Space at the table: food in Ibiza

Hardeep Singh Kohli
01 August 2016

Ibiza is fast becoming a food destination to rival Copenhagen and San Sebastián, with cooks such as Anne Sijmonsbergen bringing the sensibilities of a Massachusetts farmers’ market to the party island. Hardeep Singh Kohli meets her and the other players making the White Isle more about cuisine than clubbing

Welcome to Ibiza: destination decadence. Growing up in the 1990s, Brand Balearic (with Ibiza at its heart) was the party proposition for the sun-slayer, soul-sharer, sound-blarer – famed for hedonism in all conceivable forms.

I’d always been attracted to Spain for its vast and varied food, from Galician octopus stew to Barcelona’s sumptuously simple tapas, but it’s no wonder that this fat lad from Glasgow (whose idea of a ‘club night’ involves a chocolate biscuit bar made by Jacob’s) never considered donning a Pucci man-skirt and Louis Vuitton thong before heading for the Med. No, Ibiza was never for the likes of me.

Yet as dancers make shapes and revolve in the nightspots in the south of the island, up in the north people are clubbing together to create a food revolution that is shaping a parallel future for Ibiza. And this is food to both sing and dance about.

At the vanguard of this unexpected coup de cuisine is Anne Sijmonsbergen. Her cookbook Eivissa (Catalan for Ibiza) is the first to collect and curate the cooking of the White Isle, introducing Ibicencan food to a wider world. 

Like so many of the main movers and shakers on the island, Sijmonsbergen is an incomer, a blow-in. ‘I first set foot on the island with just a suitcase. It was meant to be a holiday but I knew then that I would never leave. That was ten years ago; now if I go away, I count down the days till my return.’ But while most plunge headlong into the azure blue waters lapping the island, she dived headlong, heart-strong into rediscovering and innovating Ibiza’s food culture.

Sijmonsbergen, who is from Vermont, and her Dutch husband moved here from London. She trained at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts in Massachusetts and spent time in Bangkok learning the ways of Thai food from a Swedish chef who had married into the royal family. I lose track of the number of countries and cities she breezily drops into conversation. But her passion for growing perfect produce resides on this island. 

‘Organic Annie’, as she is affectionately known, is the island’s only organic tomato farmer. ‘My obsession with tomatoes goes back to my grandfather’s farm in Massachusetts. Tigger and Tom, the farm cats, and I would sit while I double-handed light-bulb tomatoes into my seven-year-old mouth.’ Little did she realise that those childhood moments would echo so loudly into later life.

Sijmonsbergen has grown, nurtured and supplied pretty much every fruit and vegetable that can be grown on the island. At the season’s height, her farm, Can Riero, produces 200kg of tomatoes a week across 100 different varieties. 

A 450-year-old farmhouse, or finca, as the locals call it, Can Riero is also part of the burgeoning agritourismo sector of the island economy. These working farms provide great places for guests to stay in luxury’s lap, surrounded by apricot trees, lemon groves and tomato plants. So many tomato plants…

‘When I arrived it was all clubs and grill restaurants. The beach clubs served an almost identical menu of grilled fish, potatoes and salad. Most food was brought in to fulfil the tastes of the party people. That’s changing. Some of these clubs are now at the heart of the culinary revolution, offering some of the best food in the Mediterranean.’

Driving the disparate dirt tracks of the north of the island you soon realise that in the days before club culture there had been another way of life, a way Annie has almost single-handedly rediscovered. The fecund slopes are bejewelled with legion rejuvenated fincas that suggest a phoenix of farming rising from the clubland ashes. These traditional farmhouses are bright white beacons of the past and the future, stuccoed symbols that suffuse every sightline as I journey to meet another incomer digging deep into Ibiza’s horticultural heritage.

It’s difficult not to fall in love with Ronnie Anderson, a man with the softest Irish brogue and the rugged looks of a 1950s matinee idol. ‘Until 40 years ago the island was a net exporter of food,’ explains Anderson. ‘The nightclubs brought money and an entire generation of Ibicencans left the land and beat a path for the bars and clubs. It was an easier life than tilling the land. In a single generation the culture changed – from farms and fincas they aspired to apartments. In doing so they became disconnected from their heritage.’ The ‘root of all evil’ issue is difficult to ignore – after all, Spain’s richest borough, St Eulalia, is on Ibiza, built on the back of the bars, paid for by partygoers.

‘I’ve never been to a nightclub, never taken a drug and can’t speak Spanish. But I love this place,’ says Anderson. ‘For me this is about history and culture.’

History, culture and porcine preservation, to be exact. When Anderson arrived on the island from the UK ten years ago, the Ibicencan Formentera porc negre pig was heading for extinction. There were just 26 of these animals left in the world. ‘I couldn’t bear the thought that these pigs could die out. For centuries they had survived. Then in one generation...’ Anderson’s words tail off and he looks away across his farm to his beloved porkers. 

Following in his grandfather’s footsteps, Anderson started rearing these pigs. In a decade he has doubled the numbers, as well as keeping other local breeds. Anderson isn’t satisfied with salvation. He’s instituted a school education programme attracting 1,500 kids every year. 

He also wants to connect his livestock to the community in somewhat unexpected ways. ‘We slaughter a big pig once a year. We then get drunk and make sausages. Tradition dictates that you have to finish the sausage making before the day’s end. One year we got too drunk. We had to call the police who arrived in their aprons and helped us finish.’

Anderson’s field-to-fork campaign is made concrete by his stake in Ibiza’s hippest new bar, Babylon Beach. The studied-cool décor, chilled international staff and ambient sounds might give the impression that Babylon Beach is clichéd Ibiza of old. But the cocktails and the food belie its location. Ricotta and crab stuffed courgette flowers in a tempura batter; beef fillet carpaccio; burrata with heirloom tomatoes. The food is stunning and overwhelmingly sourced from the island – much of it from Anderson’s farm. 

Away from the beach, in Ibiza old town, a Unesco world heritage site, the narrow alleyways and steep buildings reveal the Arab influences on the island. Tables, chairs and diners spill out on to the streets and squares. This is the sit-down party hub of the island. We venture through the tourist spots to a hidden dining room where the Ibiza Food Studio, under the gaze of ex-Noma chef Boris Buono, offers food that is both local and mind-blowing. From a tiny open kitchen the staff serve Michelin star-quality food at anything but Michelin star prices – the Bonito tuna sashimi with avocado is worth the airfare alone. 

Buono, who has cooked around the world, offers a different take on the local harvest. ‘Much as I love all the produce here, I miss the seasons. It was tricky for me to get my head around the fact that there are effectively three springs on Ibiza – a mini spring in the autumn, another at Christmas, and the spring we all know. Sometimes I find myself overwhelmed by the choice.’ While Buono finds himself over-faced by abundance, I am overwhelmed by the quality of the crispy chicken skin smeared with olive tapenade.

Ibiza Food Studio may be staffed by an international crew, but the food revolution is taking hold with locals too, as I found when I dipped my toe into Ibizan beach life. Down a steep dirt track to one of the most beautiful coves on the north coast is a chiringuito. It looks to be a beach bar like so many others on the island, there to feed and fleece the sun worshippers. I settle into the makeshift shack and order the speciality sandwiches. Now, I love a sandwich, but the sandwiches Tony Juan Ferrer serves up are among the best I’ve ever had. Ibicencan sausage with guacamole and salad in a baguette – a piquant chorizo taste of paradise, to accompany the spectacular view.

‘I was born on the island, born on the beach,’ Ferrer says as his dad downs another of what looks like a number of cold beers. ‘Every day we buy fresh local vegetables. People come for the stunning beach. But they come back for the sandwiches.’

I put it to Ferrer that he would likely make as much, if not more money, if he didn’t source locally from farms like Sijmonsbergen’s and Anderson’s. He laughs. ‘If I come to your house to eat, are you thinking about business? Or are you thinking about giving me the best food you can?’ 

It’s clearly the beginning of a new Ibiza. Who wants to rave when they can crave? 

Follow Hardeep on Twitter: @misterhsk