Ca’n Joan de Saigo: The Cradle of Ensaimada

This past April, a wonderful group of friends whisked me away to a secret destination for my “enterrement de vie de jeune fille” or “the burial of my life as a young girl,” known in English as a bachelorette party. I packed my bags not knowing where for. I passed security at the airport without seeing the destination on my boarding pass. I even managed to get to the right gate without peeping the destination written on the screen. It was only in the gate with a bottle of hastily purchased Duty-Free Hiedsick Pieper, that the destination was revealed to me by my friend. “What language do they speak there?” “Actually… Catalan.” It was Mallorca.

Aside from having four of my best friends, from very different chapters of my life, together in one room, what was most peculiar about this trip was that I had nothing planned for it. Normally when I travel, I have at least a rough outline of things I want to do and see, eat and drink. I base my route mostly on what I want to taste and where, dragging whoever I happen to be with along with me. But this time, no restaurants, no bakeries, no cafes, no cool wine bars. That planning was left all up to Team Bride. And Team Bride did not let me down. First on my list, had I planned the trip, would have been what was one of the first on theirs too: Ca’n Joan de S’aigo.

Almost every city has one – that one venerable, old culinary hot spot that has been around for centuries with a long list of famous clientele, past and present. In the case of Mallorca, that’s C’an Joan de S’Aigo, established in 1700 and frequented by the artist Joan Miro. Maybe it was here, while swirling his spoon through the unctuous foam of his cortado, that he came up with his little red dot, his birds and women? Maybe. According to legend, the cafe’s namesake founder first opened it to sell ice cream, the very first in Mallorca, made by flavoring fresh ice brought down from the Tramuntana Mountains. Over the centuries, the cafe has broadened its selection and become best known for its ensaimada.

The ensaimada is a quintessentially Mallorcan delicacy, a must-try while staying on the island and a must-buy souvenir to bring back to friends. In fact, the (surprisingly gigantic) Palma airport has a “local specialties” shop almost exclusively dedicated to monstrously oversized versions of the thing, served in a kind of octagonal cardboard pizza box and priced at a slightly excessive 16 euros. (I bought 2.)

The version a C’an Joan de S’Aigo is (unsurprisingly) far superior. This is a kind of pastry made of multiple layers of dough folded with pork fat, whose name (“saïm”) in Catalan echoes Arabic roots. It’s chewy and buttery-rich on the interior, having tanned its flaky outer folds to a healthy golden brown. The top is sprinkled with powdered sugar. Ensaimadas come with a variety of fillings, one of the most popular being a creamy, cool custard. I went for an even more traditional filling. “Cabell d’àngel” translates from Catalan into “angel’s hair.” It’s a sticky, sweet, dense mess of stringy orange strands pulled from inside a pumpkin and cooked with sugar. The pumpkin flavor is all but lost in this caramelized, slightly nutty filling, which provides just the right spark of extra sweetness to an otherwise very modestly flavored dough. It is a very sweet something, though, screaming for a shot of espresso. Together, the two offer a wonderful moment of pause, the perfect treat during an afternoon of slight-seeing in town.

We stayed quite some time at C’an Joan de S’Aigo, whose clientele seems to be a mix of tourists and locals, at least in April (I assume that ratio changes a bit in August.) We sat by a wall studded with beautiful blue and white ceramic tiles, proudly displaying the name and birth year of this Mallorcan institution. The vibe is very traditional here, with polished wooden furniture and finishes, hand-blown glass chandeliers in an array of colors, all kinds of ancient letters and plaques framed on the wall. Whether coffee and pastry is your thing or not, this place is a must-visit, a delicious bite of Mallorcan history and culture.

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