As previously touched upon, the center of Palma is with few exceptions a maze of streets that the average American would find difficult to sort out. During the first days after my move there the old city seemed very large to me. At first I stuck to the area immediate to the alley on which I was staying (also where La Vinya happens to be located), but each day I would venture a little further away from my hotel, making the city feel a little bit smaller and more manageable. Later on, I realized that I had no trouble walking from my apartment across the old city to the other side of town to go out on a not-too-irregular basis. What had seemed so immense at first grew smaller with familiarity. That was the realization, almost as much as anything else, that I felt very much at home in Palma.
There are still sections of the old city whose impenetrability defies almost any attempt to get to know them, but therein lies the charm: As soon as you leave a well-trodden path, you never are quite sure what you’ll stumble upon – a strangely secluded plaza just steps from a bustling thoroughfare, an architectural gem or a centuries-old establishment. Can Joan de s’Aigo, Palma’s oldest café and pastry shop still in operation, is an example of just such a place.
There is a certain jewelbox quality to Can Joan de ‘Aigo (“John of the Water’s house” in Majorcan Catalan). The decor looks like it may have been updated since its opening in 1700, but it maintains an air of antiquated dignity, reminding me of Victorian era clutter. The intensity of the place is magnified by being tucked away on another one of Palma’s easily overlooked alleys in the old city. The approach involves traversing seemingly forgotten passages that, while just off heavily trafficked areas, have an air of remoteness. Before you’ve realized where you are, you are standing in front of this venerable institution.
Can Joan’s menu has changed little over 309 years. You can have coffee, hot chocolate (much like the hot chocolate at xurreria) or ice cream (perhaps this wasn’t on the original menu), and you can choose from an assortment of pastries.
One pastry in particular, ensaïmada, might just be the quintessential Majorcan food item. You can find one in nearly any café, and tourists buy giant ones in what look like hat boxes to take home. Ensaïmades have been made in Majorca since time immemorial, and have survived down to the present day intact – a perennial favorite. Their pastry is made from dough that is not entirely unlike a croissant. As croissant dough is made by folding butter into layers of dough, flattening, then repeating the process several times, so the dough for ensaïmades is made by folding saïm, the local Catalan word for pork fat, into layers of dough, flattening, then repeating. Instead of being rolled into a crescent shape like a croissant, the dough is wound into a coil. From that point, the variations are many. A plain ensaïmada is usually just sprinkled with a bit of powdered sugar. It can be topped with slices of fruit, or slices of sobrassada, or with custard, or even a preserve of sweetened spaghetti squash called cabell d’àngel (angel’s hair).
Can Joan usually has a variety of ensaïmades available, but I’ve only had ones with cream or with apricot, both of which are delicious. Elsewhere I’ve had ensaïmades in any number of the above variations – I think my favorite ensaïmada was one served with dollops of nutella at a wedding party. While ensaïmada dough has a method of production similar to that of to croissant dough, the end result is different. It is usually baked lighter than a croissant, and the pork fat used to cut the pastry can give it a somewhat greasy quality. I don’t think I’d like to eat it everyday, but once in a while is nice, especially at Can Joan de s’Aigo.
I left Majorca several weeks ago to start a new job in New York City, the first day of which was yesterday. I’m thrilled about my new life beginning here. New York is amazing, and after only a short time I’m beginning to feel very happy about my decision to relocate. Still, I haven’t been quite able to shake a nagging wish to be back on the island: when I go into a supermarket and can’t find anything that matches things sold at the market near my old apartment, when I can’t find a place that will give me espresso drinks in a real cup, when I think of something to say in Catalan and realize that no one around would understand me. Every now and then, I’d like to sit and have a coffee and ensaïmada in Can Joan de s’Aigo.
Mallorca, te trob a faltar – I miss you. I’ll be back soon!
Can Joan de s’Aigo
C/ Can Sanç, 10
07001 Palma de Mallorca, Spain