Sunday, June 08, 2014

Potions, Lotions And Alcohol

Some fairs and fiestas in Mallorca are branded according to their antiquity or style. Inca's Dijous Bo fair in November is the oldest (and the biggest). Santa Margalida's La Beata fiesta in September is the "most typical". But which fair is the most magical and mysterious? A fair dedicated to herbs might not seem to be one which merits such an accolade, but this is precisely how Selva's Fira de Ses Herbes has been branded. The six plants of Selva which are held in such magical and mysterious regard are the olive, rosemary, orange flower, "estepa joana", fern and arrayan. Two of these need a bit of explanation. Arrayan comes from the Arabic "reyhan" which means aromatic plants, basil or, in Selva's case, myrtle. An alternative word for it, and one more commonly used, is "murta". The scientific term for "estepa joana" is "Hypericum balearicum", and the hypericum genus is also known as St. John's wort, hence the "joana" in the Balearics variety.

What might have become apparent is that "herbes", though it does mean herbs, has a broader meaning. Of the six Selva plants, only rosemary is a herb as such. But what the plants all have in common is that they have traditionally provided what we might in general terms call herbal remedies. Use in cooking or for food is almost incidental. The olive may offer all sorts of benefits, but the benefit of the olive leaf is firmly medicinal, while rosemary has numerous medicinal advantages, such as aiding digestion.

Selva has been staging its fair since the year 2000, but the townspeople have been using plants and herbs for centuries. Situated where it is, right by the Tramuntana mountains, the folk of the town have long been used to trekking up the slopes to gather the likes of estepa joana, which grows in abundance, and myrtle. And indeed myrtle takes pride of place at the fair.

In common with certain other celebrations, one thinks for instance of the ritual of the pine that is cut down and then transported to Pollensa for the annual pine climb, Selva has its own ritual, which is the bringing of the myrtle. And this grand occasion takes place at 10am this morning. With all the normal accompaniment of pipers, giants and what have you, the myrtle ceremonially arrives in the town's Plaça Major, and at half twelve there is further ceremony - the distilling to make myrtle water. The significance of the still and of the making of myrtle water is that it was traditionally sought out by pilgrims en route to Lluc monastery. And there is more ceremony, at half past ten this morning, in the form of the "herbes" dance, which involves characters from traditional folk tales who are associated with the plants.

If Selva's fair is about herbal potions and lotions, Mallorca's herbs will perhaps (no, not perhaps, certainly) be better known for alcohol. Stills have been put to different uses other than the purely medicinal, and Mallorca has several distilleries engaged in the making of herbal liquor: "herbes" or "hierbas" and "palo". Yet these alcoholic drinks had their roots in medicine as well. Both hierbas and palo originate from the sixteenth and seventeenth century, hierbas having been a digestive aid and palo having been a remedy for malaria. Nowadays, hierbas is primarily a digestif, while palo is an aperitif.

The hierbas which will be most familiar is "Túnel". Its origins date from the very end of the nineteenth century, which was when Antonio Nadal Muntaner first started to commercially produce liquor. The original distillery was in Bunyola (it is now based in Marratxí), and the name "Túnel" came from the Sóller tunnel, constructed in order to build the railway line that was opened in 1912. But there are in fact older concerns which have been engaged in producing liqour. Moyà in Artà started up production of its hierbas in 1890. Jordi Perello in Llubi has been around since 1882.

Doubtless goodly amounts of liquor will have been taken on board yesterday evening in Selva, which culminated in the midnight fire with giants and little demons, and doubtless there will be more liquor available today. But it will of course only be for medicinal and health purposes.

Cheers. Or should that be "salut"?

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