Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Pepper That Almost Died Out

The story goes that in 1403 Martin I, at that time the count of Barcelona and king of Aragon, Valencia, Mallorca, Sardinia and Corsica but not of Sicily, sent a request to the head of the household of the Sicilian king. The request was for a number of meat products as well as cheeses. These meat products were charcuterie - sausages, if you like - and on the list were "sobressades".

This royal order forms part of a longstanding debate as to the origin of the Mallorcan "sobrassada" and the derivation of the word. The linguistic story is inevitably a long one; there is nothing that scholars of Mallorca's culture enjoy more than debating etymology. To cut this story short, scholars maintain that the word originally came from Occitan, the close relative of Catalan, and thus found its way to Sicily.

As to the actual product, this seems to have been firmly rooted in southern Italy. It is conceivable that there was such a product from Roman times; indeed, it's highly likely and was therefore part of the diet of Mallorca's Roman era. But at the time that Martin I was on the lookout for foods for the banqueting table, he placed the order not with his Mallorcan domain but with the one place he wasn't actually king of.

Martin's request appears to be one of the first times, if not the first time, that sobrassada is to be found in documents of the Aragonese crown. There were to be other mentions. In the following century, and so reinforcing the Italian connections, there was talk of the sobrasadas of Naples. In 1550, a year otherwise famed for the attack by Dragut and the Moorish pirates, "sobressada" was documented in Pollensa; the spelling has always tended to vary to a degree.

It is around this time, i.e. the mid-sixteenth century, that Mallorca was starting to come into its own where the making of the sausage was concerned. But it wasn't to be until the eighteenth century that it was spiced up and adopted a reddish hue. Paprika had really arrived.

In Campos over the past three days, they've been holding their "Matancer" market. The name refers to the slaughter of (usually) pigs. The season for this doesn't officially get under way until 11 November, the feast of Saint Martin (not to be confused with Martin I). But ahead of it, the good citizens of Campos and elsewhere have been able to acquire what they might require in the processing of products from the slaughter. And sobrassada is at the top of the list of products.

Meanwhile, in Felanitx they have their annual "pebre bord" fair, the pebre bord being the distinctive variety of paprika grown in Mallorca. It is a fair which complements the Campos market by promoting one of the key ingredients of sobrassada in a Mallorcan style.

Felanitx is one of the towns and villages of Mallorca to be particularly associated with the pepper, but gone are the days when mostly all houses would hang out their strings of peppers in order to let them dry in the sun and so not lose their preservative power. Also known as "tap de cortí", it isn't by any means only used in making sobrassada, but its preservative qualities are a reason (apart from being nice and spicy) for it being an ingredient; sobrassada can be good for months.

There was a time when the pepper was cultivated widely on the island. By the end of the nineteenth century, the cultivation reached a peak but it was to eventually dwindle mainly because of increasing imports. It was, therefore, in danger of dying out completely.

Its revival is relatively recent; in fact, very recent. A group of producers launched a campaign for its recovery in 2009. The regional government then petitioned the national agriculture and food ministry in 2011 for it to be included in the national registry of commercial varieties. This was finally agreed to two years ago, and so tap de cortí is now a protected name, but producers want to go a step further and get a European designation of origin mark for Pebre Bord Mallorquí.

Cultivation is unlikely to be on the scale it was by the end of the nineteenth century. There are nowadays only some thirteen hectares (around 32 acres) devoted to it on the island. Low this may be, but with increasing promotion of traditional food products from Mallorca, such as sobrassada, the production is assured and may well increase. A pepper that was once threatened with extinction is now flourishing.

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