28 October 2011

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.

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