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Bread & Oil

Majorcan Culture's Last Stand

by Tomas Graves (University of Wisconsin Press)

Bread & Oil



When you finish reading Bread & Oil, you just may find yourself referring to the book as Pa Amb Oli, the translation that is what the locals in Majorca call the staple of peasant bread drenched in oil and sprinkled with a dash of salt or sugar. That's because wonderful writer Tomas Graves makes the sights, insights, sounds, scents and lively folk of the Spanish island jump to life so brilliantly in this creative triumph.

Whether he's writing about class structure or crassness, love or war, Graves, in his own translation of the original Catalan version, manages to tie it all in to bread and oil. Here, he discusses how renditions of the dish always make him feel like he's home:

"Greece, late autumn 1971. Three hippies—myself and two friends who (supposedly) studied at the CIDE in Son Rapinya—having made and sold leather belts during the summer and bought a beat-up VW bus in Paris with the proceeds, have finally made it, after many adventures, to the end of the road: the bottom of the Peloponnese peninsula. Fifty miles of winding dirt roads over the mountains, have brought us, famished to the ancient walled city of Monemvassia, at the foot of a great peninsular outcrop of rock which reminds us of Alaro castle but set in the sea. No cars are allowed in the town, so we walk over a causeway and through a gate in the wall. Silence: it's Sunday, off-season, everything is closed. Finally, we find a place that will serve us some fried sardines, a loaf of khoriatico bread cut into thick slices, with very strong olive oil, sea salt and fresh oregano. This bread and oil makes us feel at home."

Those who have never made their home on the Balearics island (it became quite popular with tourists beginning in the 1960s), will certainly have an edge after reading Graves' detailed musings. Part adventure log, part history book, part travelogue, part restaurant guide and part cookbook (about one-seventh), charm oozes throughout.

Recipes traverse history and reflect the indigenous (wrinkled olives made with olive oil, lemon juice and crushed garlic; fried sardines topped with sauteed onions and marinated in vinegar before being served cold with bread and oil) and popular (guacamole with tomatoes and onions; eggplant mousse with cinnamon and curry powder).

There's a lot to like here, but, mainly that goes for Graves, son of celebrated British poet Robert Graves, who is the thread throughout and writes of a wise tip he once got, "In the event of having had too much to drink, eat a slice of bread soaked in virgin olive oil and in an hour's time you'll feel right as rain again." The same can undoubtedly be said of reading this book.


(Updated: 11/04/08 SB)

Bread & Oil: Majorcan Culture's Last Stand

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