A fish club

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Casa Janeiro is an unusual restaurant. Located in the small village of Brejos de Azeitão, 30 km south of Lisbon, it functions as a club for the appreciation of fine grilled fish. To be considered as a member, you need to be patient and love eating fish. Patience is a must because the restaurant does not take reservations and there’s always a long line

Most customers are regulars. Some are locals, others are hard-core fans that drive to Brejos de Azeitão just to eat at Casa Janeiro. Over the years, the customers get to know each other, so the restaurant feels like a club.

While we waited in line, a group of regulars came to chat with us, eager to talk about their favorite restaurant: “You’re going to love it!” “We no longer grill fish at home, this quality is impossible to replicate,” “No one grills fish like Mr. António.”  “And the prices, unbeatable!”

Ana Cristina overseas the dining room and her husband, António Janeiro is in charge of the colossal grill.  António was working as a car mechanic when he became fascinated by the art of grilling fish. He started hanging out with fishermen and cooks so he could learn their secrets. When his repair shop closed, he took the plunge and, together with his wife, opened Casa Janeiro.

His day starts with a trip to the fish market in the port of Setúbal. He comes back to the restaurant to make the “brasas,” the layers of red-hot charcoal that produce intense heat. He compresses these layers, reducing the airflow to make the charcoal last longer. Then, he covers the charcoal with ash to reduce the heat. “I stir the charcoal when I want more heat and apply more ash when I want less,” he explained to us.

We watched Janeiro prepare the fish with speed and precision and then pause for a brief moment, perhaps to give thanks for the bounty of the sea. Janeiro salted the fish and placed it on the grill. He didn’t take his eyes of the grill, constantly adjusting the coals to make sure the fish was perfectly cooked.

“Which fish do you recommend?”  we asked Ana Cristina. “Chicharro,” she answered without hesitation. We expressed surprise. After all, this is an unglamorous fish, the cheapest on the modestly priced menu. “But it is the best fish on the menu,” she insisted. “This month the chicharro is fat and delicious. If you don’t like it, you don’t need to pay.”  “Ok,” we said accepting the bargain.

As soon as we sat at the table, we regretted our decision—we saw amazing sea bass and grouper go by our table. But, when our chicharro arrived, succulent and delicious, we realized we had made the right choice. “What else should we try?” we asked Ana Cristina. She recommended the squid, which was the best we have ever had, tender and full of flavor.

When we returned the next day for more grilled chicharro and squid, Ana Cristina gave us a big smile. And that’s when we knew that we had been accepted as members of the club.

 

Casa Janeiro is located on Rua da Serração 57, Brejos de Azeitão, tel. 21 218 8124. If you don’t like to wait, you need to arrive at around 11:30 am for lunch and 6:30 pm for dinner. At lunch, the restaurant serves grilled fish. At dinner, it serves light seafood such as clams, crab and shrimp. 

 

The last harbor

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The existence of one of Lisbon’s best fish restaurants has been a closely guarded secret for more than half a century. Its name is “Último Porto” (the last harbor). Now that the secret is out, we might as well confess everything.

The restaurant is tucked away in the corner of one of Lisbon’s harbors (Rocha do Conde de Óbidos). It is not a glamorous place. But for fish lovers it is heaven.

There are tables inside and an esplanade surrounded by containers that is very pleasant when the weather is warm. It is easy to park and the walk to the restaurant is beautiful with the river in front of us and the city on our back.

“Último Porto” opens only for lunch and it is always full of locals. Grilled fish is the main event and the stars of the show are the “salmonetes” (mullets). Their skins are colored with yellow and orange hues, their flavors as bold as their colors. But, there are many other great choices, from sea bass to codfish.

Many restaurants showcase their fish in a refrigerated display. Others bring a fish platter to the table so that customers can choose what they want. At Último Porto, the fish is treated like a work of art—shielded from light and protected from the elements. It only leaves the refrigerator to go to the grill where it is cooked to perfection. It is this care that makes the last harbor our first choice for grilled fish in Lisbon.

Último Porto is located in the Estação Marítima Da Rocha Conde d’Óbidos, tel. 21 397 9498. It only serves lunch and reservations are a must. 

 

 

 

A faithful friend

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Portugal’s favorite fish does not swim in Portuguese waters. Since the 16th century, Portuguese fishermen have sailed to Newfoundland in search of gadus morhua, more commonly known as codfish. The French call the bland-tasting fresh cod “cabillaud” and the more appetizing salted cod “morue.” In Portugal this distinction is superfluous because only the salted variety is appreciated. So, one word suffices: “bacalhau.”

Since cod has very little fat, once it is cured in salt it keeps for a long time without becoming rancid. For this reason, dried codfish was often consumed by those who lived far from the coast in days of religious abstinence from meat like Christmas Eve.

The quality of the cod depends on the size of the fish (the larger the better) and the type of cure. To produce the best cod, the cure must begin on the boat, shortly after the fish is captured. This cure continues on land, usually in open-air pavilions. Lesser cod is stored frozen in the boat and cured only on land. Much of the codfish consumed in Portugal is cured in Ílhavo, a region with abundant sea salt.

Two popular sources of cod are Norway and Canada, but the best cod is caught in Iceland by Portuguese fishermen.

Before cooking, salted cod is soaked in water for two or three days to re-hydrate and remove most of the salt. The fish is then ready to be combined with symbiotic ingredients such as garlic, potatoes and olive oil.

The commerce of “bacalhau” is so important that there’s a whole street in Lisbon, Rua dos Bacalhoeiros, that was once reserved for codfish vendors.

In good times and bad, the Portuguese gather at the table to share this fish we call “fiel amigo” (faithful friend). It is a delicacy that comes from afar but has the taste of home.

Eels from Murtosa

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When we were young, every September our family ate fried eels that came from Murtosa, a small town in the estuary of the Vouga river. The eels were marinated in “escabeche,” a sauce made with olive oil, white wine, onions, paprika, laurel, and vinegar.  These ingredients were combined according to ancient rules of alchemy so that when the eels, the sauce and boiled potatoes were placed on the plate, they transformed into culinary gold.

Eels are mysterious creatures. They spend their early years in fresh river waters. After reaching maturity, they swim to the middle of the Atlantic ocean to lay their eggs in the Sargasso Sea. The baby eels swim back in search of fresh river water and the cycle of life restarts.

How do the infant eels know where to go? And why do the best tasting eels end up in Murtosa? These are inscrutable mysteries.

Before refrigeration was available, the Murtosa eels were a local delicacy. The fisherman ate them fried or in a “caldeirada” that combines the fish with potatoes, tomato, onion, garlic, olive oil, lard, herbs, and spices.

In the first half of the 20th century, some local cooks started marinating fried eels in escabeche sauce. First they packed them in wooden barrels and later in tin cans. These marinated eels gained great fame and popularity in the center of Portugal.

Over time, eels became scarce, the number of fisherman declined, canning factories closed, and it became hard to find marinated eels. So imagine our surprise when, strolling in downtown Lisbon, we found a store called 1942 that specializes in marinated eels from Murtosa! The cans come from a factory that has been processing eels since 1942.

We took this precious find home and opened the can slowly, preparing to be disappointed. But, when we placed the eels, the sauce and boiled potatoes on a plate, the old magic flavors came to life and we felt young again.

The 1942 store  is located on the corner of Rua da Conceição and Rua da Prata in Lisbon (tel. 21-599-9890).

Deluxe eels in Aveiro

 

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Eels were highly-prized culinary delicacies in ancient Greece. The eels from Lake Copais, a lake near Athens that is now extinct, were famous in the ancient world and sold for exorbitant prices. In the plays of Aristophanes these eels are the symbol of a luxurious life.

In Portugal, the most famous eels come from Murtosa, a town near Aveiro. They taste great fried, accompanied by escabeche sauce (a combination of olive oil, garlic, laurel, and vinegar).

A great place to try this delicacy is a neighborhood restaurant in Aveiro called Marinhas. The eels come perfectly fried accompanied by a delicious seafood rice and the indispensable escabeche sauce.

At Marinhas you can, for a modest price, enjoy a meal that would have cost a fortune in ancient Greece!

The Marinhas restaurant is located on Rua Cavalaria Cinco, 4, Aveiro, tel. 234197679..

Codfish poetry

Pastéis de BacalhauJune 10 is a holiday dedicated to the great 15th century poet Luis de Camões, whose epic poem Lusíadas helped forge the identity of Portugal as a nation.

One of Portugal’s most revered contemporary writers, António Lobo Antunes, said that “To know how to make codfish cakes is as important as to have read the Lusíadas.”

Lobo Antunes meant his words as a compliment to the genius of Camões. Try codfish cakes accompanied with tomato rice and a great glass of red wine and you’ll see that they are pure poetry!

Becoming famous

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The Portuguese love codfish so much that the easiest way to become famous in Portugal is to create a popular codfish recipe.  Writers might see their books go out of print, painters might see their works gather dust. But no one forgets Brás, Zé do Pipo, and Gomes de Sá because their recipes are part of our daily life.

In a recent visit to Tasca da Esquina, chef Victor Sobral prepared us a surprise menu. One of the items was a very refined version of codfish Brás style, the best we have ever tried. Imagine how Brás would feel, seeing his century-old recipe come alive in the hands of a great contemporary chef!

We wish we could write a longer post but we have to go, we bought some codfish to try a few ideas.