aubergines), roast suckling pig and milk fed lamb for as long as I can remember. Ask for a table on the terrace.’ 00 34 971 618576
Words by Alex Mead.
This interview was taken from the May/June 2021 issue of Food and Travel magazine. To subscribe today, click here.
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