Portugal has been one of those few European countries to which for some reason both my husband and myself never had been to. We had often been very close by, in Spain, we had seen pictures, heard recounts and read articles though. According to them, every pore and place of this history laden little country sounded fantastic, and a few weeks back we finally decided to go see for ourselves and travel to Portugal.
What a great decision this was! Even though our expectations were high, we did not get disappointed in any way. The cities are charmful and pictuesque, full of art and beauty stories, the villages and landscapes ever changing, rural and genuine. There’s colors and gardens and architectural styles, orchards and green spaces and traditions. The people act calm, friendly and helpful towards strangers, and seem like a happy and serene bunch between themselves.
And the food, oh the glorious food, is an entire story on its own. Portugese food is down to earth and does, what food first and foremost used to be and (at least there, how refreshing to witness) still is intended to do: It nourishes. Both the body and the soul, and abundantly so. There is little Froufrou in Portugese food, and much honesty. Animals and plants are used in their entiety. So one will get served pig ears instead of just the loin, turnip greens instead of just turnip, or tiny, whole fishes, eyes, fins and all.
There’s wonderfully fresh fish and sea food, mainly along the coasts of course, and there is meat that makes sense. Pork, goat, some beef, some lamb, some veal, some chicken, duck here or there. Eggs are used in almost everything from Amuse Bouche to dessert, plus in between. Vegetables and fruits are used in accordance to the seasons, some starches almost always on the plate, and sauces or dressings only are served with a purpose.
The influences of many cultures and countries become obvious at the table in the form of a wide array of spices, preparation methods and products used. In Portugal people eat what surrounds them, and what one can see in the orchards, fields, meadows and waters if he or she travels with a mind open towards good, wholesome, flavorful food.
Below are a few food and eating patterns that have caught my attention. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did the Portuguese feasts.
Arroz y Batates
Food, this becomes clear very quickly when traveling and eating through Portugal, is aplenty. All kinds of good food. Yet two things are ubiquitous: Rice and potatoes. They come with everything, and every where. Often together, sort of as a double starch.
The white wines from this region are fruity and springy, refreshing and light. Just as needed in this hot, southern zone. But not only there do they seem like a revelation. They make a perfect match for all kinds of foods, be it meat, sea food or fish, vegetables, charcuterie or cheeses. A perfect play mate!
Ordering coffee in Portugal is a perfectly safe thing to do. Espresso, macchiato, caffe com leite, cortado – most likely you will be served a beverage of great to excellent quality. But be warned of the Cappucchino: The baristas seem to misinterpret and misunderstand it. It comes without or with very little froth, with cocoa powder or chocolate sauce mixed in, or very watery. Just never as it is supposed to be made.
If you don’t like coriander, Portugal won’t like you. Or you won’t like Portugal, not while at the table, anyways. Coriander, or cilantro – fresh, dried or also as a powder – shows up every where and sometimes unexpectedly. You will find it in soups, stews and sauces of all sorts, in fish and seafood dishes, with meats, rice and / or potatoes, eggs, or, and be it only for decoration, with salads and vegetables. Every now and then you even will encounter coriander in some excentric desserts.
Literally translated from French, its origin, couvert means set up. The set up on a dining table, to be exact. So one might expect a napkin, silverware, and maybe salt and pepper. In Portugal though Couvert represents much more. It is an assortments of little treats that are set onto the table almost as soon as one sits down. Bread(s), olives and olive oil usually are part of the couvert. In most places though there is more. Peas and smoked ham, for instance. Various and often flavored butters. Marinated bits of local cheeses. Pickled vegetables. Slices of cured sausages and meats.
The Couvert, to me at least, represents the appreciation for and celebration of food. It makes Portugal’s clean, honest and down to earth (or sea) food even more lavish. It invites one to relax, share some great flavors, let loose and simply enjoy what’s about to come. (Which usually is great food and much joy.) The couvert celebrates the celebration of food. What an adorable thing!
The “little French” is said to be the Portuguese interpretation of the French Croque Monsieur, and is typical in the northwestern city of Oporto. The dish consists of a thick slice of bread on which then cured ham, sausages, steak, melted cheese, tomato slices and the famous sauce are piled. The sauce partly consists of beer, and this is about as much as is known. Each cook tries to keep the recipe secret and add his or her own twist. Franceshine are served with french fries and, because of their messiness, enjoyed with the help of a knife and fork rather than by hand.
Be assured, and 100% so: You will never be attacked by Dracula while in Portugal. As long as you regularly eat the local cuisines, that is. (Which I am assuming you would. Why should the reader of a food blog travel to a food heaven and then not dig in, after all?) The use of garlic in this country is, lightly put, absolutely abundant, even by mediterranean standards. So look forward to bold smells, intense flavors, and rumbling memories of garlic enfused and enhanced eating experiences. Your health will thank you, too.
Walking by a bus or train station, through a busy street or past some business buildings, one quickly notices the many adults carrying lunch boxes. Sometimes the impression almost looks surreal: When an elegantly dressed man wearing a tie and immaculate shoes, laptop bag over one shoulder and holding a fine briefcase, also carries an insulated lunch box. Or when an attractive, perfectly shaped woman shows off the latest fashion on her body and a bulky, totally unsexy lunch box on her arm.
Well, the lunch boxes send a gorgeous message: People in Portugal pay attention to food, they love to and care what they do eat. Quite obviously most people bring a home made lunch – a merenda – to work or school. It saves them money, the hassle of standing in line and having to consume mediocre cafeteria food. Bravo!
People who love savory baked goods – rather than plain or sweet ones – will appreciate the Portugese bakeries. The selection of rather small format halfmoons, squares and rectangles filled with mixes of meat, ham, baon and / or various kinds of cheese, with vegetables, potatoes or mushrooms, is enormous. Some of the little pillow like creatures are made of puff pastry, others of a firm yet flaky, rich tasting hand pie dough. Some are baked, fewer fried. Cute, small, quick and pleasantly savory they all are.
This is not about food directly, but still quite important in case you belong to the group of folks that love to play with a tooth pick after a meal: Bring your own! There are no tooth picks to be found in Portugese restaurants. Not on the table, not served with the bill, and not by the exit. Who asks for them, receives a long stare and same long apology. But no help to remove any of the delicious foods from somewhere deep between your teeth.