As the little plane circled above the Andalucian countryside I could see below me the olive groves, vegetable plots and wheat fields of a landscape that has long been rich in good things to eat. A sybaritic lunch of a dozen courses and as many wines had wound to its close no more than an hour earlier, yet inside the cabin the good times were rolling: plates of goose ham and Idiazábal cheese were being passed around, and friendships made over laughter and champagne.
In English, “tender loving care” sounds like a strange name for a business venture, but Mimo makes a strong case for its own moniker. This gastro-tourism outfit with its HQ in San Sebastián is driven by the passion of its owner, a former City banker who fell in love with Spain and Spanish food after a serendipitous stop here as a student traveller.
Setting up on his own in 2009, Jon Warren (originally from Canterbury) was the first entrepreneur to offer a tour of the old town’s pintxo bars with young and knowledgeable local guides. His gourmet Spanish food shop in the Hotel María Cristina was a blast of fresh air in the stale and apparently changeless world of Spanish hotel boutiques, and the Mimo cookery school, which opened in 2015, neatly coincided with the arrival of international foodie tourism in a newly pacified Basque Country. The Mimo family now includes a school in Seville and shops in both Seville and Mallorca, with future openings promised in Spain and beyond.
Now Warren and his team have taken the food-travel formula a step further with a gastronomic tour by private jet, whisking guests from one celestial eating experience to another in each of Mimo’s current locations. The itinerary, which can be tweaked and tailored according to the whims of the client, runs to pintxo tours and tapas trails, winery visits and cookery classes, three-star dinners and rustic picnics at historic country houses. Accommodation is provided in a trio of Spain’s most delectable hotels: the María Cristina in San Sebastián, the Alfonso XIII in Seville and the St Regis Mardavall on the southwest coast of Mallorca. Earlier this year, How To Spend It was the first publication invited, along with a handful of Mimo associates, to put this gastro-safari through its paces.
The grand tour began in San Sebastián, aka Donostia, Mimo’s birthplace, ground zero of culinary excellence in Spain and a city so delightful it could have been conceived and assembled by a committee of enlightened pleasure-seekers. Proud Donostiarras have been known to make two bold claims: that their city has more Michelin stars per capita than anywhere in the world; and – slightly less plausible – that San Sebastián possesses more bars than the whole of Norway.
My balcony at the María Cristina looked out over the Urumea river, Rafael Moneo’s Kursaal building glowing in the dark like a Chinese lantern, and the Zurriola bridge with its art deco lamp posts. Closer to hand the view was hardly less enticing: a silver tray in my room bore a plate of acorn-fed Cinco Jotas jamón Ibérico, extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling on bread, and a bottle of Marqués de Riscal Rioja Gran Reserva. It was an auspicious start to a four-day flying food-fest that began in earnest the following morning with a hands-on class at the Mimo cookery school – formerly the hotel’s gloomy basement spa, now a cheerful space with a gleaming high-tech kitchen and a big wooden table for tasting and socialising Spanish style. While the rain pounded down outside, we learnt Michelin-star secrets from chefs Agustín Araquistain and Mikel Martija. After years of admiring the pop-in-the-mouth spherifications at molecular-cuisine temples like elBulli, it was gratifying to discover that these ephemeral creations are easily replicated in any home kitchen – as long as you have access to the wizard Ferran Adrià’s proprietary gluco and algin powders.
Then we were on the finely kitted-out bus with Eli Susperregui, a Mimo guide, who regaled us with Basque food lore as we switchbacked along a verdant coastline, where big white waves rolled in from a royal-blue sea. Lunch that day, at the rustic, family-owned Katxiña asador (grill restaurant) outside the village of Orio, was memorable for the simple marvel of a sea bream grilled over coals and the briskly acidic white txakoli, produced by the same family at their sleek modern winery just across the way, that accompanied it.
Back in Donostia, on an evening tour of the old-town is pintxo bars, Eli taught us the art of staking your claim with an elbow on the bar and the speciality morsels to be ordered at each locale: here a prawn brochette, there a mushroom tartlet, a salt-cod croqueta, or a gilda, the incendiary combo of pickled green pepper, salt-cured anchovy and olive, all threaded onto a cocktail stick. On the evidence of this pintxo crawl, San Sebastián’s reputation for mini-masterpieces of culinary art was entirely validated: at Casa Urola there was scallop and almond soup, fried seaweed and coffee vinaigrette; at Sirimiri, shiitake mushroom and macadamia-nut risotto.
But next day’s lunch at Akelarre, Pedro Subijana’s three-Michelin-starred cathedral in its hillside pavilion overlooking the Cantabrian Sea, showed the city’s chefs were equally gifted in the field of wide-screen cuisine. Subijana’s playful, hedonistic vision of modern Spanish alta cocina was showcased in dishes like red mullet with multicoloured fusilli, ham “carpaccio” that was not what it seemed, and morcilla and maize bread punningly modelled into a facsimile of a chocolate biscuit.
Akelarre’s long, thin menú degustación at an end, it was time to head for San Sebastián airport and a vehicle that would now become our main mode of transport: a Phenom 300 jet with a powerful Pratt & Whitney turbofan engine, designed in Brazil for traffic-challenged São Paulo millionaires and selected for Mimo by jet brokers Fly Victor from its global fleet of 7,000 private planes. The eight-seater, with a patrician Roman nose and the tail number D-CASH, had been recently refitted inside and out in two shades of discreet and elegant grey.
The small-plane set will know this already, but private jet travel’s seamless transition from hotel to plane to hotel, steering clear of queues, crowds and carousels, justifies every centime of the asking price. On board the Phenom, the short-haul vulgarities of drinks carts and meal deals gave way to soft leather armchairs, sea-salt truffles and glasses of Veuve Clicquot as the Iberian peninsula rolled out below us. Our hour-long journey south to Seville was faster, smoother and more pleasurable than flying has a right to be.
Coming in to land, I saw orange groves dark green in the afternoon light. There were more naranjos along the streets of old-town Seville – Aldara Arias de Saavedra, our Mimo host, told us the ancestors of these trees were brought by Arabs from China and now served both to perfume the city with their heady fragrance and as a primary supplier to the marmalade-makers of Dundee. Our lodgings here were at the Hotel Alfonso XIII, the historic 1927 hotel whose monarchic associations and grand early-20th-century stylings place it in the same exalted bracket as San Sebastián’s María Cristina. In a moment of leisure before our Andalucian cookery class I browsed the new Mimo shop and tasting room, finding rare sherries, limited edition olive oils in handblown glass bottles and an exquisitely boxed collection of pre-sliced acorn-fed Ibérico ham from Cinco Jotas (at the not-unremarkable price of €610). Mimo masterchef Mateus Mendes, our Brazilian professor at the class, had a personal take on southern Spanish cooking – imagine salt-and-sugar-cured sardines with roast aubergine, lamb marinated in milk with aromatic herbs and slow-cooked at 68°C for 18 hours, and almond polvorones – that was as cleverly original as it was true to the spirit of Andalucian food.
After the culinary exertions of the Basque Country, I’d have willingly spent that evening in Seville nursing a bottle of fizzy water, but the Mimo team had other plans. As night fell, Aldara, a born-and-bred Sevillana, led us along the Guadalquivir river to the barrio of Triana for a tour of her secret tapas topoi, feeding us with sheep’s cheese and fino sherry at La Artesana de Triana, chargrilled baby cuttlefish at Las Golondrinas, and chickpeas with spinach at La Antigua Abacería. “Try this,” said Aldara, passing me a big glass of Overo, one of a surprising new generation of Andalucian reds.
The atmosphere aboard the Phenom the following morning was predictably more subdued than usual; Jon Warren chose the quiet moment to tell me the story of his youthful epiphany in San Sebastián and his decision, years later, to decamp from the City of London. “I was having a cigarette and I remember thinking, I can’t go on doing this for the rest of my life,” he said. The private jet tour was dreamt up after Warren noted a demand among Mimo’s more affluent clientele for a top-flight Spanish food experience. “We know they’re time-poor, and this is a way of allowing them to pack in as much as they can.”
The last few days had certainly seen some packing in, but there was one more crucial gastronomic pit stop still to come. Touching down at Mallorca’s Son Sant Joan airport, we sped northwest towards the looming peaks of the Tramuntana mountains, iced in white after a recent snowfall. In the grounds of Son Moragues, a magnificent possessió (country house) outside Valldemossa, we drove in an open-topped Citroën Méhari among the twisted, pitted forms of the estate’s ancient olive trees towards a stone hut where a table was laid and a fire burned in the grate.
In this sublimely private, rustic setting, Deborah Piña, a chef and Mallorcan food expert, had prepared for us an alfresco feast of pa amb oli: country bread rubbed with tomato and slathered with oil made at Son Moragues from the fruit of the centenarian trees that stood all around us.
The morning sun warmed the cool winter air. Right on cue, a herd of sheep picked its way across stone-walled terraces thick with yellow wild flowers. The rough bread, the rustic cheese and sausages, the nutty, unctuous oil immediately joined the top ranks of the sensational delicacies we’d sampled over four days of gastro grazing. Jet travel and ultra-rare €610 jamón samplers are undeniably wonderful things – but here was proof yet again that sometimes the simplest pleasures are the ones that take you highest.