An Ode to Portuguese Food
Whilst the Mediterranean diet has ruled supreme over the last few years, particularly here in the United Kingdom where our national culinary culture is… questionable in quality…, it is perhaps a surprise that Portugal and the delight’s on offer have never really taken off. “Them custard tarts” and Nando’s may well be all that some of you know. This is not entirely your fault! Portuguese food is humble, simple and by many accounts, does not have the wow factor of neighbouring Spanish or Italian cuisines. However, it is perhaps the most comforting food I have ever tried in my life. I come from a Jewish household and my exposure to the concept of food as comfort began from a very early age. When I say Portugal wins, I mean it!
The best food often relies, quite heavily, on the important element of time. Boy, does it show. The unctuous, softening and calming impact that slow-cooked meat can have on you is achieved in such astonishing measure through dishes like Tripas à Modo do Porto, a stalwart from the repertoire of the northern powerhouse Porto’s kitchen. It is a lightly seasoned bean and meat stew brought to life by the delightful, chewy, octopus-like texture of tripe. Some recipes are slightly spicy, some recipes are spiked with cumin, but they all share this something which just settles your nerves. Any one of Porto’s tascas, or dining taverns, has their own best version, their own dish steeped in the history of their family and friends enjoying this stew in their restaurant. Of course, it isn’t all tripey.
Codfish, bacalhau in Portuguese, rules supreme up and down the country. It is consumed in a myriad of ways, from being quite literally boiled with carrot and potato to rich, weighty imposing dishes such as bacalhau espiritual, a creamy soufflé-like concoction, or the hugely popular, dangerously loving bacalhau-à-bras. The former is made from those little cutesy potato sticky things you can find in red packets from Tescos. They are elevated, all the way to the point of gourmet expertise as they bind a delicate mix of caramelised onions, salty, flaky cod and lightly scrambled egg. This will be artfully finished with some chopped parsley, a lashing of black olives and the love and care of a nation. It is wonderful. Each iteration of this gorgeous, under-appreciated fish may simply be a recycling of the same ingredients. And yet, somehow, each one tells its own story and holds your hand through a different state of mind. It is so important for anyone living in Portugal to get into this mindset. The food here does not blow your mind, it doesn’t need to. It is food for sustenance, for care. When prepared well, it becomes a question of scientific importance to understand how one fish, potatoes and onions can be rehashed again and again to create different works of art. Go! Try them all. Bacalhau à Bras, à Braga, à Gomes de Sá, à Lagareiro, à Zé do Pipo, com Natas (cream), com Broa (bread) and every other wonderful form that it comes in!
We have introduced the stew (there are many, many more). We have made our homage to the codfish. We must now pay our respects to one more queen of the Portuguese kitchen. The sardine.
Let me paint a picture for you: You have settled in Portugal for three or four months, you know your way around town, your job is great, your friends are great, and you are on the beach. Having arrived in February, you have braved the rainy, wintery months and finally made it to June. The famous saint festivals of Santo Antonio (Lisbon) or São João (Porto/the north) are in full swing and the party spirit in your city is palpable. You and your friends are sat in a gorgeous bar located on the coast, the sea is lapping at your feet, the Super Bock (ALWAYS Bock, never Sagres) is cold and plentiful and then… out it comes. Your plate of shimmering, sweet, smokey, charred, blistered, fresh sardines. Crusty bread, a smidge of butter if you want it (preferably from the dairy-rich lands of the Azores) and a wedge of lemon.
The image I have just painted for you, my dear readers, is heaven. Heaven on earth. It is as pure a seafood experience as you could possibly wish for, and the great news is, you can bring it home with you! For Portugal’s greatest export is, and always will be, tinned fish. The quality of these tins’ borderlines on the ridiculous. You can chow down on a sardine canned years ago, and still have that same rush of nostalgia. They are divine. They have even been gentrified! Yes, you heard. The tinned fish has fallen victim to the hipster’s charm. But worry not, for they tend to be even fresher and worth every single cent you spend on them in the many dedicated tinned-good restaurants you may come across in Lisbon or Porto.
So, there we have it. What I have dubbed the Holy Trinity: the Stew, the Codfish and the Sardine. It would be wrong to leave you under the impression that this is the end. I haven’t even begun to tell you about the sandwiches on offer, or the cakes, or the hams, or the cheeses… I could go on!
Before I go, remember, it ain’t just “Them custard tarts” and Nando’s! At the very least, remember this!