As a child, the restaurants of the French Riviera were heaven for Andrew Lloyd Webber. Now, finally, he has found somewhere to match them - on the island of Majorca and, in particular, one hillside village. Here, he explains why Deia has become the gastronomic capital of the Mediterranean.
20 Aug 2005 Daily Telegraph Page 1 (WKD) Edition 1C
By Andrew Lloyd Webber
I trepidate. I like this verb. I like the cut of its jib: to hurry, bustle; be agitated, to tremble with fear. But I’m not trepidating because I am venturing back on to the sacred turf of Weekend. The reason, frankly, is self-interest. Why should I spill the beans about a Mediterranean village that today outguns St Paul de Vence as I remember it in the 1960s?
As a child, I spent my school holidays on the French Riviera. I remember the then bohemian “David Niven-et-al’’ populated St Jean Cap Ferrat. Those were the days when it brimmed with great family restaurants and Russian oligarchs were unheard of. Why should I tell you that, joy of joys, such a village still exists?
Of course, many will say that it’s due to my caring and sharing disposition. But I know that the game is up. Too many foodies have clocked that Majorca is fast becoming the gastronomic capital of the Med. And they know that its centre is the extraordinary hillside village of Deia.
I first went there three years ago at the behest of Sir D Frost. Having axed the French homestead, I wanted somewhere quiet where I could write. He suggested the hotel La Residencia where he had stayed while interviewing Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, who have a house nearby. My reaction was quizzical. Majorca ? The land of “Shagalluf’‘?
My wife, Madeleine, and I arrived in Deia very late on a wet April night to discover in our room an excellent foie gras mousse and a range of stuffed baby vegetables, served with a superb olive oil called Oli S’illa and accompanied by a most delicious Chardonnay grown by Jaume Mesquida. I hit the sack pondering whether something was afoot on this island that I had missed. There was.
Next morning, seduced by the gorgeous scent of wet pine, I opened the curtains and was dumbfounded. The little hill village resembled the undeveloped Èze of my Riviera childhood. Six great meals at six village restaurants later and with Deia was complete my love affair .
So how did Majorca shift the balance from tattooed, bare beer-bellied lager lovers of Magalluf to wine-sipping lovers of Soller prawns and pork belly? I reckon it began more than a decade ago when the island woke up to the danger of its fantastic natural beauty being lost for good. At the same time, international restaurateurs were becoming aware of the glorious natural ingredients that abound on the island. Top German chefs set up shop here. As we shall see, German chefs have quite a hold on the archipelago.
Nowhere was more “the other Majorca ‘’ than Deia , which, from the time Robert Graves moved there, had become a 1960s arts-and-kaftan-lovers haven. Roadblocks were set up if any of Franco’s fuzz challenged the right of residents to smoke what they grew. Even today, there is a women’s clothes shop that sells gear that would have graced Biba.
At the heart of the village is La Residencia. It was bought by Richard Branson, who built on its reputation not only as a unique hotel but also as a centre for food, wine and particularly art. Today, it is owned by the Orient Express group.
So many chefs started life at El Olivo , the main Residencia restaurant, that I am kicking off here first. Set within and outside a huge olive press and sporting more candles than The Phantom film, it is a visual riot. So is the food, perhaps a little too much so. For some Majorca chefs have a tendency to architectural construction and ridiculous food pairings. There is a touch of the SDLs (Synchronised Dome Lifting) that I thought had ankled in the late 1990s.
A recent meal revealed chef Guillermo Mendez’s sure hand, but sometimes curious invention. Octopus carpaccio with fruit salad in lavender vinaigrette sounded preposterous to me, but worked thanks to the addition of little bits of mackerel. Soller prawns and pork belly were united by Jabugo ham in a version of prawns with bacon. If you find prawns from the nearby village of Soller , have them - I have never tasted better. There was a splendidly intense fish soup with an oyster that had somehow been coated with almonds.
Majorcan lamb is exceptional. Here, it comes with a saffron crust. But the two standout dishes were a superb St Pierre baked in olive oil and chicken in a salt crust with a mushroom risotto and a mustard sauce sweetened with fig.
There is a seven-course tasting menu at euros75 (£ 51), which is top dollar for this island. The wine list is a must if you want a quick course in local brews. (There is another simpler restaurant in the hotel called Son Fony, which I have not sampled.)
Before Mendez headed up the stoves at El Olivo, the honcho was Josef Sauerschell, whose ambition was to set up a restaurant where he’d get a Michelin gong. He duly did. Its full name is Es Raco d’es Teix, but locals call it Josef’s.
The terrace here is the stuff of high romance. The mountains preside majestically over the amuse-gueules and petits fours that Michelin men insist upon. The colours of the setting sun on the mountains outgun the canvases of even the most psychedelically challenged of Deia’s 1960s artists.
I have eaten here many times and always well. Last week, the fish soup was outstanding. There was a great vichyssoise with a salmon tartare - a fine combination. There was a knockout ravioli of lobster with peach and tarragon and a sauce of port. There were beautiful vegetables sautéed in the oil I discovered at the Residencia, but a lobster and melon cocktail was pronounced by my mother-in-law, Gillian, as “too innocent of lobster’‘.
Rack of lamb comes with an olive crust, a dish as simple and excellent as turbot and foie gras with marrow in a highly herbal sherry sauce. It belongs to the anything-goes-with-anything world of late-1990s London and it sort of works.A cheer for the figs in port, the euros 68 (£ 46) seven-course tasting menu and the Spanish-orientated wine list. But be warned: if it is high season, the dreaded words “service d’escargots’’ have, on occasion, been heard.
When Sauerschell was at El Olivo, he had an ambitious young chef working under him called Sebastian Pasch. He left to set up his own outfit, Sebastian’s , which is fronted by his other half, Patricia, a gorgeous Irish woman who does things in the village such as paint her face green and dress up as a witch on Hallowe’en night to the delight of the local children. Not since Stephanie Oakes shuffled celebrities around LA’s “Ivy’’ Le Dome have I come across such a glamorous, totally professional woman fronting an eaterie. In fact, Sebastian and she might just be the most irritatingly gorgeous couple in the restaurant business. They are certainly the nicest. When I asked them to do lunch at my home for “four to five people’’ and they catered for 45, they took it with a “that’s show business’’ shrug.
Madeleine reckons that lamb in a pastry case shrouded with a sort of rosemary-infused mousse is the best dish she’s eaten in our three-year stint in Deia. There is gorgeous rabbit with onion marmalade. Dorade comes with an olive purée, and a salad with lobster, squid, scallops and langoustines had Soller’s fish market written all over it. The Champagne mousse with poached peaches had all the children reeling. I opted for a local, rather tomme-like cheese, which I had with a local olive oil.
Don’t think, though, that Deia food is all about Michelin-orb chasers. Take El Barrigón Xelini, known in the village as the Tapas Bar . It’s fantastic for big parties, especially with children, and I’ve been to many a village bash here when we’ve numbered 20 or more. The chicken croquettes are a real must. The chicken with prawns is classic island stuff, as are the prawns in garlic. It is hard to go wrong here, especially when it is difficult to average more than euros20 (£ 14) per head.
Jaume’s is the most traditional Majorcan restaurant of the village . Suckling pig is the thing here, slowly roasted and wonderfully crisp. There is super alioli (a sort of mayonnaise, but with crushed garlic substituted for egg). This is honest country cooking by the eponymous Jaume, who trained in the Basque region. His wife, Alicia, does the front of house.
Deia brims with bars, too . The latest is a trendy, Notting Hill-type joint owned by the book dealer Simon Finch, one of the reasons why Deia is now affiliated with the Hay Festival. There is a new wine and sherry orientated hideout that does barbecues that my children vouch for called Senset Y Senseta . But the bar that the village gravitates to is Sa Fonda . This is always full of local families and on occasion, depending on who’s in the village, an A-celeb list The Ivy would die for. Bands play at weekends and the musical celebs have been known to join in. However, there is a new mayoral ban on live music after midnight that infuriates we locals. The bar continues to play music way into the small hours. It’s just that it’s not live.
Another mega-must is Sa Vinya . It inhabits a ravishing terrace just below “Josef’s’’ and has similarly staggering views of setting sun on mountain. I have eaten here as good a rabbit dish as I have had anywhere, the bunny stewed with lentils in a slightly acidic sauce. My son Billy loves it just for the spinach quiche.
However, if Sa Vinya is serving snails, race to them. Sadly, a dish of snails with sauerkraut, an extraordinary, bittersweet combination of genius, has for some reason been headed into the mountains by the chef. It must be retrieved.
Madeleine loves the langoustine soup. The music is mostly Sarah Brightman albums, which occasionally pleases her less. For a restaurant of this class in such a gorgeous garden setting, it is a bargain. Reckon euros40 (£ 27) for three courses. Beware top Cs.
Yet another Residencia alumni is Benito Vicens at Restaurant Bens D’Avall . Technically, it is just outside Deia’s boundaries, but must be mentioned because of its sensational position looking south along the coast. The sunset here is as good as it gets.
Try the starter of stuffed vegetables. The principle is the same as petites farcies niçoises. Another highlight is fish roasted with fig leaves. Readers may remember that this was a favourite of mine at Le Provençal in Cap Ferrat in the days when I reviewed restaurants for Weekend. Fig adds a subtle sweetness to fish and if you didn’t know it was fig you would be baffled as to how it was cooked. Here, they take it one stage further by roasting the accompanying vegetables in fig leaves. The whole cast comes to the table.
Puddings are mainly excellent, particularly the summer peach cooked with a local almond ice cream. However, an ice cream dish served with a cold sobrasada, a local sausage with caramelised apricots, honey and a basil cream, is invention taken to absurdity. The recipe should be sent to the Ministry of Silly Food c/o the Fat Duck at Bray, which no doubt will find a way of turning it into nitrogen. Then it should be expunged from the menu.
These are but a few of the restaurants in and around Deia , let alone Majorca . Deia is a special place and I pray it does not go the way of the south of France . There has been development, although mercifully the areas where it can occur are allegedly finite. Several of the new houses have been bought by people who work in the village. There is an official low-cost housing policy that means locals, including local artists, have not been priced out.
Deia could remain relatively unscathed. First, the roads are twisty and no house is grand, so I doubt that Deia will ever appeal to the Euro-rich. Second, the village has La Residencia. However, although the village needs La Residencia, it, too, needs the village.
For now, though, let’s celebrate this unique village. However, I warn you that you need to stay the night here. It’s quite difficult to park, but it’s more than worth it.