What does Ibiza mean to you? More often than not, the word conjures images of sunbed warriors, glow paint, Britons behaving badly, and drunken house music in the wee hours.
As I found out for myself, there’s a side to Ibiza some people never see. With its teal waters, hidden beaches, coves and caves, limestone islands, some of the best sunset views anywhere, and the 1,400-year-old town Eivissa with its hilltop citadel, it’s a stunning part of the world.
The idea of hell-on-paradise turns many off the island. But what if that stigma washed away, and in place of it, an interesting food culture with seemingly unlimited potential emerged?
This is what certain players within the Ibizan tourist industry are looking to. In July, Destino Pacha – a hotel on the southeast coast – hosted five of the Spanish mainland’s top Michelin-starred chefs, from Ricard Camarena to Paco Pérez, to cook a one-off eight course dinner. The event was reflective of the higher culture pervading parts of the island (the local port, for example, is a popular spot to park your yacht and indulge in the Ibiza’s legendary nightlife), as well as the kind of culinary aspirations in mind for Ibiza. ‘The island is famous for its parties,’ DSTAgE chef Diego Guerrero told me. ‘But maybe sometimes you want to escape from them.’ Invite five of Spain’s top fine dining chefs to cook, and it’s clear their intentions of the direction they want the culinary scene to go.
As to their challenge of making that happen, the stigma is just one obstacle. At the beginning of this holiday season, there was a large drop-off in hotel and club bookings compared to previous years. So much so that resorts are considering amputating their first two opening months next year. A perfect storm of high club entry and drink prices, a new tourist tax, a forced reduction of club opening hours, protests against excessive tourism, and the council’s clamping down on private accommodation rentals (such as AirBnB) is to blame.
Signs to suggest Ibiza tourism is struggling? Perhaps, but it does seem like an unfortunate time to try and shift tourists’ perceptions. Or is it more of an opportunity? At Destino, people spend upwards of €400 a night for a room. Tickets to nightclubs usually cost cost up to €80, while a bottle of beer at a club costs around €12. Ibiza might be becoming less affordable to the young, but the money is there, and people are open minded about how they want to spend it.
At Lio for example, a club in Ibiza Port, millionaires and their daughters enjoy caviar and cabaret while keeping an eye on their 90ft yachts moored outside. With no expense spared by its owners or its patrons, Lio is in a word of its own. Andalusian chef Dani García put it to me another way. ‘I like the incredible energy and atmosphere [in Ibiza]. I like to come and see another kind of restaurant concept, like Lio – it’s a new area for a restaurant. People like me who are born into fine dining, we need to reflect on this kind of concept. People want a [complete] experience. Not only eating – you want something else.’
As with clubbing, an experience is what people come to the island for. Marry it with good food, ideals of provenance, and make it more democratic, and you might be on to something – primarily, a unique reason to pick Ibiza as your next food-fuelled holiday rather than, say, Paris or London or New York or San Sebastian.
In terms of locality and provenance, Ibiza has its own character too. Bullit de Peix is one example of a dish native only to Ibiza, and it comes in two parts. For round one: potatoes simmered in a sofrito and fish stock with fish and aioli. For round two: stock leftover from the first dish is used to make a paella. Sometimes, for the first part of the course, cooks will select Ciagala Ibicenca, literally ‘Ibizan cicada’ – actually a lobster-like crustacean. As a recluse creature, it’s more common to resident chefs than to marine biologists, but a true local to the island’s shores and a delicacy in Ibizan cuisine.
Fish in general is hugely important to Ibiza (it’s an island, after all). Virtually every restaurant’s doing ceviche, while lobster and tuna dishes are common. There are other staples: Sobrasada, a kind of Ibizan chorizo, is a favourite, as is Salsa de Nadal (a salty-sweet soup served at Christmas) and Peasant Salad (a skewer of potatoes, tomatoes, onions, aubergine and pepper). Crops-wise, almonds, olives, citrus fruits and soft fruits have grown here since forever, and the harvesting of salt is a big part of the island’s history (it’s where Ibiza gets its nickname ‘The White Island’).
If you wanted to sum up Ibizan cuisine, it’s where Mediterranean, Spanish, and Italian culinary influences interconnect. As he described it to me, that’s how Nacho Manzano, chef-patron of Casa Marcial, looks at it. Having visiting various parts of the Med extensively, and as a chef who, not being widely travelled when he started cooking, he knows a lot about making the most of what’s around you.
For such a tiny piece of land (you can drive from northern tip to southern one in 50 minutes), Ibiza has an impressive larder. Yet the chefs at Hosting the Stars experimented with it so very little. Ingredients the chefs stored in checked luggage on the plane from the mainland were temporarily misplaced, which didn’t do much but delay their arrival the day before they were to cook. But it was telling. Especially when the chefs were keen to talk of the emphasis they usually put on locality. ‘The environment is very important to us and our way of cooking,’ Diego told me. To want to promote Ibiza as a destination for eager gourmands, but to go to the effort of bringing ingredients over and not openly showcase the island’s own produce and its star dishes in some way? Seems to me like a missed opportunity.
Still, there’s no reason why Ibiza can’t garner the attention of food-focused travellers around the world. Even during the winter, when the weather’s comparatively good and the clubbers have long since packed up and gone home. There could be little resistance either – by the sounds of things, the locals would welcome something a bit more civilised.