Juan Bonet lifts his wine glass into the sunlight, tilts it to one side and squints into the velvety red liquid with the expression of a man in the grip of a profound pleasure. He sits at a long table on the terrace overlooking his family vineyard, the fluffy curlicues of his white hair buffeted by a strong breeze. Behind him, the twisting green vines stretch out into the distance, their leaves tinged with gauzy mid-afternoon light, their stems rising up from a rich ochre-red soil. The sky beyond is washed with strokes of cobalt and cerulean blue, and a faint but perceptible smell of aniseed and wild garlic hangs in the air. Juan brings the glass to his lips and takes a measured gulp, the stain of the grape lingering for a moment at the corners of his mouth. ‘In Ibiza, we say that there is always red, blue and green,’ he says, pouring another slug from the bottle. ‘The hills are evergreen. The soil is red. The sky and the sea are blue.’
Juan has lived a lifetime among these colours. Seventy years ago he was born here, on the grounds of the Sa Cova vineyard, in a dilapidated stone building built into the gentle slope of the hillside. His father was a farmer who kept chickens and raised livestock. The vines were not cultivated for wine until Juan took over in 1990, but, as a little boy, he remembers picking the grapes and eating them as he walked. 'I was always eating,' he laughs. 'Very greedy.' Later, I accompany Juan as he strolls through his fields to check the progress of the vines. He stoops to loosen a heavy bunch of small, blackish Monastrell grapes from the stalk and offers me one: a syrup-sweet burst on the tongue. 'I'm still eating,' says Juan with a smile. 'Still learning from the land.'
His Ibiza, with its vividly painted landscape and plentiful harvests, seems to exist in a different temporal space to the hedonistic playground this corner of the Balearics is usually associated with. In fact, there are still parts of the northern half of the island that remain virtually untouched, and spiritually far removed from the sprawling club scene of San Antonio - even though, at 220 square miles, Ibiza's geography is compact.
Rural Ibiza is a place of windswept clifftops, isolated fishermen's coves, whitewashed village churches and valleys cooled by a whispering sea-breeze. It is the Ibiza the ancient Greeks used to call the 'pine-covered island', a fertile land where almost every patch of soil is filled with trees bearing different fruits - figs, quinces, lemons, carob seeds and almonds - so that the surrounding air is perfumed with their ripening scent. The triptych of colours Juan refers to infuse every element of the surroundings. Often all three are visible at once - like at Can Martí, a 400-year-old farmhouse encircled by 16 and a half hectares of freshly-tilled earth planted with tomatoes, potatoes and pomegranate trees. Here, the deep burnt sienna red of the soil - rust-coloured because of its richness in iron - mingles with thickets of foliage and a sweep of clear sky.
Reached by a potholed pathway, Can Martí is a working farm providing selfcatering accommodation, situated outside the village of Sant Joan de Labritja. The main building has been restored using traditional techniques, so that its stone walls seem to blend seamlessly into the environment. The whole place appears to have sprouted out of the ground in a forest clearing scattered with blazing colour: bruised pink hyacinths, magenta-tinged wild gladioli and orchids with petals the colour of oyster shells.
'We wanted to preserve the soul of this place,' says Isabelle Brantschen who moved here from her native Switzerland in 1994 to set up Can Martí with her husband, Peter. She, like Juan, feels an affinity with the colours of her adopted homeland: Isabelle's hair is gathered round her face in soft, red curls and she jokes that her scalp has soaked up the shades of the soil. 'Even Ringo has adapted to the colours,' she says, gesturing towards a sandy-coloured dog almost precisely the same hue as the stone flagstone on which he is lying. 'We found him on the beach as a stray and he was black. Now look at him.' Ringo, happily chewing on a dried-out chunk of homebaked olive bread, pays no attention.
The road that stretches westward from Can Martí dips and winds through shallow valleys, lined with the spindly silhouettes of almond trees pressed against the expanse of sky. Every now and then, the landscape is punctuated by a tiny village like Sant Mateu, set amongst the olive groves and consisting of little more than a whitewashed church on the brow of a hill. Then, as the road curves sharply round to the left, Can Cires restaurant comes into view. When I arrive, the walls are being given a fresh coat of paint in preparation for next week's fiesta - a party in celebration of the village's patron saint, during which the 40-odd inhabitants gather to sing, dance and roast a pig on a spit.
At Can Cires, the focus of the owners Victoria Mari Torres and her husband Francis is on cooking locally sourced, seasonal produce with a traditional Ibizan slant. The lively restaurant buys its goat's cheese from a couple in their 80s, Maria and Vincente Cordona, who produce salty, smooth roundels of cheese, as soft and plump as a freshly iced wedding cake, from their smallholding a few miles inland. 'We've been making cheese for 60 years,' explains Maria. 'It keeps us young.' To demonstrate the point Vincente, a former dancer, executes a series of improbably graceful high kicks.
The Can Cires speciality is 'crostas con tomato', a dish of crunchy, twice-baked croutons of bread served with fresh tomato and olive oil. 'This dates from a time when people used to make bread four or five times a year,' explains Victoria as she serves the crostas in a shallow terracotta bowl, brimming over with juicy, golden chunks. 'They would choose a day without rain so that the wood for the fire would not be wet. The loaves would last them for months. To make the crostas, they would take a loaf, tear it up and cook it again in the oven to make it crisp.'
After the meal, a bottle of the local tipple, hierbas, is brought to the table. It is a strong concoction made with at least 14 different types of herb, including fennel, rosemary and lemongrass. The liquid hits the back of my throat like an electric shock, at once bitter and sweet. And although I have come here in search of the red plenty of the soil and its produce, I realise that the journey has led me also to the green that Juan talked about: the herbs inside this bottle have given the liquid the exact mossy-yellow colour of the pine forests and vineyards that surround us.
Here, at the northernmost tip of the island, the vines grow thick, branches bent double with grapes ready for harvest. At the Agroturismo Vinya d'en Palerm in Sant Miquel, the Palerm family - farmers of this land since 1898 - make their own wine in a vast plastic barrel just behind the main house. The adjoining cattle shed has been renovated to provide four clean and comfortable guest rooms and visitors are sometimes offered a glass of Juan Palerm's rich, homemade red wine at sunset. His wife, Maria, serves up a wonderfully tangy marmalade for breakfast, alongside plates filled with home-grown figs, melons and tomatoes. 'We haven't changed that much for our guests,' explains the couple's daughter, Neus. 'We haven't needed to - the land has always been like this.'
It is true that rural Ibiza retains a certain timelessness, despite the inroads mass tourism has made in other parts of the island. The small bay of Pou d'es Lleó, just outside Sant Carles, is a world away from the sunlounger-packed beaches of the south. Approached along a pitted dirt track, the rocky cove curves like a horseshoe around the lucent blue waters. Sun-bleached boat sheds are built into the honeycomb rock, with long slats sloping down to the water so the fishermen can easily push their way out for the early morning catch. This was once the entrance to a major port after the Phoenicians settled here in 654 BC. When Ibiza was conquered by the Moors, this entire stretch of coast became an important trading area.
A hint of the Islamic influence still remains at Can Curreu, one of the island's first agroturismos when it opened in 1997 - the door handles on each of the 17 bedrooms are the shape of the hand of Fatima. More often seen on doors across North Africa and the Middle East, Fatima's hand is believed to ward off evil spirits and is named after the compassionate daughter of the Prophet Mohammed.
The nucleus of Can Curreu is the 500-year-old whitewashed farmhouse - framed by heavy bows of blooming pink bougainvillea - that has been in the Mari family for generations. Vicente Mari, the current manager, can remember his great-grandfather working the land here. Pathways spiral away from the central house and lead to the traditionally built single-storey guesthouses, scattered like sugar cubes over an undulating hill.
Vicente's 81-year-old father Pedro still lives here, tending to the chickens and the horses, and looking after the fertile vegetable patch. The produce is used by Can Curreu's restaurant - lemons, for example, are the main ingredient in the silky-smooth sorbet. Pedro's face is weathered, brown as an almond husk. 'I look like I'm a hundred,' he says with a grin, picking handfuls of wild basil from the ground and handing me a stalk. 'But I work hard to keep strong.' His daughter, Maria, looks on, shaking her head. 'He doesn't need to do any of this but he still remembers this as his farm,' she explains, affectionately. Maria can recall hiding in the sprawling branches of the almond trees as a child when her mother was shouting at her to come inside for a siesta.
As Maria weaves her stories together in the encroaching dusk, the sky turns to pale pink and then becomes streaked with a vermilion red. The wild basil is still in my hand and as I chew a green leaf, releasing its strong, earthy flavours, the colours of Ibiza seem at once to be all around me: in taste, smell, sound and sight. Gradually, the shades of the sky merge into one, like a paintbrush jiggled in a jar of water. And then, with Maria still talking and the taste of wild basil in my mouth, darkness falls softly over the island.
Elizabeth Day is an award-winning journalist and feature writer for the Observer. Her debut novel, Scissors Paper Stone (Bloomsbury), is available now.
The article 'The three colours of Ibiza' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.