European fan palms and twine for stringing vegetables

The Serra de Tramuntana's dry Mediterranean climate in summer and the physical geography forced its ancient settlers to use their wits when it came to surviving. Hence during the Islamic period, mountain slopes were terraced to create farmland, and networks were developed to collect and carry water for irrigation purposes.

The landscape around the village of Banyalbufar is a perfect example. Created by the Islamic community that lived there between the 10th and 11th centuries, it was conserved and perfected during the following millennium.

Irrigation pond at Sa Cova rural estate in Banyalbufar © Photo: Gabriel Lacomba
Irrigation pond at Sa Cova rural estate in Banyalbufar © Photo: Gabriel Lacomba

It was typical for houses in Banyalbufar to have nails everywhere, in case the beams under the roof were insufficient to hang the strings of tomatoes. Each week, taking advantage of windy moments, the women opened up this area under the roof to air it

Today, as you draw close to this humanized landscape and contemplate its perfect layout, dotted with beautifully tended orchards, you might be surprised to see the untidy shapes of European fan palms (Chamaerops humilis) growing along the edges of some dry-stone walls. This wild plant - the only palm to grow spontaneously on the European continent - can be found in Mallorca at the two ends of the Serra de Tramuntana (Andratx and Pollença) and in the Serra de Llevant mountains. In bygone days, the plant's leaves were used to produce many different types of craftwork.

Who would bother to plant them there and why? This is what some botanists and environmental experts wondered until they were told by the people of Banyalbufar that the European fan palm was traditionally used to make twine to train tomato plants and to string fruit.

Banyalbufar went through a period of prosperity during the first half of the 20th century when, after a plague of philoxera killed the vines and put an end to its famous Malvasia wine, it turned its farming activities to tomatoes, specializing in growing a variety for hanging on strings known as the tomàtiga de ramellet. Throughout the following decades, cooperatives sprang up, exporting hundreds of pounds of these tomatoes to Barcelona each week on the 'tomato boat'.

The tomatoes were picked first thing in the morning and immediately hung on strings. These were then placed in boxes, protected from each other by reeds or newspaper.

The tomato that we regard today as being a classic feature of the Mediterranean diet and of local cuisine comes from America. It did not reach Mallorca until the 17th century, when it is mentioned in the first Balearic recipe book by Brother Jaume Martí.

Today, the type of tomàtiga de ramellet known as the winter tomato is very popular and much appreciated for its capacity to keep and for its aroma, taste and juiciness. A survey conducted among regular consumers of these tomatoes in the Balearics revealed that 62% of them eat it every day rubbed on bread and occasionally in sauces or chopped and fried with onion in other dishes.

Stringing tomatoes is not hard but it requires practice. The stem is sewn to the string with a needle. In Mallorca, this is mainly done using the technique that is typical in the Pla (the island's plain) or in Banyalbufar, where thicker twine with 3 to 5 strands is used.

Another intriguing question is what certain water troughs were used for, found along the irrigation ditches of Banyalbufar's terraces. The leaves of the European fan palm were apparently left to soak in them and then sulphur was added and the fibres were separated, depending on the finished product, which could be hats, hand fans for fanning fires, baskets, brooms, fruit baskets, cord for chair seats, or string for tying almost anything.

Talayotic communities in Mallorca are documented as having used the European fan palm, as proven by the remains of plaited palm leaves found at Son Serralta in Puigpunyent and at the naviform prehistoric monument of Alemany in Calvià. Rope made with the European fan palm might even have been used to move tree trunks and stone during the construction of the talayots. It has been demonstrated that a 1cm thick piece of rope made of the European fan palm can withstand a weight of up to 200 kg without breaking.


Text by Elena Ortega

Translated by Rachel Waters

Did you know that...

Authentic tomàtigues de ramellet are grown on non-irrigated land late in the year, with about 5 tomatoes per branch. The fruit is small, with brightly coloured pulp, and it has a balanced taste midway between being acidic and sweet. Researchers from the University of the Balearic Islands and the Balearic Department of Agriculture and Fisheries recently recorded almost 200 sub-varieties of this tomato in order to characterize the quality of the fruit and its agricultural properties. In future, it might be protected by a quality mark to distinguish it from other false rival varieties.



El Banyalbufar que he conegut
Author: Jaume Albertí Picornell
Published by: Documenta Balear
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Editorial: Documenta Balear, 2005.

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Author: Socies, A.M. 
Universidad Internacional de Andalucía, 2010.

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