The extraordinary salt of Castro Marim

Castro Marin Composit

The Romans loved salt. They used it to cook, to preserve food, and as a form of currency (the practice of paying soldiers in salt is the origin of the word salary). So, it is not surprising that the Romans settled in Castro Marim. This small town on the marshes of the Guadiana river produced great salt.

During the 20th century, this production became industrialized. The salt was harvested with heavy machinery that leaves plenty of chemical residues. It was then washed and processed to turn its grey color into white, striping the salt of magnesium, potassium, and other important minerals.

Artisanal producers abandoned their salt ponds and so did the fish and birds that used them as habitats. Centuries of knowledge about producing great salt was on the verge of being lost.

But then, the tide turned. In the late 1990s, a cooperative called Terras de Sal revived the artisanal salt trade. It invited a French certification body to establish the strictest certification norms to ensure the highest standard of quality. It created the conditions to attract a new generation of producers who left their city jobs and came to Castro Marim to produce the best salt in the world.

These producers harvest the salt manually with wooden tools, a slow process that is essential to avoid chemical contamination. They do not wash the salt, to ensure that it retains all its important minerals. Since rain muddies the water, they only harvest when the weather is dry, between May and September.

One of the cooperative’s producers is called Água Mãe. Their salt is amazingly white and flavorful. Their “fleur de sel,” made of fine crystals created by temperature differentials between water and air, is exquisite. Água Mãe also bottles liquid salt, which is low in sodium and high in magnesium. When we spray it on our salads it gives them layers of delicate flavor.

The Romans were prescient in their love of salt. An amazing fact about our bodies is that, because life began in the sea, the composition of our tissue fluid resembles that of natural sea salt.

The ordinary act of seasoning our food becomes extraordinary when we use salt from Castro Marim. It is a privilege to nourish our body with the same pristine salt prized by the Romans 2000 years ago.

You can find the Água Mãe salt store on Travessa dos 3 Marcos, n.º 11, Castro Marim, Algarve, tel. 961380503, email  aguamae@aguamae.pt . Click here for the Terras de Sal web site. To buy the wondrous salt of Castro Marim in the U.S., click here.

A meal with friends

CL Logo In France they call it “pot au feu, “ in Italy “bollito misto,” in Spain “cocido Madrileño.” In Portugal we call it “cozido.” The concept is the same, but the taste differs remarkably from region to region. Cuts of meats that require long periods of cooking are combined with sausages, potatoes, chickpeas, cabbages, and other vegetables. There are no gimmicks, no complex sauce reductions, no overpowering spices, only great ingredients.

In the island of Azores, they prepare the cozido by burying the pot in volcanic soil, where it cooks slowly in geothermal heat. There are no volcanos in continental Portugal, so we have to use regular stoves to do the cooking.

One of the best cozidos is served every Sunday by Companhia das Lezírias, near Vila Franca de Xira, 50 Kms from Lisbon. It is a posh cozido made with wild game that imparts a unique taste to the preparation.

Trying this delicacy requires planing, since it is indispensable to make reservations  in advance. Call the Companhia das Lezírias to book a table for a group of friends and, when the time comes, you’ll enjoy a very satisfying meal in the company of very happy friends. CL cozido

Click here for the website of the restaurant and here for directions. You can make reservations by calling 263 654 985 or emailing rest.coudelaria@clix.pt. 

The joy of cooking

Happiness researchers find that emotional peaks, moments of great joy or sadness, have a lasting impact on our happiness. Travel vacations give us a chance to collect nuggets of joy that we can savor in the future. A great way to relive a vacation in a foreign country is to cook some of the food we tried. Tastes and smells have the power to put us in another place and time.

So, how can you cook some Portuguese dishes after vacationing in Portugal? The Portuguese cuisine is an intuitive affair and recipes are notoriously vague, with instructions like: “follow the usual procedure,” or “use sugar qb.” The ubiquitous cooking expression qb is an abbreviation of “quanto baste,” which means “just the right amount.”

We are lucky that a talented American cookbook author, Jean Anderson, wrote detailed recipes for many classic Portuguese dishes. With her book “The Food of Portugal” in hand, you can cook food that will remind you of dining in a medieval city, a Port-wine quinta or a beach-side restaurant. These memories will bring you happiness, qb.

How to cook fresh octopus

When you eat octopus in a Portuguese restaurant, it is always tender and delicious. But, when you buy fresh octopus and cook it at home, it often turns into a rubbery disappointment.

Portuguese chefs stage an elaborate disinformation campaign to keep secret their cooking technique. They tell you to cook the octopus with an onion, a cork, or a nail; or leave it in the pot until the water is cold; or cook it in red wine or in red vinegar; or beat it three times on the kitchen counter; or “scare” it by raising it from the boiling water. All these tricks produce inedible, chewy octopus.

So, how do you tenderize this eight-armed mollusk? You freeze the fresh octopus before you cook it! That’s all. But please don’t tell anyone; it’s a secret.