06 Jun Homeowner of the Month – Liz Barratt-Brown
A Pressing Pastime
This month we catch up with the very lovely Liz Barratt-Brown whose stunning Mallorcan home has been in her family for over forty years. Liz undertook the task of bringing the stunning 10-bedroom historic farmhouse, dating back to the 13th century, into the modern day. The added interest here lies in the impressive working olive-pressing facilities, where delicious olive oil is still produced using all the traditional methods. Liz, and her husband, Bosworth Dewey, dedicate their lives to keeping the substantial estate, it’s 620 acres, and farm, complete with sheep, pigs and goats, plus over 5,000 olive trees in good working order… now that’s true love!
The house has been in your family for forty years. How did that come about originally?
My father was British and loved the sun. When he met my stepmother she had just bought the house from our neighbours and it needed a lot of work. My dad dug in and relished restoring the house and ancient olive press, while my stepmother focused on planting gorgeous gardens around the house. My dad also loved the setting, living amongst ancient olive trees, terraces filled with poppies and sheep, falcons and eagles flying overhead. It enchanted him.
There are so many other destinations popular for holiday homes, what was it that made your British father and American stepmother choose Mallorca?
At the time Mallorca was very undeveloped. That’s what they loved about it, they went there to relax, to read, to sit and have coffee with the local people in town. It was a long way from New York City, their other home. Pollensa, our nearby town, has become more touristic but our valley still retains a timeless feel. There is no commercial establishment of any kind, just fincas and beautiful orchards and terraces of olives. It is now part of a World Heritage Site so it will always be this way. It is hard to imagine when you are there that the fast-paced Mallorca is only 15 minutes away. You can imagine yourself in any century.
Your father spent 25 years renovating the property, what was it like when he first purchased it?
The house had been built around an ancient stone watch tower, erected by the Moors sometime in the early 13th century. Pedruxella means a “place in the stones” and it was built there because it was up high and had a plentiful source of water. The water is carried to the house via an ancient aquaduct, possibly built by the Romans. We have found Roman pottery shards in the garden. My dad loved all this history and sought to renovate the house in a way that respected that history. He also added beautiful touches like dark wooden floors and wood beams in most rooms. Did he do all the work himself?
No – he wasn’t that handy! But he supervised all the work. His primary aim was restoring the house, but he was also supporting the traditional building crafts, painstakingly doing things, like building dry stone walls, when using cement would be much faster. He wanted to be sure that the old way of building was not lost.
What about the interior design?
My father was the interior designer (my stepmother was a playwright and gardener and was not interested in interior design!) He collected a lot of beautiful antiques from our area. When I inherited the house, I added overstuffed sofas and chairs everywhere to make it more comfortable and softer. I worked with my friend, Danica Wilcox (Hito home designs in Palma) who has impeccable taste.
Have you changed much since you took it over?
We have really brought the house into the 21st century while retaining its authentic historic feel. We completely gutted the old kitchen, which was mainly a farmer’s kitchen, and put in a beautiful big gourmet kitchen that is easily the most popular room in the house. We’ve run new electrics and installed WiFi throughout the house. All bedrooms and main rooms now have air conditioning and we have upgraded the gardens to provide more lawn space and have installed new outdoor lighting. We’ve upgraded all the bathrooms. We’ve done all this in keeping with the house so that you still feel that you are in a house with history. We retained all the beautiful and traditional elements – exposed stone and beautiful wooden doors while adding all the modern conveniences that guests have come to expect. Thus, our motto: “A modern 13th century estate”.
And part of the estate is your very successful olive press, can you tell us a bit about that?
My dad restored the olive press, finding parts from other abandoned presses to make ours work again. We have been told it is the only working old fashioned olive press on Mallorca. Every fall we host a big party that centres around the pressing of the olives. Guests can come to watch and learn, or they can participate. Some come early and pick olives with us, but most come in the evening. After the olives have been ground into mash by our centuries old grindstone turned by the mule, our guests put down their wine glasses and come help us load up the “esportins” (baskets that look like upside down French berets) with the mash to be placed under a giant oak arm. This presses the baskets and creates the oil. We use this for a “pan am oli” which is a typical Mallorquin bread with olive oil, salt, garlic and a tomato rubbed on top. The oil is still warm from the press! Is the olive press hard work? I believe you have volunteers helping you keep it running.
We just do this one or two times in the fall, mainly to have a party and keep the press working, so we don’t mind working hard. We do have volunteers help, mainly with the olive collecting – we have WWOOFers (volunteers that come through a worldwide network of organic farm sites) and voluntourists, renters that get a special price for working a few hours every day. This has worked really well for us.
What is it about your olive oil that makes it so special?
Our oil is really good. It tastes alive to me. It is collected by hand in the mountains from 500 plus year old trees. No one does this commercially anymore because it is too labour intensive. But it yields a very special oil from an ancient varietal, empeltre, that is more and more rare on the island. We collect the olives using crates so that the olives never get too heavy, squeezing the oil out of olives below. Even though our commercial press says it is impossible to make an extra virgin olive oil from our varietal, nearly every year we accomplish this as a result of handling the olives so carefully. Whilst our oil looks like other oils on the shelves, it is not – it’s picnic picked by our friends, family, and volunteers. We are just about to launch an adopt-an-olive tree program that will enable anyone to order oil from us and keep this ancient way of producing olives and oil alive.
And the organic farm – what else do you grow and nurture there?
We have an enormous green garden. We have just finished converting our old green garden to a “permaculture” garden. This is a special way of growing with the environment, living within the limits of natural ecosystems. It minimizes water use, conserves soil, and is built with the contours of the land (http://permamed.org). We also have sheep and wild goats. Our neighbours make wine, so really, we can provide most of the meal on our guests’ dining table from our home and if you include the wine within a couple of miles!
Is there a particular time of year that visitors interested in the olive press should aim to visit?
Yes, this is mainly a late October to December activity. Guests should be in touch with us directly about the date as it changes every year, depending on the olive crop. It is also a beautiful time to be in Mallorca. You can still swim in the sea and the light is magical!Tell us about the interior décor of your house…
The house was built with wood fired heating in mind so its rooms are all a beautiful proportion and there are literally a dozen fireplaces, even in the bathrooms. We mainly use two wood burning stoves that we installed. The one I like best is in the kitchen. There is nothing like picking olives all day, coming back and lighting that fire, and making a mushroom risotto from Chantarelles picked that morning right around the house.
What is your favourite room in the house?
Obviously I love the kitchen but my favourite room by far is the living room. I redecorated it two years ago and I love the circle of white covered chairs at the front. There is nothing more cosy than a circle of friends sharing stories. There is also a magnificent view from this room over our valley and to the mountain Tomir. It’s quite dramatic. The room is south-facing so it is full of sun in the winter and is always shaded and cool in the summer. This room was also the chapel in the past. I think that is why it always feels so serene to me.
Do you have any furniture or ornaments that hold sentimental value?
Many things! We have a beautiful olive wood table that must weigh 500kgs in the kitchen. The wood grew around stones and the stones are still embedded in the table. It has a smooth patina from all the years it’s been in use. We also have two faucets from our olive press that have grinning faces on the front. They are really old and I think they show that artisans had a sense of humour, even when their work forging iron must have been quite difficult. They are not “furniture” per se, but I love the hammocks we have sprinkled throughout the garden. They invite you in with a book. What do you think it is it about Mallorca that attracts so many holidaymakers every year?
Mallorca is a very special island. Many people come for the beach and nightlife. However for us, we come because of the nature. Our coast behind the farm is the wildest in all of Europe. It is home to some of the largest and most threatened raptors in Europe. In the summer, we literally have a flock of little falcons that fly all the way from Madagascar to dine on crickets in our olive trees. In a world where we are often divorced from nature, this kind of spectacular sight reminds you that we are part of something larger and invites you to revel in nature’s beauty. The mountains in Mallorca are spectacular.
What is your favourite time of year in Mallorca?
I love it year ‘round. Each season has its wonderful attributes. However if I had to pick a favourite, it would be winter. The weather is incredibly changeable. After a rain we often have roaring streams, or “torrentes”, and mists that swirl around literally below the house. It’s much more quiet in the winter too, which I enjoy. The light is gorgeous and often times the daytime temperature can reach the 60s. It’s great for hiking and I get to light those wood burning stoves too!
What does a typical day involve for you and your family?
We are mostly there in the summer and do a lot of work in the gardens. We have some animals that need feeding and watering and we harvest vegetables and fruits for us and for our guests. We have three houses on the property, two of which we rent in the summer. We stay up in a smaller house and rent the main house and a chalet. Typically we will have 12-17 people in a party so just making sure they are happy and looked after often takes up the day. My children are avid tennis players so we take them to a camp and then go for a swim in the sea. We find it is quite easy going up and down and usually do it twice a day. A lot of people that come to us enjoy being on the estate, sitting by the pool, playing badminton, hiking up our hill, or cooking up a delicious meal.
What activities are there to do in the local area?
There is a lot of great hiking in the area. It’s all carefully mapped out so you know exactly how many kilometres each hike is. There is horseback riding. There is every kind of boating and some people love kite surfing. We have one of the best bays in the world for sailing and kite surfing. There are wineries to visit and caves that are cool, even on the hottest day. There are multiple golf courses within half an hour drive. There’s even a paintball centre. The best thing is coming home at the end of the day to have a drink overlooking our valley with a view of the sunset and just sitting and listening to the evening sounds. And what about eating out? Can you share your top three restaurants and tell us why they are so special?
My favourite is Es Guix. It is located in the mountain town of Lluc, about a half hour’s drive from our house. It is only open for lunch and has the most amazing mountain-fed natural pool. The tradition is to come swim first and then, suitably cooled, to sit on a charming flower filled patio overlooking the pool and eating delicious Mallorquin and Spanish foods.
Another favourite is Can Na Toneta. It is run by three sisters and is as charming as can be. It is located in the foothill town of Caimari. It’s up a little alley and has charming porches to have house-made cocktails (and I am talking about the actual liquors and juices). It has a set menu of small dishes and is really a gastronomic tour of traditional, local food upgraded to meet demands of excellence and elegance. They not only meet but exceed these standards.
A final favourite is Il Giardino in our local square. They put our olive oil on all their tables and sell it in their wonderful pastry shop. How could we not love them? But seriously, they serve an inexpensive and delicious lunch and wonderful al fresco dinners. They literally back onto the people and activity-filled main square so there is lots of people watching to do. In the morning you can pick your pastry from their shop and take it to a table where they will pair it with a coffee, tea, or big glass of freshly squeezed orange juice.
Anything else you would like to add?
We love to welcome guests to our home. After eating fresh vegetables and fruits from the garden, relaxing and hiking around our property, guests feel really renewed. For some guests, coming as “voluntoursists” suits them well because they can get their hands in the soil and really get onto the land and then have time to relax and enjoy our surroundings.