A gourmet fish

Robalo, Maria Rebelo, digital print image, 2012.

Portuguese restaurant waiters like to give all fish equal opportunity. Ask them about one variety and they’ll tell you that it’s very very fresh and very very good. Ask about another variety, and you’ll hear much the same.

After the waiter sings the praises of all fish on the menu, we usually choose a robalo. This species is known in English as “common snook,” but there’s nothing common about it. The robalo is a voracious, discerning foodie who loves to feast on small crabs. As a result, it has a really unique taste. Try it, and you’ll see that it is very very delicious.

A regal cake

BoloRei

During the Christmas season, Portuguese pastry stores transform many tons of flour, sugar, eggs, port wine, and candied fruit into the popular king’s cake (bolo rei).

Bolo rei was introduced in Portugal in the second half of the 19th century by Confeitaria Nacional, a pastry store in downtown Lisbon. It was based on France’s “gateaux des rois,” a royal cake forbidden during the French revolution until pastry chefs renamed it the “people’s cake” (gateaux des sans culottes).

Over time, Confeitaria Nacional’s recipe was imitated and adapted, and bolo rei became an integral part of Portuguese culture. So much so that, when the monarchy was abolished in 1910, the Portuguese parliament renamed it Republic’s cake. But the awkward name never caught on.

Pastry stores used to hide two objects inside the cake: a gift (a trinket or, in some cases, a gold coin) and a dried fava bean. The gift has been eliminated but the fava bean is still included. According to tradition, whoever gets it has to buy the next cake.

The custom of hiding a fava bean inside a cake originated in the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia. The person who found the fava bean became king of the Saturnalia and served as the festival’s master of ceremonies.

If you’re in Portugal during the Christmas season, make sure you try some bolo rei. It’s a sweet piece of European history.

Memories of a lost cheese

Marcel Proust could vividly recall the taste and smell of his aunt’s madeleines. Those memories inspired his masterpiece, Remembrance of Things Past.

Joana Garcia remembered the taste and smell of the cheese she ate as a child with her grandmother in Alentejo. Those memories inspired her to recreate that long-lost flavor. She quit her job as a lawyer, moved to Alentejo and bought 500 sheep. After trying endless combinations of milk, salt and cardoon, she found the taste of her youth. Garcia’s masterpiece is called Queijo Monte da Vinha. It is a delicious, soft, buttery cheese with the precious taste of a distant past.

You can try Queijo Monte da Vinha at the wonderful Tasca da Esquina restaurant in Lisbon. You can buy it at Mercearia Creativa, a gourmet grocery store where you’ll find many other great Portuguese products (Av. Guerra Junqueiro, 4A, Lisbon, tel. 218-485-198). Click here for the Monte da Vinha website.

Pink glamour

Lula, Rui Barreiros Duarte, ink on paper, 2012.

The squid is a sea socialite, always hopping from shrimp to smelt parties, elegant and glamorous in its pink-dotted design gown. This cephalopod has in recent years become a globe trotter. Every day, billions of squid travel by road, sea and air to the menus of fashionable restaurants around the world. But all this roving takes a toll on the delicate mollusk, which arrives tired and frozen, long on frequent-flyer miles and short on taste.

If you’re in Portugal, don’t miss the chance to try some fresh squid. The best way to cook it is “Algarve style” (lulas à Algarvia):  the squid is lightly fried in olive oil, garlic, and bay leaves. It’s a simple preparation and yet, it produces sublime results that do justice to the squid’s diaphanous freshness.

A supreme chicken

One of the simple pleasures of Portuguese cuisine is roasted chicken with piri-piri, a spicy sauce made with peppers that came originally from Africa.

Frango da Guia, a small roasted chicken, is very popular in the Algarve. But the best roasted chicken we have ever had is from Frango Saloio, a tiny take-out place in the municipal market of the town of Lourinhã, 70 km north of Lisbon. You see no tourists there, only locals who wait while their chicken is cooked to perfection over red-hot coals. Lines can be long during the Summer, so please don’t tell anyone about this place!

Frango Saloio is located in Mercado Municipal, Loja 2, Lourinhã, tel. 917 272 385.

Sweet Algarve

Algarve is much more than gorgeous beaches and perfect weather. It is also delicious sweets made with eggs, almonds or figs. The most famous are the Dom Rodrigos. But the prettiest are doces finos (fine sweets) like the ones shown in the photo, made with the wonderful marzipan that only almonds from Algarve can produce. These local treats are one more reason why life in the Algarve is so sweet.

The doces finos in the photo are from Pastelaria Beira-Mar, Avenida Infante Sagres 61-A, Quarteira, tel. 289 314 748.

How the angels like it

The village of Alfeizerão, near Nazaré, is famous for its sponge cake. The original recipe came from the Spanish kingdom of Castile, so the cake used to be called Pão de Castela (bread from Castile).  When the Portuguese started trading with Japan, in the 16th century, they introduced it to the residents of the port of Nagasaki. The cake remains popular in Japan, where it is called Castella or Kasutera. In Portugal, the name of the cake changed in the 19th century to Pão de Ló, probably after a cook nicknamed Ló.

Pão de Ló is usually a dry cake, but the nuns of Alcobaça’s Cister Order developed a version that is wonderfully soft and moist. When the religious orders were abolished in the 19th century, the nuns gave their recipe to a family from Alfeizeirão that offered them shelter. Five generations later, the same family still uses this recipe to make Pão de Ló at Casa Ferreira in Alfeizerão.

During a recent visit, we asked our server at Casa Ferreira what makes their cake so special. She answered without hesitation: “we make Pão de Ló the way the angels like it.” We could not confirm the veracity of this claim but, after trying the cake, it struck us as completely plausible.

Casa Ferreira, Rua 25 de Abril, 215, Alfeizerão, tel. 262 990 719.