30 October 2011

Barcelona Cervecerias

Some are slick, some are shabby, some offer gourmet beers, others pour local, cheap stuff. Barcelona is full of "cervecerias," which are very difficult to define.
Spain has more land cultivated with grape vines than any other country in the world, and only France and Italy produce more wine. But beer is much more popular here than it is in those other countries, and there are a lot of places to drink it. It's something of an American invention, really, that tapas and pintxos are the provenance of wine bars - more often they are eaten with a glass of beer.
Technically, cerveceria means brewery, and a few of Barcelona's establishments actually do brew their own beer. But in general, the difference between a bar and a cerveceria is pretty slim - something like the line between a cafe and a bistro. Food is a big part of the distinction, as some bars don't have food but almost all cervecerias do. In effect, the best translation might be "pub."
One of the best things about cervecerias is that they're open through much of the day and night, meaning that one can have a beer and a bite to eat whenever the need arises. The food can be heavy or light, but is almost always something small. Cargols, squid, shrimp and cuttlefish are popular; sausages and meatballs are ever present. At larger places, the selection can be overwhelming, the creations exotic. On the other hand, the plates are often as simple as this - a few roast peppers sprinkled with sea salt.
Barcelona has a long history of brewing. The small Moritz brand was originally from here - but is now bottled in nearby Zaragoza. The company - which was founded in 1856 - was only recently resurrected, after nearly four decades out of business, and has enjoyed something of a cult following among chic locals, who extoll its pale malt and lemon flavors. Ask for a beer in most places, though, and you will almost certainly be given an Estrella Damm. Estrella, also local, is one of the largest brands in Spain, and is a brew usually drunk without analyzation.

Things Portuguese People Like

Sweets. Saying they "like" sweets may be an understatement. Portuguese people really, really like their baked goods. From morning until night, people gather at the counters of pastelerias, sipping coffee and eating something fresh, dense and almost invariably yellow. Pastries are delectably eggy, from tiny creme brulee custard cups to something as simple as honey sweetened egg bread. The thing is, Portuguese people happen to have some incredible baked goods at their disposal at all times. So, it's pretty easy to see why they have such a sweet tooth.
Serving Platters. Tables in Portugal are pretty uniform - white paper place mat or table covering, simple white plates, simple silver utensils, a stubby wine glass for water and a thinner one for wine. But the final items, that never ever fail to appear on your table, are serving platters. Anything ordered, comes in a separate dish, most often an oval tray, which is set beside your empty plate with some serving spoons. It may make tables more crowded and necessitate more washing, but there's something nice about transferring a portion of steaming hot food to your dish. Serving yourself makes you feel a little more at home, I think. Plus, the portions are always so humongous that it's nice not to have it all in front of you at once.
Football. Like port wine, you can thank the English for this dominant presence in Portuguese culture. The sport gained popularity in the 19th century, when students "brought it back from England." Nowadays, their star player is Cristiano Rinaldo. Ever heard of him? Here are some kids playing soccer with a plastic bag after their first ball, a plastic bottle, rolled under a dining couple's table. This was in Guimarães, where the night sky was lit up with soccer on tv.
Little Beers. A French study in 1999 ranked the Portuguese as the world's biggest drinkers. So, maybe it's an attempt to scale back? Super Bock, the Portuguese beer, is available in these "mini" bottles. Beer glasses at bars are the size of a New Jersey diner juice glass. You can order a larger one, but the assumption, if you don't specify, will be that you want the little beer or mini beer bottle. Locals say it's so that the drink is colder. Makes sense, but still gives bartenders a whole lotta extra work.
Balconies. When we first arrived in Portugal, in Guimarães, our hotel receptionist said that the main squares were "full of beautiful balconies." For some reason, we figured he actually meant terraces, for dining and such. From that night forward, throughout our two weeks, we saw more balconies than we could count. I'd say it's a dominant architectural feature. And Portuguese people don't just have balconies, they use them. Hanging out their laundry, showing national and football club pride through draped flags and banners, sitting outside for a smoke, having a potted garden or decorating with old mannequins, statues, etc - they really make balconies an extension of their home.
Fado. This type of music is widely believed to be a Portuguese invention. The word comes from "fate," and it is a mournful, soulful style of singing that speaks of tragedy and loss. Originally, sailors were the main fadistas. Soon, though, singers such as Amália Rodrigues ("The Queen of Fado") put the music on the national and international map. Rodrigues' house is a big attraction in Lisbon and the Fado Museum (seen above) makes a lovely trip. Mostly, though, you encounter fado through the radios playing everywhere and at restaurants that offer live performances.
This shade of yellow. And what a pretty shade it is. When buildings weren't white, they were almost always this color. Bright but warm, it looks beautiful at dawn, dusk and all the hours in between. It really is a sort of uniform shade and... come to think of it.... matches their egg pastries! Mystery solved.

28 October 2011

The Alentejo

The first thing we saw in the Alentejo region of Portugal was a dead cow. It had been dead for a little while, lying amid rocks and scrub not far from the dirt road. This isn't the coast or the wine region, it's the backcountry, a place that is slowly becoming emptier and more forgotten. For all its harsh beauty, the Alentejo is being left behind.
The landscape is one of desert grasses and cacti, rocks and sheep, barking dogs and land turned by hand. There are cork oaks and olive trees in rows. Summer temperatures are among the hottest in Europe. A rainstorm during our stay brought relief for the farmers; it hadn't rained in five months. It smelled like fall and burning grass. The yellowed earth was particularly striking when the sky was blue and the autumn light cast long shadows.
Already the most sparsely peopled part of Portugal, the Alentejo loses residents every year. Young people leave for Lisbon, Guimarães or the southern coast, leaving their parents and grandparents to work the rocky earth. The further into the countryside we went, the older the people - men hunched over donkey plows, women making lace with crooked fingers. The picturesque, whitewashed villages are even becoming emptier. In Marvão, once a bustling town, there are only 15o people left and the streets are silent. In Castelo de Vide, above, shutters hang loosely in front of vacant windows.
The region is ancient. Monoliths from prehistory, roman roads and ruins, rocks piled for millennia. In the middle of a cork forest, down a rough road, a little clearing exists around the Menhir da Meada, the tallest on the Iberian peninsula. Emperor Augustus, of Rome, built a cobbled highway through the plains around 25 BC - even then, the land was mostly empty. Travelers passed through on their way down to the sea, or up into the Spanish netherworld of Estremadura.
There is amazing beauty mixed in with the rust and stone - and some good food, too. We ate deliciously salty cheese, dogfish soup, hearty kale and Pão de Cabeça bread. From a farmer, we bought an assortment of tiny, sweet tomatoes and two perfectly ripe persimmons - the fruit was almost liquid inside, and honey-sweet. Oranges grew everywhere, showing up bright against the fall browns.
We camped for a few days down the street from a small bull-fighting ring, across the lane from a pasture where the bulls were being raised. One feels, here, that this is Portugal's mortal corner. Unlike the timeless seashore, or the age-old beauty of the cities, this is a region that reminds a traveler that age can also mean death.
The locals tend to lump all tourists together as "northern-european." The people they mean arrive here from the sterile outside, wide eyed and infrequently. They come for the heat and quiet, or to find some mythical piece of real Portugal. What they are looking for is on the verge of vanishing, a way of life that no-one wants to lead anymore.
The Alentejo after all, isn't changing, just petering out. But, on cold October nights in little bars, the locals huddle together and drink. Reserved on the street, in a taberna they are a cheerful, loud lot - even the most elderly of them give booming greetings and goodbyes. At the end of these short days, with winter approaching, the scene is certainly that of the "real" Portugal, of a people entrenched in their earth and place, happy to see that their friends and neighbors are still there.

Portuguese Food

It only seems natural to begin a post about Portuguese food with bread. The bread is exceptionally good here, never sold stale or even sub-par. When you sit down to a mean in Portugal, the items covered in the couvert are brought to the table. This always includes bread, usually a plate of butter and sardine paste packets, olive and sliced cheese and sometimes other fun treats. You pay for whatever you eat. The bread is simply irresistible. Light rolls, denser rye breads, they mix it up enough to make you always just have to try it. With a bakery on every corner, there's never a restaurant, bar mini-market that doesn't serve something as fresh as can be. Pão is a sort of religion in Portugal and the best breadmakers add things like potato puree and orange to attain the perfect flavor.
In some parts of the country, bread extends to the rest of the cuisine. "Dry soups" or açordas are a staple in the Alentejo region and, because they're so yummy, have migrated elsewhere. It can best be described as a bowl of mushy bread, sort of like the bottom of French Onion soup. Only, the olive oil, water and egg soaked cubes are flavored so wonderfully with coriander, loads of garlic and (in this case) specks of liver, that it feels less provincial than it does ingenious. It's not very often that a make-do-with-what-you-have approach results in such tasty food across the board.
And that's really the best thing about Portuguese food - it truly is its own thing. Most dishes are sourced almost completely from local ingredients and a respect for the what is caught, raised or harvested is evident in the simplicity of a lot of the preparation. Throughout the country, especially in the Minho region and around Porto, we saw enormous leaves of kale sticking up over the fence of gardens, stacked up and draped over someone's shoulder as they carried it home, piled into the backs of trucks. Shredded up and mixed into a potato puree, it would appear in front of us as caldo verde, green soup.
Homegrown and traditional, the cuisine doesn't feel stodgy. Here's some melon I ordered as a starter in a particularly modern (read: vegetarian) restaurant. The large, green skinned melões popped up at roadside stands everywhere and I'd been wanting to try it. The honeydew like fruit was served sliced with roasted sesame seeds on top. And was excellent. Why do anything more with it when the melon's that ripe? Something else I will always remember fondly about Portuguese food is ordering "fruit" for dessert and being offered "apple or orange." Merlin was given an apple with a knife and I an orange with a wet nap.
One enormous exception to all of this talk about the fruits of the land and local sourcing: bacalhau. Salt cod has an almost mythic history in Portugal, so it continues to be purchased and prepared in enormous quantities even though it is completed imported these days. Being as there was so much fresh fish available, we really didn't order it very often. But boy did we smell it at the grocery store. You can't imagine how much bacalhau was available. Piles and boxes and coolers and shelves. In the chain supermarkets, the stock took up a huge corner - as big as the entire butcher counter. Here, a woman weighs one fish as she cuts another with heavy machinery. There are anywhere from 365 to 1000 Portuguese salt cod recipes (depending on who you believe).
If bacalhau is the king of fish in theory, I'd say that sardine is the king in practice. Fresh, grilled, canned, you find them everywhere. I've had a lot of sardines in my life and the ones here are a little bigger, a little plumper and always perfectly grilled. You never get that bitter aftertaste. The canned varieties are delicious and sold in a greater abundance than its not-locally-fished foe tuna. Sardines are so omnipresent that one even snuck into my photo of arroz com polvo e camarao (rice with octopus and shrimp)! Slightly soupy rices like these are a staple and never described differently than "rice with blank." I appreciate the clarity. I also appreciate that its all cooked together, stocking those little grains full of aromas and juices.
Speaking of octopus, here's some next to "smashed potatoes." Almost any meat or fish you order, especially grilled varieties, come with salad and potatoes, boiled or smashed. We opted for boiled the first few times, thinking that we were hearing "mashed." Oh, what missed opportunities. Smashed potatoes are roasted crisp in their skin and then squished down to create various Pacman-like shapes. Doused in oil and garlic, they're hard to beat. Just don't burn the roof of your mouth like I did. Twice.
This is not to say that the most popular preparation of potatoes isn't good ole french fries. Because it is. The loveliest of plates would come covered in them, literally. Sometimes even the waiter couldn't tell which plate was which. I think it's done in an effort to keep the fries from getting soggy and the main course from getting cold. Poking out from beneath this heap is another regional rural specialty that has gone countrywide: carne de porco à Alentejana. It's roasted pork and clams that is commonly referred to as "Portuguese surf-and-turf." Being as they'd never just mix the two ingredients together for no good reason, the clams were actually steamed right in with the roasting pork, bathing the meat in salty juice.
With these enormous plates of delicious food, plus all... that.... bread... bar snacks tend to be light. There are always bags of potato chips, candy and nuts for sale. Very often, there are cans of sardines and rounds of sheep cheese. If you get one of these, you'll be handed a plate, knife and some cubes of fresh bread to go along with it. Mostly, though, the snack of choice is tremoços - lupin beans. I saw them for the first time in a Portuguese bar in Andorra. A man sat with a bowl of broad, yellow beans and a plate of their discarded, translucent skins. We bought some at the market, sold (like the Andorran's) with little black olives mixed in here and there. They taste a lot like soybeans and can be eaten with their skins, though getting really good at popping them out makes you feel like a real local.

26 October 2011

Castle Hunting: Castelo de Marvão

Portugal's back has always been against the wall. It is a country that looks outward toward the ocean and once controlled huge portions of the globe with its powerful navy. But even as the kingdom expanded to the far colonial corners of the world, the land border with Spain was ever contested. A coastal nation at heart, Portugal nevertheless had to expend a lot of effort maintaining a string of defensive positions along it's backcountry mountains, here in the rocky nowhere. The Castelo de Marvão is one of these forts, and it's an impressive one.
Built on a high hilltop of jagged quartz, Marvão's has an excellent position and vantage point in a mostly flat landscape. Along the border to the north, the mountains are higher, and snowy ranges like the Serra da Estrela provide a natural break between the two countries. In this lower land, outcroppings like this define the boundary. To this day, in land further south, there are disputes about the actual division, where old contests have never fully been resolved.
The castle has an unusually long outer wall, which is essentially intended to cover as much of the hill's flat top as possible. It extends from the main keep to a secondary gate complex, which accesses the town of Marvão, which is itself walled. The keep sits atop the steepest point, with solid rock underneath and a secondary tower alongside. In the rear, terraced battlements step down underneath, constructed as more room was required for cannons.
While the outer walls are low and, frankly, too long to be effective (the castle was taken several times, it's not the epitome of defensibility), both the central stronghold and the gate complex are very well protected. One feature of the entrance: behind the door, there is a curving corridor, almost overhung by small towers and firing positions, making it difficult to proceed inward after the entrance was breached. The Marvão's main weakness is that the two defensive focal points are separated by such a long length of wall, without towers and requiring a large force to defend.
Another weakness - as it is with many castles - is the lack of water. The hard quartz under the walls was a great foundation and discouraged tunneling, but also made digging a well impossible. This is a very dry climate, with a deep water table. So, a large, covered cistern was built to collect rain water in case of siege. This is perhaps the most echo-ey place I've ever been. Our camera shutters rang out like slamming doors.
Although it's importance increased when Portugal and Spain began to congeal into nations, Marvão has been defended since Roman times, and was the site of an important battle between the Ceasar's troops and an army from Pompei. It's defenses were expanded by the Moors, and then by the Christian "reconquista" forces. The genesis of the present form was really only begun in 1300, though, when Portugal's nascent nation was beginning to seek out its inland boundary. The inner buildings retain a lot of Moorish character, and the courtyards feel especially Portuguese, with tiling and whitewashed walls.
It was some three centuries later, after the entire Iberian peninsula had been semi-united under the Spanish Hapsburgs, that the castle saw the most action. The Portuguese Restoration War, as it is known, was a revolt and separation from the Spanish, and was fought in large part along this border. Although it largely consisted of skirmishes and raids, it lasted for 28 years and Marvão was among the leading strongholds. Even after a peace was attained, the region was uneasy, with the neighboring sides maintaining an armed presence for two centuries, and re-engaging in the Peninsular War (part of the larger Napoleonic wars) between 1807 and 1814.
Today, the castle seems cut off from the rest of Portugal, being too far inland for the coastal tourists. There is no admission, no attendant, no signage or information - remarkable for such a large and impressively preserved castle. Walking around, we saw only two other tourists and a man who was fixing a streetlight. There'e little chance of war with Spain these days, and both countries seem to be facing away from this line.
The view from the top of the keep is spectacular, a countryside of cork and olive trees stretching out into both realms, almost empty of houses and people.

Is Cork Screwed?

Cork oaks have been an important part of Portugal’s environment and economy for centuries. In the Alentejo region, you can spot them everywhere. About 32% of all cork oaks are grown and about 50% of all cork material is harvested right here in Portugal. The industry accounts for 60, 000 jobs and $1 billion in annual export, but its future is uncertain. The cork oak is a threatened species.
It’s an incredibly sustainable material, sort of like the wool of the tree world. You see, cork harvesting doesn’t necessitate killing the tree. The bark is shorn off, carefully, by hand and only once every nine years according to law. This allows the tree enough of a rejuvenation period to ensure a long life of production. The oaks live and can be harvested for 200 years, getting better even as it ages. Almost all are marked with the number of the last year it was harvested and it was interesting to see the bark at different stages of regrowth.
Since this year's harvest ended just two months ago, it runs from May to August, we’ve seen a lot of freshly stripped cork oaks. At first, we assumed their bright red color was a marking paint or some sort of post-extraction ointment. But that deep burnt amber is what the wood looks like. It’s beautiful to see fields of them, bright against the dry grass. It would be impossible to imagine the landscape – or its ecosystem – without them.
It’s always difficult to come to terms with the endangerment of a species. There are tons of reasons why forests are necessary, vital. But it feels almost silly that this particular tree would be threatened. I mean, it’s just so darn useful! Cork is malleable, its buoyant, its impermeable, it insulates, it’s even fire resistant. The industry surrounding it leaves just a tiny carbon footprint and almost all byproducts are recyclable. Plus, it makes a mean bulletin board.
The problem is, that 70% of its usage comes from the wine industry and people are turning more and more to alternative stoppers. I’m an enormous fan of twist tops, myself. Plastic ‘corks’ just seem dumb. Even though cork wine stoppers have two of the sexiest attributes you could possibly market, they’re both the greenest and most traditional choice, their use is declining. Hearing the pop is only so fun if the wine has been ruined by ‘corking.’ So, Portugal has launched a campaign called “100% cork,” giving restaurants and bars a catchy way to tout their allegiance to cork and filling roadstop gift shops with all sorts of cork memorabilia. There are ashtrays, cups, bowls, place mats. Ice buckets seem like a particularly good idea. We still can’t tell if the hats, pencil cases and messenger bags just look like they’re made from the material or not.
An unfortunate casualty in all of this is the Iberian lynx, who lives exclusively in cork oak forests and is now one of the most endangered cat species in the world. Producers of plastic bottle stoppers and twist-tops argue that Portugal isn’t as concerned with the environment as it is their economy. Too be honest, I’m concerned about both and I’m sort of counting on the wine snobs of the world, who simply can’t bear to lose the ritual of twisting in that corkscrew, to carry Portugal through. And Birkenstock.

25 October 2011

Portuguese Azulejos

Coming to Portugal by car, the land begins mountainous and sparsely populated. There are sheep, rocks and dust – not an immediate change from Spain, except that the land suddenly feels tipped inexorably toward the sea. This isn’t the Mediterranean, it’s the open ocean, and a traveler can feel that they’re sliding down towards a hard break between shore and water. There, at the westernmost extreme of continental Europe, met by salt and seawind, one finds themselves confronted by houses that shine, clad in beautiful colors and patterns. Azulejos, in Portuguese, the tiles that cover these buildings are a distinctive and amazing part of this land.
Tiles are as Portuguese as salt cod or lonely shepherds, and come in a staggering array of shades (mostly of blue) and designs. Near the coast, everything is tiled. They’re distinctive as much for their individuality as for anything else, with whole blocks of buildings bursting with color, each façade different.
The azulejos are a holdover from pre-reconquista Iberia, when the Moors controlled the peninsula. The patterns have evolved from early designs, and the basic tin-glazing and shaping technique is little changed. Brought to Portugal in the 1400's from Morocco and Algeria, the ceramics are used to reflect sunlight, trap cold air and keep houses cool during the hot summers. Also, the tiling helps preserve the mortar and soft stone of Portuguese seaside houses, protecting them from damp and rain.
Initially, the ceramics were produced in single lots, with a workshop creating one pattern and color for an individual building. In the 1700's, the great earthquake of Lisbon flattened the city, and produced an unprecedented demand for new tiles. At the same time, Portuguese colonies - particularly in Brazil - were beginning to use Azulejos, and more shipments were needed to satisfy the growing appetite for them. This led to standardizing and mass-production, with simpler, more neo-classical designs.
Some older tile scenes still survive in the country - some even in Lisbon, like this wall in the Madre de Deus Convent. This older, Delft-style type is something of a period-specific thing, though newer murals do exist dating from the 20th century, when azulejos had a bit of a revival.
The tile museum (the Museo do Azulejo) in Lisbon is fascinating and informative, but it feels sterile. This isn’t a medium that does well in neat exhibits. Portugal is a living gallery of tiles, and part of their appeal is their usefulness and cracks. They are out in the elements on the street, subjected to ocean storms and graffiti spray cans.
Maybe the most arresting sight in the museum, we came across a woman carefully cleaning and restoring an overwhelming hoard of old ceramic.
The azulejos are also part of an old way of life, crystalized in a way that’s somewhat unique to this country. Mostly untouched by the great wars, Portugal – even and especially in Lisbon – is an old place of hung laundry and odd angles, cobblestones and crumbling beerhalls. After the great earthquake of 1755, Lisbon was rebuilt and then left to sit, almost untouched. The azulejos of that time have lasted and become part of the language of the architecture. Houses are still built with the tile, old buildings remain as vibrant as when they were first constructed.
Architecturally, azulejos are what a traveler always hopes for. So much of Europe is modern or rebuilt, or just not quite place-specific enough. Portuguese tiles are immediately connected to a sense of a specific landscape and history, like the curved rooflines of Japan or the adobe of the American southwest. Seeing them in use, one gets excited about the differences that are out there, the beauty that exists all over the world. They stand out in the mind afterward, and are ever-intriguing at the time.