Language barriers melt away when it comes to good food.
I did my research. Before arriving in Southern Portugal I knew Cataplana on the menu equates to a luscious stew. Also, thanks to our Brazilian Rotary Exchange student from years ago, Celso Santin, I knew another important Portuguese word: Obrigada, (thank you). If you are a male, you say Obrigado.
A cataplana is a copper steamer shaped like a clamshell with a hinge on the back and clamps on either side. A bunch of tasty ingredients, such as garlic, onion, olive oil, wine, and vegetables are steamed and simmered in the cataplana on a stove. If you are making the traditional Algarve specialty, you would add ameijoas (clams) and pork. But that’s just the beginning. Cataplana can be made with bacalhau (salted cod), camaraoes (prawns), mexilhoes (mussels), espadarte (swordfish), any fresh catch of the day.
Some restaurants offer simpler fare. For shellfish pulled from the sea that morning, lots and lots of garlic and cilantro were the two magic ingredients in many of the dishes we tried. Spending much of my life in land-locked Pennsylvania, I had a lot of seafood “firsts” in Portugal. Langueirao (razor clams) were on the menu and I just had to try them. On childhood beach walks in Avalon, NJ, razor clam shells were so ordinary that we didn’t collect them. In Portugal I was chewing on razor clam meat in a broth of garlic and cilantro, and loving it.
I had never eaten polvo (octopus) before. In Portugal, octopus salad, with garlic, green peppers, and light vinaigrette, was served before several meals. Mmmm.
Bacalhau and borrego (lamb) are always on the menus (if Portuguese cook lamb a dozen ways, they prepare cod a hundred ways), as were grilled sardinhas. Grilled sardines are always on the menu but only in restaurant kitchens between May and October. One patient waiter explained that fresh sardinhas are not “fat enough” until May, at which time they are grilled over coals and eaten like corn on the cob (the spine being the cob). We settled for tinned sardinhas—in oil, tomato sauce or piri-piri (olive oil with hot red chili peppers), or as a pate—as a staple for our picnics along with bread and cheese, all from our neighborhood Intermarche, Pingo Doce, or Supermarcados. And, yes, I pull out the spines.
One menu entry that always gave me trouble was Cacao. My eyes were always drawn to it because I saw chocolate…but it was actually translated as “dogfish.” I had heard of Delaware’s Dogfish Head craft-brewed beers, but never the dogfish fish. And I still haven’t tasted it, unless it was one of the mystery fish in the half-dozen cataplana meals I devoured.
State College is no hotbed of seafood, so I doubt I’ll be trying many Portuguese recipes, but I sure brought back some cooking methods.
Cilantro and garlic is going to be my go-to summer duo. I’ve already tried a new way of preparing batatas doces (sweet potatoes). Sauté, ever so lightly, chunks of garlic in olive oil while the potatoes bake to an incredibly soft stage. Pour the sweet garlic and olive oil over the sweet potatoes. Heaven. (Before Portugal, I never thought of putting garlic on sweet potatoes.)
One night in Faro, when I needed a break from hearty seafood stew, I tried a salad of black-eyed peas with tuna, simply prepared with cilantro, garlic, and lemon juice. It is so refreshing and such an easy meal to re-create.
In honor of above-mentioned Celso, we selected a restaurant in Vila Nova de Milfontes called Tasco do Celso (Celso’s Tavern). The tavern had dark paneling, a slowly burning fire in the fireplace, a delicious dinner, dessert, and coffee. When we thought we had maxed out, our waiter brought a bottle of Licor de Bolota and poured each of us a cordial. Another first—acorn liqueur—and on the house. Obrigada times two.
Drinking in Portugal is incredibly inexpensive. On our picnic supply forays to the local supermarkets we always stocked up on a few bottles of vinho or porto. We spent about 2 Euros per bottle of vinho, a little more for porto, and never had a bad bottle or a hangover. The Romans gave the Alentejo region the tradition of fermenting and storing wine in clay jars called talhas. March was off-season for touring vineyards. We saw miles of wire trellis with stubs of pruned-back grapevines, piles of prunings ready to be burned, and a few decorative talhas marking gated entries.
As for liqueurs…I love the Portuguese spelling of the word—l-i-c-o-r—the way it should be spelled, not all of those damned Qs and Us and Es. When one shopkeeper gave us a taste of Licor de Poejo, he explained it was an herb that grew wild in the fields of the Algarve. Marina and I both got a bottle; mine made it onto Ryanair—hers is somewhere in the postal system between Portugal and Belgium…good luck! When we got home, we found out Licor de Poejo is made of organic pennyroyal (mint) with fig brandy and sugar.
In Lisbon, they have bars where they only sell one licor—Ginjinha or simply Ginga. Made of wild, sweet cherries, Ginga is offered in plastic shot glasses, so you can sip as you walk along the Tagus River at sunset.
We went to Cabo de Sao Vicente, the most southwestern point of Portugal, a place the Romans considered the edge of their world, a mystical place where the sun sank, sizzling into the endless ocean. At a gift shop with shelves of licor, I decided to look for some acorn liqueur, but I didn’t know how to say “acorn” in Portuguese. I began to mime with loud, slow English. “Oak tree,” “Very big,” I continued, spreading my arms out, with “nuts with a cap,” I said, patting my head with my hand. The shop clerk got a pad of paper and a pencil. She sketched an acorn. “Yes!” She turned around and took a flask of Licor de Bolota off the shelf. Sold.
Licor de Bolota tastes like hazelnut liqueur. It is made from the fruit of the Holm or Stone Oak, Quercus rotundifolia. The acorns are also said to be a favorite of foraging pigs, imparting a delicious flavor to Portuguese pork.
A few words on coffee: Guidebooks say the Portuguese word for espresso is bica, but I prefer regular coffee with cream, so I winged it. I’d say café or latte or cappuccino and get the point across. One old curmudgeon looked at me and said, “black or white?” That distilled things pretty quickly. Regardless, coffee in Portugal is always served with packets of sugar —they must like it sweet—and occasionally, coffee was served with a plastic wrapped Pau de Canela/Canela en Rama/Baton de Cannelle/Cinnamon Stick.
My favorite accompaniment to coffee, by far, is a custard tart, Pasteis de Nata, from Pasteis de Belem.
Last word on the language: I quickly picked up on bom dia, good day, and said it to everyone. Words like mercado (market), centro (center of town), parque (that’s easy), and pastelaria (bakery where they sell pasteis de nata) were quickly absorbed into my vocabulary. The only time my lack of Portuguese language skills really had me concerned was the morning we were leaving Campinho.
A white van cruised through town, its loudspeaker blaring what seemed like an important message. I don’t know if it was warning of an alien invasion, telling us not to vote for Donald Trump, announcing an upcoming bullfight, or simply telling us to put recyclables on the curb. We loaded up Tinto and skedaddled. Laurie Lynch
May is for Sardines: When I got back home, I scanned for Portuguese recipes written in English. I found the website: http://saomarcosdaserra.com The title of this recipe made me smile. Of course I won’t be planting beans until June, but by mid-summer Peixinhos da Horta should tide me over until my next visit to Portugal.
Peixinhos da Horta
Little Fishes from the Vegetable Garden
1 kg green beans
2 cloves garlic
70 g onions
200 g flour
Salt and olive oil to taste
Cut beans into thin strips, about 15 cm long. Boil in salted water until half-cooked. Make batter with flour, a little water, eggs (beaten well), chopped onion and chopped garlic. When batter ingredients have been thoroughly mixed together, add beans and stir until completely covered with batter.
Fry beans in olive oil. Serve with a fresh lettuce and tomato salad.