Et in Formentera ego; or, où sont les flaons d’antan?

We’ve just returned from two weeks on Formentera, the smallest and southernmost of the inhabited illes Balears. We try to spend some time on the island at least once every two or three years; for it is an unspoilt place, a place time has left behind, a place untouched by the imperatives of vulgar economics.

No, that’s bollocks, of course. It is no such thing, nor could it be.

Here’s what Formentera really is: an island where, for most of history, people have eked out a living, but only just barely. Then things became easier, in a way that must have struck the islanders as daft in the extreme.

Set down amid turquoise waters of unspeakable beauty, the land has a beauty of its own. But this terrestrial beauty is chaste and arid, and not a little harsh. The fields are dry and stony, marked out by low stone walls. Those fields can pulse briefly green, in early spring; I know, because I have seen them during and after the scant rains. But by late spring the rains stop and the sun starts, and soon all is burnt umber. Or almost all; between the fields are prickly pears, agaves and monkey-puzzles, unfazed by the relentless sun, and ringing the coast are hardy savina pines. And sometimes the greenery moves. Endemic to the island, and one of its few native species, are countless small lizards, gorgeous in emerald, turquoise and jade.

Savinas and lizards and brief springtime rains notwithstanding, though, burnt umber is Formentera’s Leitmotiv. You can grow some wheat, but not much. (This is ironic, as the island’s name is thought to come from the Latin Frumentarium. But then Formentera and its larger neighbour Eivissa — Ibiza, in Castilian — are known as the illes Pityusas, or ‘islands of the snakes’, yet you will find no snakes there either.) You can tend an olive grove. You can let a few chickens and goats wander your field, and they will probably find something to keep them alive. Amazingly, you can even grow enough grapes to make a little (a very little) wine. But doing all these things was, historically, insufficient to keep the islanders’ bodies and souls together. So, after gathering what little the land could give them, the men took their boats out to sea to supplement their incomes with a maritime harvest. Their fields are dotted with the typical island fincas, simple small low whitewashed houses. Occasionally, you will see what looks like a half-house, the rear wall falling sheer from the roof-beam. A half-house is exactly what it is, and there is a terribly sad story behind it.

Here we have an island, beautiful but spare, on which one could live, though with no margin of error. And so the people did live, for centuries; but only off-and-on. Humans have been on the island more or less forever, as the megalithic gravesite at ca na Costa attests. But Formentera has been settled many times; many times settled, because it has been abandoned many times. The current settlement dates from the end of the 17th century, when Marc Ferrer led a group from Eivissa to reclaim the island. Most of today’s native population stems from Ferrer’s settlement, and most still bear that group’s handful of surnames: Ferrer, Joan, Mari, Escandell, Serra, Torres (this last often in its pre-Castilianisation form of Tur). The descendants of these six families eked out their meagre living — a little wheat, a little fish, a little oil, a little wine; a lot of backbreaking, dangerous work — for hundreds of years until, not all that very long ago, they discovered to their amazement that strangers from far-off lands would give them a lot of money for nothing more than a view of the sea.

And so tourism, and prosperity, came to Formentera. It first came, though nobody is very proud of the fact, far too soon for decency after Franco’s successful treason. (You could rent rooms at the tiny fishing harbour of Es Caló by the late 1940s.) But tourism only really took off when the hippies decided that the island was an ideal place to tune in, turn on and drop out — at least, if you were lucky enough to have a fat capitalist daddy to bankroll your stay. To the natives, the foreign visitors must have seemed utter madmen. But then, they were madmen with plenty of ready cash; and impoverished islanders are nothing if not pragmatists. And thus a wonderful beauty was born.

Here’s the thing, though. The Formenterans were, presumably, grateful at this visitation by moneyed idiots from abroad. They continue to grow a little wheat, net a few fish, raise a few chickens. But they also gather in the cash the tourists provide, either by renting out their fincas, by running pubs and restaurants, or by keeping shops in the island’s few villages. They weren’t stupid, though; they had no intention of killing the goose. As the good book warns us, one can gain the world yet lose one’s soul. Arguably, the islanders’ northern cousins on Eivissa had done just that. Approach the harbour at Ciutat d’Eivissa and you see mile upon mile of horror in concrete (with countless cranes at the horizon, threatening more of the same). Plane after plane unloads boxcar lots of Mancunians and Ruhrpottler at the Eivissa airport in frenzied search of discos, ecstasy and 100-litre sangrias. You’ll find none of that on Formentera. Mallorca (arguably) and Eivissa (less arguably) are big enough to survive that sort thing. Tiny Formentera is not, and has been careful to strike a balance between tourist revenue and preservation of the island’s soul. So what we have in Formentera is an island that accommodates large numbers of tourists, yet does so without altogether losing its pre-tourism character. (Anthony Torrance sketched this well for the Speccie a couple of years ago. The money quote: Formentera ‘is certainly not chic. God forbid it should ever become so.’) And, if the island manages to remain ever so slightly otherworldly, no part of it is more otherwordly than La Mola.

If you squint your eyes, the island of Formentera looks a bit like a lady’s high-heeled pump. The part down by her toes is La Mola, a plateau ringed round by sheer cliffs. It is almost entirely cut off from the rest of the island. Until the Spanish government laid down PM 820 from the harbour of La Savina through the island’s main town of Sant Francesc to the lighthouse at the far eastern end of La Mola (and PM 820 is itself a nightmare of hairpin curves past Es Caló), the only approach to La Mola was over the Camí vell, most of it unpaved. Even today, nobody goes there by accident. In all my visits to Formentera, I have never have stayed on La Mola. But I have always gone there, by design. And for me, the highlight of every visit to La Mola was a look-in at ca’n Blaiet.

Ca’n Blaiet was, or is, a restaurant. Many public houses on Formentera have two names. The building itself is named after the current or (perhaps more often) a well-known former resident; the business within the building can have a different name altogether. Thus the restaurant Sa Deportiva just south of Sant Francesc inhabits a house called ca’n Carlos; the legendary Fonda Pepe in the village of Sant Ferran hosts a restaurant called Peyka (or P.Y.K, according as which entrance you choose). C’an Blaiet is the only one I know that is named as the house of two different people, for its alternative name is ca na Catalina.

Until recently, ca’n Blaiet was a very primitive building at the far end of El Pilar, La Mola’s sole village. Beyond it were but a mill, a few scattered fincas and a lighthouse. The building itself was fairly large, housing not only the business but Catalina’s extended family as well. The public parts were quite small, though: a tiny bar area; a covered, glassed-in veranda with four or five simple tables, rough flagstones underfoot and whitewashed stone walls to one side. The menu was extremely limited. You wouldn’t find the otherwise ubiquitous paellas and asados that are now pan-Iberian offerings. Ca’n Blaiet offered only what the island traditionally knew; not paellas but the simpler arroces secs. Depending on when you went up to La Mola, you might also be able to order roast lamb or goat; or butifarró, an island sausage whose recipe is unlikely to satisfy EU norms and that must be eaten very fresh; or sofrit pagés, a farmer/fisherman’s fry-up of whatever local ingredients are to hand. Along with these delectables, ca’n Blaiet offered inexpensive and uncomplicated wines of the sort that used to be described as ‘honest’. (But no local wines. Es ví formenterenc is expensive; probably because so very little of it is made). There were a few things on offer for desert, but only one dish to order if you knew what you were doing, and that dish was flaó.

Don’t confuse flaó with flan, the caramel custard that has become nearly as well known outside Spain as within. Flaó is a sort of cheesecake, traditionally made in the Pityusas (Eivissa and Formentera) around Easter-time but now available year-round. Very often (but not invariably) it contains mint leaves. On Eivissa, it is often made with ordinary cream-cheese; this sort of flaó is delicious, but not much more interesting than the cheesecakes one finds all over the world. On Formentera, though, traditional flaó is made with goat’s cheese, because that is the only sort of cheese traditional Formenterans had. In Formentera’s latter-day grocery shops, you usually get the Eivissan sort of flaó, made in big factories on the larger island. Even the island’s best bakery, ca’n Geroni on the south side of Sant Francesc, makes relatively bland flaons. But at ca’n Blaiet, you got the real thing: a cheesecake full of mint leaves and goat’s cheese. That might sound odd, or worse; but it was a stunning achievement. Even if you love goat’s cheese as I do, you will admit it is an odd ingredient for a sweet. But the real old Formenteran flaó threaded the camel’s eye: it had an undeniable goatishness, yet not so much that it didn’t pass muster as a delicious dessert. The only place I found that really successfully married the goatish with the sweet was ca’n Blaiet. I’m still at a loss to figure out where they got their flaons; I suspect they were home-baked.

So of course we were going to ca’n Blaiet for a meal during this visit, and of course we would be ordering flaó for pud.

Here’s the thing, though: ca’n Blaiet has been doing well for itself. Indeed, from my own selfish perspective, all too well. Catalina’s family have clearly nurtured a cash cow; they have now milked it, and re-invested the milk. The old ca’n Blaiet at the far end of town is shut down, though the family live now as before in the larger part of the building behind the old public rooms. If you go to ca’n Blaiet these days (and these days you had better have a reservation), you will find it on the left side of the high street as soon as you arrive in El Pilar — as far as can be from the old site without moving off La Mola altogether. It is a much bigger and grander thing altogether now. It seats at least five times as many punters, and the floor is of even tile rather than rough flags. Catalina has hired a good many waiters to supplement her sons, who ran the old joint up the road, and they all wear uniforms now. The menu is extensive, but indistinguishable from that of any restaurant in Spain. The wine list is long, or at least a lot longer than it used to be, and a lot pricier as well.

Flaó is still on the dessert menu, but they didn’t have any when we visited.

C’an Blaiet used to be something unusual and special. Now it’s just another restaurant. Don’t get me wrong; I’d still go back. But I’d no longer go out of my way to go back.

Is this change such a sad thing, though? It clearly isn’t, if you’re Catalina’s family, who now have a bigger business and, presumably, generate a lot more revenue than they could at their old place. And I’m sure the large wait staff who have found jobs in the restaurant will manage to be strong about the new order. It’s ludicrous — offensive, even — to suggest that things must remain as they were for the sake of a tourist’s sentiments. I wish the staff every success with their modern expanded business, and maybe it will pay for Catalina’s grandchildren to (say) study medicine at Barcelona. In purely economic terms, the change is surely a good thing. I trust, though, that a tourist who loves the island may be permitted a small pang at the disappearance of the rough-hewn jewel that was the old ca’n Blaiet.

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