People think they know the Balearics all too well. But people are wrong. Here is a list few will recognise: Pinto, D'en Pou, Aire, Colom, Aucanada, Conejera, Aborcados, Dragonera, Botafoch, Rey, Espalmador. These are the 11 smaller inhabited islands, rarely visited, virtually unknown.
Mallorca, the largest Balearic, is of course, rather more familiar. Indeed, on arrival, the sight of more than 10 brand-new Air Berlin Boeing 737-800s lined up at Palma Airport excites morbid fears, but the entropy of the low-cost tourist works in Mallorca's favour. The low-cost tourist does not move much. This leaves large parts of Mallorca deliciously unknown territory.
The development of Mallorca has been surprisingly recent. The first edition of The Blue Guide to Northern Spain was published in 1930. It is a book of haunting innocence. Researched and written before the Spanish Civil War, it describes an insular idyll generally unchanged since the pork butchers of Tyre taught the Mallorquins how to make blood sausages 29 centuries ago. But there will be more xarcuteri later. Mallorca before the Fall had the same geo-physical features that remain today - "the coastline is serrated and the surface mountainous" - and it has always been astonishingly fertile: among the strongest visual memories of winter visitors are vast landscapes of flowering trees.
To the 1930 guide, man's interventions in island life were relatively insignificant. About the architecture, it notes "the Moorish noria [draw-well] is still seen", and of the people, they are "thrifty, frank, sober and patriotic". There is only the one warning note, about a new hotel being built at Formentor in the rocky north-east "with every modern convenience". By the second edition in 1958 the island world has changed. The evolution of peasant life, by which we mean its utter destruction, described by Norman Lewis in his beautiful and touching Voices of the Old Sea (1984) happened here, too. In theory the guide tells us that Mallorca remains "a veritable mecca for artist and invalid alike" (1930), but wistfully "the number of foreign visitors... increases yearly" (1958).
A remarkable new hotel will not greatly influence visitor statistics, but it does illustrate how the character of Mallorca is quietly changing. Son Brull opened last summer: it is about 35 miles from Palma, just outside the unspoilt town of Pollenca with its dramatic Calvario, or Way of the Cross. It is a handsome, austere building, begun by the Jesuits in 1745 and abandoned by them in 1767 when Carlos III performed a regime change. Until a few years ago Son Brull was a possessio, a self-sufficient working farm, but then it was bought by the Suau family, local hoteliers who have run the luxurious Hotel Cala Sant Vicenc since 1978. Son Brull, however, is a very different establishment from that Mallorcan institution, with its blazers and pastel cashmeres.
The structure of the stately monastery has been retained, but the cells and low ceilings have been ripped out. The interior designer, Ignacio Forteza, has treated his commission with respect and tact, but he has also been quite uncompromising. He uses unfinished industrial steel and confident swathes of black leather. Lighting is ambitious and the art is good and real. The feeling is of intelligent luxury, an atmosphere that combines controlled simplicity with a sense of privilege and indulgence, but not of crass opulence. Our room had a joyously commodious bed with superb linen, hardwood joinery, killer air-conditioning, bespoke fittings, generous modern chairs with linen cushions on the terrace, a shower you could entertain in, masses of space and interesting furniture.
The same mood is struck in the restaurant. It has at once the simplicity and order of a monastic refectory, but a powerful sense of luxurious modernismo, with vast black leather banquettes and fine Rosenthal glass. The 27-year-old cook is Joan-Marc Garcias from Barcelona. He chooses excellent ingredients and combines them imaginatively: like the interior design, the menu respects tradition, but does not slavishly defer to it. A dish of rodaballo asado con piel y espinas (turbot cooked with skin and bones) was much more delicious than it sounds. Bacalao em brandada tripitas y sopa de calabaza (brandade with cod tripe and pumpkin soup) was equally good.
Mallorca is now producing some superb wines. Few of them are exported, but they are all available at Son Brull. Seriously worth noting are two reds: the amazingly plummy Anima Negra by Francesc Grimalt and the less heady Sot Lefriec, this last in less than 500 cases last year.
Son Brull might have been made for a visitor like me. With a fine combination of old charm and modern comfort, good food and fascinating wine, elegantly understated service by attractive staff who appeared to be enjoying themselves (in that pleasantly mournful Iberian fashion), all to be enjoyed in near silence, it was already near perfect for the greedy hedonist and fastidious aesthete who occupy the poles of my own particular personality disorder.
But as if to recognise another need, Son Brull - with its complicated wines, its Barcelona interior design, its Bang & Olufsen televisions, its deluge showers and its conversation-piece whirlpool baths - invites its guests to take part in a day-long pre-historic ritual that gets you back in touch with your Stone Age side. This is the matanzas, the ritual pig slaughter which takes place throughout the Mediterranean from November to March. At other times of year the higher temperatures make the (quite literally) blood-curdling activities impractical and possibly deadly. Readers of Jane Grigson's Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery (1967) and Anthony Bourdin's A Cook's Tour (2002) will know something of the astonishing nature of the pig. Of all God's creatures it is the only one that is almost wholly edible: on Mallorca the only bits lost to gastronomy are the toenails and the tail. Everything else gets cooked, eaten, smoked, preserved and stuffed. At Son Brull you get to see it happen.
Laziness rather than squeamishness meant we missed the killing itself. This happens at dawn and, while curiosity was a powerful lure, the most comfortable bed I have ever used and a cafetière of bituminous coffee taken in a whirlpool bath proved disincentives to witness the dispatch of a swine on a stormy and wet Mallorcan morning in February. By the time the dead animal arrived in the dignified courtyard of Son Brull, the carcass had been through the scalding trough and over the scraping table. This process makes the hair slip off, and what is left is a fat pig ready to demonstrate man's devilish ingenuity when in pursuit of sustenance.
The scene was as if Hieronymus Bosch had set up his studio on the Harvey Nichols designer floor. There were guts everywhere, pained expressions, and rude grunts of primal satisfaction as the butcher's axe fell home with impressive accuracy and effect. Well-dressed visitors, the more delicate of them flinching and occasionally looking the other way, mingled with sturdy Mallorquins. One woman got visibly paler as the matanzas progressed and the intestines were washed. Testing the theory of total edibility, very odd pig components were put through a hand-mixer. The result was piled on a table: pimenton, salt and herbs were added and the mess was kneaded into a bright-orange pulp. Visitors were invited to join in. Few did. This was the making of sobrasada, the rough, Mallorquin pâté.
Some of the sobrasada went into the rinsed intestines to make sausages (skillfully tied by women practised in this art for, I imagine, centuries), the rest of it was fried-up with a little honey and vinegar and offered around. For us urbanites, even the carnivorous ones, eating something that had been squealing an hour or two before was a bracing experience. Then, leaving out the pimenton, but adding a conveniently handy bucket of blood, they make butafarrones: the local black sausage, as unctuous and primitively delicious as it is challenging.
The process (and we are not even at 11 in the morning yet) was lubricated by shots of mesclat (the explosive "mixture" of local carob liqueur, anis and mint) served with plates of figs. Moments later the tinto and rosado arrived, this last made with the distinctive Mallorquin callet grape used exclusively in the aristocratic Anima Negra, but here mixed with some syrah. Then it was time for lunch: arroz brut, the dirty rice made of yet more pig, some of identifiable, the rest: don't ask. "Raw pork and opium" was Byron's explanation of Keats's creative condition. "Raw pork and pimenton" was our experience.
Then it was vamos al puerto: a walk along Pollenca's Paseo Maritimo was a necessary afternoon corrective. Deserted in winter, the waterfront apartments had notices saying "Zu Vermieten" in fading felt tip or "To Let" in laser print.
The tramontana, the icy northern wind, was blowing. Mallorca in winter has its stimulating qualities, as the notorious George Sand found out. Her Un Hiver in Majorque (1841) was written while she was living with Chopin in the Carthusian monastery at Valldemosa in the winter of 1838. He, taking moments off from composing his 13th Nocturne, described their simple life in "three rooms and a garden full of oranges and lemons". She, bitter at being turned into a nursemaid for the sick composer, wrote that no one is happy and that travel is an engaging, but ultimately deceitful activity. Then, having scandalised the strict and simple moral rule of the island with her loose ways, she branded her hosts barbarians.
My impressions of the island in winter are happily different. I always think graphic design is an accurate index of cultural vitality. Never mind the beds, Son Brull has superb graphics, typical of the hotel's astonishing attention to detail. We had only two complaints. My wife's black wardrobe got lost in the hotel's black wardrobe, and sobrasada at breakfast is a step too far. Other than that, Mallorca has a marvellously distinctive new hotel.
There are plenty of direct flights to Palma from the UK. British Midland (0870 607 0555; www.britishmidland.com) operates daily flights from Heathrow while easyJet (0870 600 0000; www.easyjet.com) flies from Luton, Liverpool and Stansted. AirEuropa (0870 240 1501; www.air-europa.co.uk) flies from Gatwick four times a week.
The writer stayed at the Son Brull Hotel (0034 971 768 040; www.sonbrull.com), on the road from Palma to Pollenca. Double rooms, including breakfast, cost from €275 to €700 (£185.50-£472) (high season) and €237 to €650 (£160-£438.50) (low season).
EATING AND DRINKING
Cafés and restaurants are generally open all day and the "Menu of the Day" often proves the best, and tastiest, deal. Tapas is served at most bars and taverna, which can be found concentrated in side streets, such as those off Passeig d'es Bourn.
Mallorca Tourist Office (Palma): 0034 971 712 216
Spain Tourist Office in London: 020-7486 8077; www.tourspain.co.uk
By Rebecca LoweReuse content