This Chef Wants You to Come to Ibiza for Cauliflower, Not Clubbing
“Everyone’s like, ‘Yeah, let’s go raving’ or whatever. I don’t even notice the clubs.”
Carl Cox, Pete Tong, Pacha, Amnesia, Balearic beats, beachside sunsets and sunrises. I'm thinking about Ibiza, obviously.
But for Anne Sijmonsbergen, sweet potatoes, wild asparagus, mushrooms, tomatoes, membrillo, marmalade, cauliflower, calçots, and kale are what fills her mind when she thinks about the island. In London for a one-off supper club linked to her recently published cookbook Eivissa: The Ibiza Cookbook, her conversation slips into incantations of Ibizan foodstuffs, which she recites like liturgies.
"Delicious grilled fish, beautifully butchered meat, loads of sauces," she intones. "Lamb, chicken, vegetables, honey, jam, wine, cheese. It's all kicking off."
Sijmonsbergen, as you might guess from the name, is not Ibicenco, as natives of Ibiza are known. She's an American married to a Dutchman, but her enthusiasm for the island and its cuisine is as legitimate as if she had been created from the very soil of the Ibizan hillsides.
"It's a very magical island. Ibiza has a special energy and in the book, I try to define the energy," she tells me. "I think it's a partly its history: the salt flats are 2,700-years-old, the island was Phoenician, Arabic, Roman, and Spanish. It was on the silk route and there were pirates and corsairs and all manner of madness happening on this one little speck of an island in the middle of the Mediterranean. That gives it a special brand of energy."
The way Sijmonsbergen talks about Ibiza and its food is like an adolescent in the full flood of infatuation.
"It was a massive love affair," she says, simply. "I met this fabulous Dutchman and fell in love. He'd spent his childhood summers in Ibiza and was going back because he'd left his job. I quit my job, went to the island two weeks later with a suitcase and never went back. I completely fell in love—it was a massive love affair with my husband and with the island. It's so beautiful, there's wild orchards with pomegranates and lemons and oranges and grapefruits."
In spite of the litany of ingredients Sijmonsbergen recites with such devotion and enthusiasm, she admits that, unlike places like Sardinia, which have a distinct and discrete local cuisine, Ibiza doesn't have any one thing that can be definitively classed as "Ibizan gastronomy."
"The island doesn't have a massive food tradition," she continues. "Ibiza had its heyday selling salt from its salt flats and sitting on the main trading routes and shipping lanes. Then it hit a dark age and became very poor. The cuisine is the cuisine of the poor. When tourism first started everyone moved to the city to become hoteliers and get involved in all that. The farms were abandoned."
This doesn't sound massively appealing, if I'm honest. How has Sijmonsbergen managed to write a book subtitled "The Ibiza Cookbook" when it doesn't sound like there's really anything to write about?
"Now the island has opened up, really wonderful things are happening," she explains. "Chefs are moving onto the island, a new modern Ibicenco cuisine is appearing that's nowhere near chips and aioli, and the Ibicencos are going back to their land."
As owner of a 450-year-old farm, Sijmonsbergen is a part of this, the only fully organic farmer on the island. As well as writing about being at the heart of a fresh wave of culinary activity spreading across the island, she's also in its vanguard.
"People are growing amazing varieties of things, and new things we've never had before: guava, wild-looking lemons, massive strawberries … "—a list of produce is duly recited—" … we've got all these associations that have started to save rare breeds—the Ibicenco chicken, the Ibicenco sheep, the Ibicenco dove, the Ibicenco whatever, you've got associations saving them. That's a lot going on on a small island."
Ibiza's climate means that the island is verdant with produce of all kinds, from the bitter-tasting vegetables of northern Europe to sweet fruits suited to a more Mediterranean climate. Sijmonsbergen and her husband are focused on heirloom varieties of tomatoes, as well as speciality vegetables which she either turns into preserves, cooks in her own kitchen, or sells on to local restaurants and chefs.
"It's a gardener's paradise. You can grow almost anything. I'm obsessed with the island and what you can get from out of the earth," she enthuses. "We have amazing varieties of tomatoes but also cauliflower, broccoli, onions, spinach, rainbow chard. It's a side of Ibiza nobody knows. Everyone's like, 'Yeah, let's go raving' or whatever. I don't even notice the clubs."
Eivissa is Sijmonsbergen's way of sharing an ecstatic passion for an island which by her account is a paradise of produce.
"It's so good to see this tiny island with all this artisanal product. I'm mad for it," she says.
In line with her commitment to organic farming is a seasonal approach which she threads through the book to show off all the food "treasures" she's uncovered in her 14 years of living on the island.
"I live my life in rings to eat as locally as possible. My first ring is Ibiza, the second is Catalonia, the third is Spain, the fourth is other Mediterranean countries. That's how I try to live and that's how I've written the book," Sijmonsbergen says. "When it comes to traditional Ibizan food, there's not much to say. But based on what we've got growing and whatever I see going on around me, there's so much."
Her consuming passion is the potential that Ibiza has to be a foodie heaven, and what you can make with everything that grows here is her natural high.
"I've met some incredible people, like Vicente who helps me keep bees and showed me how to do it the traditional way with lemon, wild thyme, and rosemary for the smoker. Or the people at the saffron farm. If you don't know where to get it, you can't find any of this stuff, but it's a treasure trail of goodies. I just thought there's something in all this stuff I've learned and I want to share it."
Fourteen years after she first arrived in Ibiza, suitcase in hand, pursuing love, Sijmonsbergen clearly got way more than she bargained for.
"I look back on photographs and I get all teary eyed. Because Ibiza is a love affair."
And thanks to her book, it's one she hopes maybe we'll all join in with.