The wind filled the sail and we cast off. It was then, as the llaüt left the port of Ciutadella, that we felt the real Menorca was finally revealing itself to us. There, under the sun and out at sea, our journey truly began. We had explored the small Balearic island from end to end. With only 50 kilometers separating the easternmost tip from the west, it’s easy to do. At one end, Mahón, with its colonial airs and British influence, a natural port formed by a long tongue of sea making its way inland; at the other, Ciudadela, with its majestic splendor, narrow streets, and the laid-back Mediterranean charm of its café terraces. We had seen the rugged and impressive north coast of the island and the white coves lapped by turquoise blue sea to the south.
We had travelled through landscapes dotted with dry stone walls and wild olive wood gates, tasted the juniper and pine-scented gin, and sampled cheese made from the milk of the island’s unique breed of cows. We’d heeded the gourmets’ advice and tried caldereta de langosta – the classic Menorcan spiny lobster stew. Even before we had stepped on board the llaüt, we already had a sense that the island was a Unesco Biosphere Reserve because of the way it prioritizes conservation and harmony. However, it was only when we returned to the port in the wooden boat that we understood Menorca. Its warm-hearted Mediterranean essence, its delicate calm and unshakeable traditions. When we met the only craftsman on the island who still builds wooden boats, the last mestre d’aixa, we understood the fragility of this environment, and were happy that it had been conserved. The first place in Spain to see the sun rise. A place not ruled by urgency, because there’s always tomorrow. Pedro García’s Menorca.
So white you can hardly look at them in full sunlight. The walls of many village houses, especially in the Mediterranean climate, are whitewashed every year. Painting with lime-based whitewash is the simplest and most economical natural method of maintaining the crisp aesthetic of the façades, but also of disinfecting them, thanks to its antiseptic properties. Whitewash allows the walls to breathe, preventing them from becoming damp, and is applied when the warm weather arrives, because, by reflecting the sunlight, white walls absorb less heat and keep the interior cooler.
Good Fences Make Good Neighbours.
Hand-made wooden gates, along with dry stone walls, are a distinctive element of Menorca’s traditional identity. Gates that open onto arable fields and private land, but also onto homes and hotel gardens, they are so common on the island that they have become part of its landscape and cultural heritage. Their twisted shapes are those of the acebuche, the wild variety of the Mediterranean olive tree, Menorca’s main source of wood. Due to its density, it requires no maintenance and, kept under cover, is practically indestructible. The arader, a traditional agricultural woodworker, selects trees in the forest and seasons the timber for a year before using it. Every commission has its own special characteristics, and no two gates are alike.
One Of A Kind.
From the walls and ceiling hang tools, templates of finished projects, and 1:10 scale models of seafaring vessels. Leaning in one corner there are stacks of wooden planks with designs penciled on them. At the back, behind a half-restored boat, there’s a traditional Menorcan sailing craft, 25 palms – 5 meters – long, like a whale skeleton recreated in pine, on which Diego Huguet is hard at work.
We are in the shipbuilding workshop of the only mestre d’aixa, or “master of the adze,” still active on the island of Menorca. He learned the trade from his father, Miquel Huguet, who saved it from disappearing, a fate that once seemed inevitable. In the Balearic islands, the mestre d’aixa is a skilled carpenter who builds and repairs wooden boats, especially llaüts, the lateen-rigged fishing craft that are typical of the islands. “You start by designing a model of half the boat. Then you duplicate it so that it is exactly symmetrical,” explains Diego. “It’s an artisanal construction,” he continues, “each one is unique and there’s no other like it.”
One Of A Kind.
Shortly afterwards Miquel joins us in the workshop. In his gentle, husky voice, the retired mestre tells us about the importance of the raw materials. “You have to go into the woods to choose the tree,” he says, “and you have to chop it down under an old moon in January, when all the sap is in the trunk and the wood won’t rot. It has to be Menorcan pine, wild olive or holm oak, because they’re dense woods,” he continues, “and you have to respect its natural shape and grain.” In Menorca, the Tramontana wind bends trees almost from the root, giving them the shape the Huguets need. The connection with the environment is part of the construction process.
As you might expect, Miquel learned the principles of the trade from craftsmen who came before him, although, in his case, nature also played a part. The great rissaga of ’84, a powerful tidal wave that devastated the port of Mahon, left many vessels damaged beyond repair. Miquel took the remains of these traditional boats to his vegetable garden, and studied them. That same year he opened his own shipyard. Everything went well until fiberglass and polyester burst onto the scene. Just when he thought no wooden boats would ever be made again, a friend com- missioned him to build a boat, of a kind dating from the days when Menorca was British.
A year later he had built not a replica, but a Menorcan boat that was true to the traditional design, but which incorporated new lines, custom-built to suit its captain. Herein lies the guarantee of these boats’ survival, their eternal attraction, their secret glamour. They are unique craft. Unrepeatable. Whether powered by sail or motor, for recreational use or regattas, with a straight bow or a raked one, no two are the same. They can be personalized and adapted to their owners’ needs to avoid standardized repetition – with a flat deck and a stern cockpit, a table and benches, or a cedar-wood cabin varnished to show off the joints. Comfortable, but always with a classic touch, such as the rigging of the yardarm on the mainmast, or the lateen mainsail and jib. A delight.
Today, the Huguet shipyard, as well as repairing and maintaining boats, completes one building project a year – llaüts, rowboats, tèquines, classic 1930s speedboats, sloops and more – working to ensure that wooden ships continue to sail the sea.
It first emerged on the Mediterranean as a simple wooden fishing boat. A small vessel, bow and stern almost identical, distinguished by its “nose” – the half-meter long wooden ornament that rises up vertically over the prow – but most of all by its graceful rigging, with triangular lateen sails. The llaüt, the traditional sailing craft of Menorca, is making a comeback after years of neglect, during which new synthetic materials replaced wood in shipbuilding.
Private associations such as the Amics de la Mar Menorca – “the friends of the sea” – are working hard to revive this iconic piece of maritime heritage, expecting no reward other than enjoyment and the chance to safeguard its future. They not only preserve llaüts and other wooden vessels, which they rescue from wreckers’ yards, but also the memories of captains and crew members, keeping them alive for posterity. They enjoy their favorite pastime, sailing under a lateen rig, and they spread the word by teaching. They don’t sail to compete, but for the pleasure of experiencing the sea on their own terms. It’s a different way of doing things: easy-going, authentically Mediterranean and environmentally-friendly.
While its origins may be remote, the triangular sail has become so deeply integrated in the life of the Mediterranean that is now an inextricable part of it. It was an important invention because it represented a new way of sailing, very different to sailing a square rigged ship, offering less resistance and allowing the boat to sail into the wind at the tightest possible angle. It’s a powerful and efficient sail that can make the most of the slightest breeze. Although it has evolved to incorporate new additions that improve its maneuverability and speed, such as the boom, the exciting sense of mastery it offers remains the same. Regattas of lateen-rigged craft have meant that this style of sailing has seen a renaissance all over the Mediterranean, but in Menorca the llaüt, stable in the most adverse meteorological conditions, has become the perfect recreational vessel. New boats, larger and more comfortable, have evolved from working fishing boats into something that almost resembles a yacht. Older boats that have been restored, such as the ones in the picture, are living witnesses to the past.
The Menorcan spiny lobster, a small, tasty variety, is considered one of the best in the Mediterranean. Although the island’s best-known contribution to world food culture is mayonnaise, which historical sources confirm to have its origins in Mahon, the lobster is its most important culinary attraction. It is only caught during the official fishing season, from April to the end of August, when it is at its best. This is the time to enjoy caldereta de llagosta, Menorcan cuisine’s most iconic dish. It’s a seasonal seafood stew that has been prepared since ancient times, when lobsters were not considered a delicacy. A simple dish, its base is a sofrito of tomato, garlic, onion and green peppers, to which water, diced lobsters and a picada of finely-chopped almonds are added. The stew is then served with thin slices of toasted bread. It made the transition from fishermen’s tables to restaurant menus when the Ca’n Burdó hotel, now sadly no more, revived and popularized it 120 years ago. In the photo, the caldereta at Café Balear, in Ciutadella’s port.
Add To Basket.
The artisanal spirit is omnipresent in Menorca. The master craftsman passes his experience on to the next generation. Sadly, there are certain skills, such as catching the island’s famous spiny lobsters in hand-woven traps, which seem to be on the verge of being lost. Other techniques are more profitable. A traditional lobster pot or nasa in Spanish, is a simple funnel-shaped rush basket, inside which the lobsters are trapped. Making them is a complex process, which is why the basket-weavers, or naseros, traditionally did it in winter, when the fishing season is over. For the fishermen themselves, the exact location of the fishing grounds where they placed them was considered a family secret. The nasa ensures sustainable, environment-friendly fishing practices, as it works like a vivarium: the lobsters are trapped alive, so any undersized specimens can be returned to the sea.
There’s one thing everyone admires when they visit Menorca for the first time: the crystal-clear water. In some of its tiny coves the sea is as calm and crystalline as a swimming pool. Perfectly limpid waters, through which the shadows of boats can clearly be seen on the sandy white seabed of the south coast. Here, the Mediterranean is almost always an intense turquoise, turning to emerald green close to the rocks of the rugged north. This brilliant Balearic blue is a product of the island’s light and the depth and purity of the water. A clarity that is due to the shellfish that filter the seawater, as well as the effect of the underwater meadows of Neptune grass, a plant endemic to the Mediterranean that forms one of the most important ecosystems on the planet, and plays a crucial role in regenerating the island’s beaches.
Solid As A Rock
They say that, laid end to end, they would span a distance of more than 10,000 km, and that they were one of the hallmarks most highly valued by Unesco when it declared Menorca a Biosphere Reserve. The parets seques - dry stone walls - originally built to separate arable land from livestock, were once a symbol of Menorca’s rural landscape: today they blend seamlessly into the island’s contemporary architecture. They are built using centuries-old techniques, stone piled on stone without any form of cement. In times past, this was also a way of clearing the fields of stone to allow them to be cultivated. The trade of paredador, or dry stone waller, has survived to the present, although nowadays the activities of these skilled craftsmen are not limited to the countryside.
A Good Seed
Although whenever we imagine Menorca we see it in sun-kissed blue, it is also a dense green island. Almost half its surface area is occupied by forests of wild olives, pines and holm oaks. But the maritime pine of Menorca, a native species whose timber is highly valued for its quality and hardness, has become an endangered species in recent times. To guarantee its survival, the Balearic islands’ Department of Agriculture approved a conservation plan last year. The pine’s situation was so bleak that samples of its seeds were stored in the Sóller Botanical Garden and at the Balearic Islands Forestry Centre. Only the various species of Mediterranean pine, including the Menorcan maritime pine, and the Asian pine, produce seeds – pine nuts – large enough to be used as food, although Asian varieties lack the flavor that characterizes those of the Mediterranean.
Juice Of Juniper.
300 years ago, when Menorca was under British rule, English and Dutch sailors searched without success for the fashionable northern spirit of the moment in Mahón’s taverns. The tradesmen in the port soon found a solution. They imported juniper berries, and using alcohol distilled from Mediterranean grapes, produced a unique spirit: Gin de Mahón. An intensely-perfumed gin, with deep notes of juniper and pine, herbal, citric and natural, it is so unusual and so rare that it is recognized today with a certificate of protected geographic origin. Xoriguer, the last tiny distillery that survives on Mahón, makes it artisanally, in the same wood-fired copper stills used by the family of millers who founded the business, and sells it in a bottle with a round handle, recalling the earthenware canecas in which the gin was once shipped. It can be enjoyed straight, but with the addition of a little cloudy lemonade it becomes a popular cocktail: la pomada or, simply, gin amb llimonada, as it is known to many Menorcans.
Escrú for screwdriver, grevi for sauce or fingles for fingers. Just a few of the many Anglicisms that the British bequeathed to Menorquin, the language of Menorca, during their occupation of the island, which lasted almost the whole of the 18th century. British sovereignty over Menorca lasted 94 years and left a significant impression not only on the island’s vocabulary and expressions, but also on its customs and cuisine. The day when islanders traditionally play pranks on each other is not December 28th, the Day of the Holy Innocents, as in the rest of Spain, but on April Fools’ Day, as in England, while Mahón gin also has its origins in the British period. However, it is in the island’s architecture that the influence is most evident. Es Castell, a town founded by the English, still boasts numerous Georgian buildings. In Mahon it’s easy to spot English sash windows and bow windows, known on the island as boínders. In the photo, the pestell menorquí, a type of latch typical on the island, which derives from the Suffolk Thumb Latch. This simplified English design represented an innovation in the 18th century: without a back plate, it could be forged quickly and mounted on the door.
Everywhere A Moo Moo.
Sometimes Menorca feels like a little world unto itself. A sensation that is accentuated by its insularity. The rugged north, where the sea breaks against towering cliffs, contrasts with the flat south, where pine forests tumble down to white sand beaches and idyllic coves. A self-sufficient universe, which even has its own unique breed of cattle, the reddish vaca Menorquina, rescued from extinction by an association of stockbreeders, which today shares its pastures with Holstein-Friesians – pictured – and the world’s last surviving examples of the Fribourg, the breed known in Menorca as “the queen’s cow” because it arrived as a gift from Isabella II of Spain, in the mid-nineteenth century. There’s a particular reason why dairy farming is this tiny island’s second most important source of income, after tourism: the intense and distinctive Mahón cheese. Appreciated since ancient times, this cheese, regulated by the Mahón-Menorca certificate of origin, is still made using artisanal techniques today, and comes in four varieties: soft, semi-cured, cured and aged.