The Hamilton Spectator

The island of sunshine & LIQUID GOLD

Mallorca’s many riches include poetic beauty and perfect tranquilit­y amid the olive groves


It’s a blazing, clear-skied summer day in Mallorca, the sort that the Balearic island specialize­s in, and I’m wandering through the ancient mountainsi­de olive groves surroundin­g the hotel La Residencia with my husband and my son, Leo. The orchards bathe in sunshine as rich and lustrous as the oil they produce, the trees’ silvery leaves glinting and giggling in the hot breeze. (I’d laugh, too, if this were my permanent address.)

We spot some of the property’s resident donkeys — two adults and a baby — relaxing in shifting shade patterned as fancifully as a Joan Miró canvas. (Miró spent his later life in Mallorca, and 33 of his original artworks adorn the hotel.)

The donkey trio wanders languidly toward us, and I wonder if they know they’ve won the donkey lottery, living as they do at a Belmond hotel in Deià, an artists’ village snuggly tucked between the towering Tramuntana mountains and a Mediterran­ean Sea as wind-ruffled as a flamenco skirt. I also wonder (wondering and wandering are big in a place like this) if there is anything more delightful than petting a donkey’s sun-warmed velvet ears on a Mallorcan mountainsi­de.

When Leo was little, we read author William Steig’s Caldecott-winning masterpiec­e “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble” more times than there are, well, olive trees in Mallorca. (About 750,000 trees, it turns out, is the best estimate.

But I’ll wander back to the olive population later.) The book is a heartbreak­ing and heart-filling story about donkey parents and their only donkey child, Sylvester.

For a moment, as I behold this donkey baby, I feel I may be meeting the real-life Sylvester.

When I share this observatio­n with Leo, delighted with myself, he is (naturally) quick to disagree: “I feel more like we’re in ‘Puss in Boots,’ ” he says, referring to the 2022 film, in which Puss is voiced by Antonio Banderas.

Deià is all honey-coloured, redtile-topped, 17th-century stone architectu­re, bouquets of paint brushes resting in windowsill­s, green shutters the shade of the Spanish island’s palms and cypress. It does seem like the sort of fairytale place that leapt out of a picasunshi­ne resque Dumas novel, or a DreamWorks production, where you halfexpect to spot a roguish ginger cat lapping up a bowl of gazpacho at a local outdoor café.

If I’ve already mentioned several children’s book characters, it’s because this place — in its surfeit of and beauty — feels impossibly cinematic and poetic. It takes about 15 seconds to understand why artists have long flocked to settle in Deià, why poet Robert Graves moved here in 1929.

Graves had fought at the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, where he was badly injured, and moved to Deià to escape the shell shock that had plagued him since the war. He stayed for 56 years, writing and planting olive trees in his garden for exercise.

“Perfect tranquilit­y reigns,” he once wrote about the Mallorcan countrysid­e. Graves’ oldest son, William, penned a memoir about growing up in Deià and called it “Wild Olives.” Every story in this part of the world seems to lead back to olives.

Spain produces about 50 per cent of the world’s olive oil, cultivatin­g a rising trend in oleoturism­o (olive oil tourism). Olive growing, in Mallorca, dates back to Roman times. Every Mallorcan finca or hotel seems to claim to hand-harvest their own groves, with Arbequina, Empeltre and Picual olives among the local varieties.

In Mallorca, people talk about olive oil the way oenophiles might talk about wine, in terms of terroir and flavour profiles and tasting notes. Oleophiles can finca-hop and discuss Picual olives (yielding an oil that is spicy and robust in flavour) the way that Paul Giamatti’s Miles in “Sideways” waxed poetic about Pinot Noir grapes.

The fruit (yes, olives are a fruit) from La Residencia’s groves is harvested on-site and then coldpresse­d in the neighbouri­ng village of Sóller. It’s used in the hotel’s spa treatments and in its restaurant, El Olivo, so named for the building’s past life as a 17th-century olive oil mill. I told you all roads here end with olives.

After our donkey rendezvous, I pop into El Olivo, its menu a celebratio­n of zero-kilometre food.

The instant that chef Pablo Armando Aranda Moreno introduces himself, he shows me a bottle of the house olive oil, as though it would be impolite not to introduce me to a family member in the room.

He lifts a bottle from the counter: “This is my baby!” he announces with paternal pride. “It’s suave and round,” he tells me, explaining that olives — shaped by their soil, climate, environmen­t — harvested just a few kilometres away, closer to the sea, are saltier.

He passes me a piece of pan moreno — a traditiona­l bread, dense, flavourful and slightly sweet, made with xeixa, a type of wheat grown on the island — topping it with ramallet (Mallorcan winter tomatoes).

As he adds a generous and theatrical drizzle of oil, he pronounces: “Awww, my baby!”

As I leave the restaurant, I meet a hotel staffer who asks me how my day’s going. I’ve just spent it among the groves, meeting donkeys and sampling extra-virgin olive oil — it couldn’t be better, basically. But it could, evidently.

“Have you ever gone on a donkey picnic?” she asks me. I have not.

It’s ideal in springtime, she tells me, when the valleys are lush with flowers, when the citrus and almond trees pop into fragrant bloom.

“You haven’t lived until you’ve picnicked with donkeys,” she tells me. I’m inclined to believe her.

 ?? OLIVIA STREN PHOTO ?? Olivia Stren with her son, Leo, and a particular­ly lucky donkey.
OLIVIA STREN PHOTO Olivia Stren with her son, Leo, and a particular­ly lucky donkey.

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