The giant sweet shop of the Tramuntana

There is, as far as I can make out, no particularly good reason why a village in the Tramuntana has insisted on turning itself into the centre of sheer unbridled confectionery fantasy. All they need are some toys as well, and this would be kiddie heaven. As it is, it gets close enough to the divine by converting itself on one day a year - today - into a giant sweet shop and a magician's bakery. Sugar, cream, chocolate, custards, this is a wonderland conjured up by some candy wizard. This is Esporles on the first Sunday in October: Majorca's tribute to all our yesterdays of the pick 'n' mix and the corner shop with its penny-costing flying saucers and pink shrimps.  

They've been holding the sweets fair since 2005. Maybe it was all the doing of he who is now president of the Council of Majorca, Miquel Ensenyat. 2005 was when he became mayor. Invent a fair and make it one with a theme that nowhere else has. What could be simpler than sweets?

It has of course branched out since the early days. There is now all manner of gluttony to indulge in - savouries, sobrassada sausage, pa amb olis - on a day when elsewhere in Majorca, Sant Joan, they're going mad over the butifarró (aka botifarron), the sort of black pudding except when it isn't black. At least in Sant Joan one can detect a history, that of the enthusiasts of the local motoring club who came up with the idea for a boti-barbecue in 1966. In Esporles, the reason for the sweet treats can probably be put down to no more than they could, and so have. Otherwise, it would be a fair similar to many others: Esporles is about farming and livestock, a textile industry that pretty much died out decades ago, La Granja and so some tourism of a heritage and ethnological nature.

The fair, despite having only been going since 2005, has of course acquired the adjective "traditional". In itself it isn't traditional, but much of what is on offer is, and last year they made a concerted effort to sell more sweets by putting on a special promotion for the rosaries of sweeties that are given out for All Saints (which is less than a month away). As this tradition has apparently been experiencing some decline, then what better than reminding grandparents, godparents and others of times past and of the need to buy some choccy rosaries in the present?

The prevailing smell of the day of sweets that hangs over Esporles is, though, that of the "bunyol", the doughnut (or fritter with a hole), being fried, and it comes very much into its own at Allhallowtide as well. It can also lay claim to being part of a long local tradition. But the sweet, or pastry, or cake that beats them all in the traditional stakes is our old friend the ensaimada, which will find pride of place next to the dolly mixtures and what have you.

The history of the ensaimada is shrouded in some mystery. Legend has it that its shape comes from an Arabic turban, and that it was the Muslim invaders of the early tenth century who were responsible for its introduction. The word itself does derive from the Arabic "saim", but as this means lard it is most unlikely - for religious dietary reasons - that the Muslims were making their pastry with it. The saim element was to come later but, so it is believed, grafted onto a different pastry, a snail-shaped thing called the bulema that the Arabs produced but which used butter from sheep's milk instead of lard. There is a further claim that, following the conquest, King Jaume I was presented with an ensaimada by a Jewish baker, but again this wouldn't have had lard. Quite when this was first used as an ingredient isn't known, but the bulema explanation - from both Arabic and Jewish cuisine of the times - would appear to hold the key to the later development using lard and so what is now one of Majorca's most obvious symbols.

So the Esporles fair, only in its eleventh edition, may not have its own tradition, but it will be exhibiting it. The giant sweet shop will be open at ten o'clock, so plenty of time to chomp your way through all the goodies before getting over to Sant Joan and the one o'clock kick-off of the boti-barby. Whoever said Mediterranean diet?

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