“Without a shadow of a doubt, the Portuguese is the most refined, the most voluptuous and succulent cuisine in the world…” Fialho de Almeida.
Voluptuous cuisine. How wonderful.
But Portuguese food is still a bit of a mystery to many people in this country. The general assumption is that it is just like Spanish food. It’s got to be because it’s Mediterranean, right?
Wrong. Of course, Portugal is the gateway to the Mediterranean and sure, there are similarities because of the climate and terrain in some areas. But let’s not forget that it’s the Atlantic Ocean that hugs its shores. All 953km of them, north to south.
And that ocean has been crucial to the formation and development of Portuguese cuisine - not just in terms of the incredible fish that is sourced from it, but what it represents in terms of Portuguese history.
This is the ocean that Vasco de Gama sailed out on, discovering the sea route to India and China. The ocean that led Bartolomeu Dias to explore the coast of Africa and led Pedro Cabral to Brazil. And it was this spirited nation of adventurers who brought the flavours of the exotic lands they discovered, back to Europe. Spices from the Orient, exotic fruits and flavours from South America, the casserole from the Arab nations and the art of using sugar from sweet-toothed countries, India & Turkey. With this rich gastronomic heritage, it is not surprising that Portugal has such an extensive repertoire of national dishes. One of the largest in fact.
The most famous is probably their love for Bacalhau – dried, salted cod-fish. Which is ironic actually as it isn’t even sourced from the Atlantic! They get most of it from Norway and Iceland… anyway, moving on.
Legend has it that there are 365 different recipes for this fish, their fiel amigo (faithful friend) – one for each day of the year.
And obviously the fish and seafood from the Atlantic waters plays a huge part in their gastronomy as well – sardines, prawns, octopus, clams, monkfish, tuna… either simply grilled with a little lemon or used to make a calderia or cataplana (rich fish stews). Much like the Tagine, Cataplana is actually the name of the recipe and the utensil used to cook in. They are also a real thing of beauty – hammered copper shaped like a clam shell, that is often used as the centre piece at a dinner table. The ceremony of opening one half of this copper “shell” to reveal the incredible fish stew inside, just adds to the joy of eating it.
The Cataplana also leads us nicely into the meat category, with one of the most popular cataplana recipes combining pork and clams. A Portuguese surf and turf, if you will. But with really unusual, rich and exciting flavours.
Their meat stews are amazing too and these are some of the most common dishes eaten up and down the country. Traditonally they have a very rustic and peasanty vibe to them, with simplicity and flavour at the core. Feijoada is something people might be more familiar with as it’s also a common Brazilian dish – a hearty bean stew with pork and sausages. I was always a little afraid of the feijoada as I remember my grandmother’s excitement every time she stumbled upon a snout or an ear. A wonderful delicacy, apparently. But thankfully, not all fiejoadas are stuffed with pigs extremities! There are different versions in every region and honestly, it is one of the tastiest, most comforting, indulgent meals you could hope for.
Vegetarians will have a tough time in Portugal – this really is meat lovers’ land – but the greens they do eat are pretty wonderful. They have a bit of a soft spot for broad beans, which always look so stunning on a table – those little green jewels drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with coriander are the most brilliant accompaniment to heavier meat dishes.
They also eat a wonderful green that I don’t think we really use in England called grelhos - apparently they are turnip tops. I am still on the look out for them in London as they are just divine. Think cavalo nero meets spinach – rich deep flavour, slightly bitter but amazing soft consistency.
And then we get to the most important category of all - pudding. Sobremesa. I'm fairly sure if you asked a Portuguese person what the most important meal of the day is, their answer wouldn't be breakfast...
There is always room for something sweet. ALWAYS. Whether it's one of the hundreds of doces conventuais or an almond tart, a fig pudding, sticky Elvas Plums, chocolate mousse, spiced baked apples...something for everyone and you can guarantee that it will hit that sweet spot with force!
They understand food so well, the Portuguese. They are completely in tune with what their land and sea provides and have created some truly phenomenal dishes over time. And we have them to thank for some of the worlds most loved flavours. A nation of explorers and gastronomes.
As my granny would say – “Viva Portugal!”