A short guide to the cuisine of Portugal

Cozinha Portuguesa Book

In one of the letters collected in the volume Lettres Provinciales, published in 1657, the philosopher Blaise Pascal writes that “I have made this letter longer than usual because I did not have time to make it shorter.” Brevity is a virtue that requires time, skill and effort. This is the reason why we appreciate so much a small volume titled “Portuguese Cuisine: a Brief Look” recently published by the Portuguese Academy of Gastronomy.

Summarizing the astonishing diversity of ingredients and preparation methods of the Portuguese cuisine is a herculean task. But with 11 recipes carefully written and beautiful illustrated, this book succeeds in this difficult endeavor.

The collection opens with Portuguese meat pies with collard-greens rice. It is an inspired choice because this staple of home-cooked meals is a test of a cook’s skill. Different  people following the same recipe can produce results that vary from adequate to sublime.

The second recipe, Setúbal-style grilled red mullet, is a simple preparation that starts you off on a journey to master the fine art of grilling fish. The freshness of the fish, the amount of salt used to season it, the hotness of the coals, the distance from the coals to the fish, and the timing of the grilling all determine the final results.

Brás-style codfish is a brilliant recipe: an implausible combination of thin, fried potatos, eggs and codfish that surprises and delights. The preparation is quite forgiving, so even a novice can produce great results.

Making Algarve-style fish requires a cataplana, an oval pot that traps the steam to keep the fish moist. This device also collects the delicious juices and reduces them to enhance their flavor. The result is pure magic.

Marinated partridge uses a vinegar-based sauce called “escabeche.” The idea of marinating with acids is thought to come from Persia. It produces a wonderful dish that you can prepare in advance and serve at a dinner party.

Chicken with “cabidela” rice is a traditional recipe that uses the blood of the chicken to make the sauce for the rice. Combine it with a great red wine and you create a symphony of bold flavors that is deeply satisfying.

Roast kid goat is often served at family lunches on Easter Sunday. It is great comfort food that always creates harmony at the table.

Sweet angel hair pasta and honey cake are two easy-to-make, crowd-pleasing desserts.

Pudim Abade de Priscos is an unusual mixture of eggs, sugar, port wine, bacon, and spices invented by an abbot who was an exceptional cook.

The book ends with pasteis de nata (custard tarts). It is a time-consuming, difficult recipe. But if you take the time and effort to master it, you will earn the unending admiration of your dinner guests.

This precious little book can set you off on a culinary journey through the flavors of Portugal with recipes that you can enjoy right away and that you can perfect and refine every time you gather friends and family around the table.

Pearly plates from Estremoz

Ela Pedra

During a delightful lunch at Gadanha in Estremoz, we praised the marble serving pieces used at the restaurant. Chef Michele Marques offered to introduce us to Filipa André, the person who makes them.

Filipa owns a gallery in Largo Dom Dinis, right by the royal palace of Estremoz. She told us how in school she longed to get into the marble sculpting classes that were open only to boys. Many years later, Filipa fulfilled her dream of learning how to work with the pearly marble of Estremoz.

Her pieces have an understated elegance that makes the food served on them shine. Every time her plates and bowls grace our dinner table people ask us: where did you get them? Now you know.

Filipa André’s gallery, Elapedra is located at Largo D. Dinis n. 13 in Estremoz, email elapedra.etz@gmail.com, tel.963273440.

Mercearia Prado

Prado (loja) Composit

António Galapito, the chef of Prado, a new restaurant in Lisbon, had a problem. Despite his large ensemble of proficient waiters, service was at times slow. The reason was that customers asked many questions about the provenance of the ingredients used in the restaurant.

Galapito took an unusual step to solve this problem: he opened Mercearia Prado, a grocery store that stocks the products he cooks with. So now his waiters can say: you find our ingredients in the grocery store around the corner.

Mercearia Prado is the perfect place to enjoy a light lunch or to shop for a gourmet picnic. Its shelfs are brimming with wines, cheese, prosciutto, canned fish, bread, vegetables, gourmet sandwiches, jams, and desserts. The products are so carefully curated that you can shop blindfolded and be certain that everything you choose tastes great!

Mercearia Prado is located at Rua das Pedras Negras, 37, Lisbon, tel. 960 280 492. 

Silk drawings

Scarves FL

When Fernanda Lamelas travels, she tends to disappear. We’ll find her in a quiet corner seeing beauty that often goes unnoticed. Trained as an architect, Lamelas became an avid watercolorist who carries her paints everywhere. Her brushes dance on white paper, making the paints flow with precision and grace. It looks easy, but it takes a lifetime of observation to choose which lines to draw, which contours to omit.

Fernanda accumulated a large collection of sketchbooks filled with drawings from her travels. But they lied in a quiet corner gathering dust. Seeking to infuse life into these sketchbooks, Fernanda used the drawing of an architectural motif from the Carmo Convent in Lisbon to make a silk scarf. The scarf received so much praise that Fernanda felt encouraged to produce more designs. And so details from Rossio in Lisbon, the Serralves Foundation in Oporto, the Pena Palace in Sintra and from many other places came alive on canvases made of silk.

If you’re looking for a memento of a blissful vacation in Portugal, it’s hard to find anything more elegant than a Lamelas scarf.

Click here for the website of Fernanda Lamelas Arts.

Great products from small producers at Comida Independente

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We fell in love with Comida Independente at first sight.  It is a new gourmet grocery store in Lisbon that has a selection of food and wines curated by its owner, Rita Santos. The shelfs of the elegant shop are filled with the best of Portugal: wines, olive oil, sausages, canned fish, salt, herbs, spices and much, much more. The store’s fitting motto is “great products from small producers.”

There are regular tastings of wines and foods that turn into exuberant gourmet parties. When we visited, Mário Sérgio from Quinta das Bageiras had everybody under the spell of his wonderful Bairrada wines. Lugrade, a famed producer of codfish, had sent their own chef to prepare tantalizing codfish cakes and other delights.

Rita hired two great collaborators: Inês Ruivo and Olavo Rosa, who graciously posed for us behind the store counter. Inês is an enologist who advises custumers on wines, food pairings and much more. Olavo has been involved in many gourmet projects in Lisbon. “I love the products we sell and the people that come to the store, we are connecting great producers with appreciative consumers,” he told us. “I am so committed to this project that I changed my name. From now on, please call me Evaristo.” This is the name of the grocery-store owner in the 1942 hit movie O Pátio das Cantigas (the courtyard of songs). The movie is about a courtyard with such a wonderful atmosphere that it creates a community. It is a fitting metaphor for Comida Independent, a grocery store destined to become a magnet for the gourmet community.

Comida independente is located at Rua Cais do Tojo 28, Lisbon, tel. 21 395 1762. To ask about upcoming events, send a message through their Facebook page located here.

 

 

Scarfs inspired by Portugal

Composite Scarves

VIDA combines the best of the old–beautiful textiles produced in developing countries–and the best of the new–digital fabric printing technology. Founded by Umaimah Mendhro, the company allows artists to turn their art into fashion articles. The platform has allowed artists from all over the world to collaborate with textile workers in ways that were previously impossible. Some of the company’s proceeds fund literacy and education programs in the factories where the products are made.

When VIDA invited our photographer, Maria Rebelo, to design a collection, she used the beautiful tiles of Portugal as inspiration. The result is a set of scarfs produced in a soft botanic silk fabric called modal with the shapes and colors that grace the facades of old Portuguese buildings. Click here to see the collection.

Extraordinary Portuguese tea

CháCamélia Composit

Camellias reign supreme in the gardens of the north of Portugal. They love the rainy, temperate climate and the slightly acidic soil. The first camellias were probably brought from China by Portuguese merchants five centuries ago. These merchants also brought back some leaves that, when infused in hot water, produced an extraordinary drink called tea.

Tea is made from the leaves of a camellia shrub called sinensis. If camellias grow so well in the north of Portugal, how come no one has tried to produce tea there in the last five centuries? The answer is that tea production requires great patience, there’s a five-year lag between the plantation and the first harvest. It also demands knowledge, dedication, and the humility to accept the whims of nature. These are the same traits necessary to produce port wine. Perhaps that is why Dirk Niepoort, whose family has traded port since 1842, and his wife Nina Gruntkowski had the courage to venture into tea production.

Knowing that Dirk and Nina share a passion for tea, a friend offered them a small tea shrub. They planted it in a cold corner of their garden in Oporto and made each other a promise. If the plant survived, they would try to produce tea in the north of Portugal. The plant thrived, so in 2011 Dirk and Nina imported 200 shrubs and planted them first in their garden in Oporto and then in one of the Niepoort properties, close to sea. This year they harvested the first leaves.

Nina took us on a tour of the lush plantation. She talks about her plants with great affection. “These are my babies,” she said with pride “they will have a very happy life.” The production process is entirely organic and the leaves are harvested manually. Haruyo san and Shigeru Marimoto, a couple who produces premium organic tea in Japan, offered Dirk and Nina technical assistance. Producing tea is as complex as producing wine. But while enologists have plenty of time to make adjustments to their wines, tea leaves are processed in just four nerve-wrecking hours right after the harvest.

We tasted several premium green teas produced by the Marimotos. Some are mixed with herbs and flowers produced in Portugal, such as lemongrass, rose petals, elder flowers, and lemon verbena. They offer a wide palate of floral, grassy and nutty flavors.

We then sampled one of Dirk and Nina’s experiments: oolong tea aged in port-wine barrels. It is a blend of east and west that is enticing and new.

Finally, Nina brought out a small can, took out some leaves and brewed one more cup of tea for us. “Try it,” she said, her eyes shining with excitement. “It is the first tea made in continental Portugal.”

We closed our eyes to sip the precious liquid. It does not taste like Chinese or Japanese tea. It has the understated elegance of a great port. And it marries the exuberance of the Douro valley with the melancholic aroma of the sea. Why did we have to wait five centuries to drink this Portuguese tea? Perhaps it was the time required to wait for someone like Dirk and Nina, someone with the audacity to forsake the ordinary to strive for the extraordinary.

Click here for the Chá Camélia web site.