You mention Portuguese food to foreigners and they either look at you quizzically or mention the ubiquitous custard tarts. Unlike its Mediterranean neighbors, France, Italy and Spain, the cuisine of this tiny nation can’t be summed up in one word, like sauce, pasta, or tapas!
I know that is simplifying the great cuisines of the world into one word but, I don’t think I could name a dish that was iconic to one of the oldest countries in the world, until my first bite in Braga. This trip to Northern Portugal opened my eyes to, not only the flavors of the region, but also the history of the dishes, thus introducing me to Portugal herself.
We landed from London on that rainy night in Braga and were taken directly to Brac, a chic, modern restaurant set directly within the ancient Roman walls of the city.
A bottle of Vinho Verde, the hyper-local wine from the nearby fertile Minho province, appeared on the table – my first Best Sip of the visit! The verde (green) alluded to, not its color, but its young, vibrant, fresh taste, making it the perfect first lesson in my education in Portuguese cuisine.
Like most carnivores, I eat a steak pretty often, but covered with Queijo Serra da Estrela, now that was something completely new and totally Portuguese.
Earning the sobriquet of “King of Portuguese Cheese,” due to its popularity, Queijo Serra da Estrela deigned to join us for our intimate jantar. Produced in the mid-North of the country, atop the highest peaks, this tangy, runny, brie-like sheep cheese made a plain steak into a culinary delight.
My Berlitz intro to Portuguese cooking didn’t stop at dessert, in between the Italian Panna Cotta and tiramisù, nestled a Brigadeiro. No, a military man was not lying atop the table, as its name would lead you to believe.
This originally Brazilian, but adopted by Portugal, omnipresent after-dinner sweet, contains everything good, like condensed milk, cocoa powder, butter and then is covered with chocolate sprinkles.
The next day, a turn around Braga brought us to da Brasileira, the coolest Art Nouveau coffeehouse this side of the Portuguese equivalent of the Mason-Dixon line. An extremely important lesson was learned while I was there, the Portuguese translation of macchiato. Italian, we all know as macchiato, French – une noisette, Spanish – café cortado and as I was in Portugal, it was imperative to know how to call the coffee I drank after every meal – the perfect café pingado.
Our second lesson in the art of the Portuguese palate brought us to the nearby Pousada Santa Marinha.
In the 1940’s, the Portuguese government bought up many culturally important buildings before they were either destroyed or fell into disrepair, e.g. monasteries, castles, palaces. After restoration, they were opened as hotels for those to rest one’s head or fill one’s belly.
The dining room at the Pousada Santa Marinha, a 12th C Augustin Monastery, with its glorious cloisters, garden, fountains & spectacular view over the city, served as classroom for lesson two of Portuguese Cuisine 101.
Caldo Verde, literally meaning Green Soup, began this wonderful lunch. I was told you couldn’t get something as Portuguese as this hearty mixture of greens, potatoes, and sausage. A drizzle of Portuguese olive oil atop and served with bread, then we were onto the second course.
When you order Alheira in Portugal, don’t assume that just because it’s called sausage that it contains pork. During the inquisition, the Jews were given two choices – conversion or exile. Those who stayed and “converted” still practiced Judaism on the sly. In order to avoid detection by the Grand Inquisitor for not consuming pork products, Alheira was born. Looking identical to a regular link, Alheira has nary a porcine feature, but constructed from poultry or game. So delicious, it caught on and now all faiths enjoy it.
Our main course was the quintessential Portuguese Arroz Malandrino – a wet rice, ours crammed with local prawns and monkfish in a fish broth, that is more like a soup. Of course, all was washed down with Vinho Verde.
Lastly in our lesson, as we prepared for our pop quiz português, dessert was served. Three sweet treats, Pudim abade, a slice of orangey Bolo de Laranja, and Toucinho Do Céu – all indicative of the country’s love for tooth-aching, syrupy, post-savory selections. FYI: There was nary a custard tart in site.
As you can imagine, after completing a graduate degree in Portuguese cuisine, we needed a walk around town and what a town Guimarães is!
Dominated by the threatening Bragança castle, this medieval jewel was settled as early as the 9th C and rumored to be the birthplace of Portugal.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Guimarães’s windy streets, quirky shops, and pleasant squares, invite visitors to spend the day exploring.
Our much too brief stop, umbrellas in hand, made me long to return to lounge over a café pingado and jesuíta, the pastry whose meringue-like topping resembled the Jesuits’ collars.
Heading to Porto for a few days, I could not wait to take on the other treats Portugal has planned for me.
PS: Port always followed every meal! If you want to know more this ruby-red liquid, have a listen to my podcast with Ana Margarida Morgado from Taylor’s Port.
TAP Portugal flies direct from London Gatwick to Porto twice daily, prices start at £43 one way including all taxes and surcharges. For further information, visit www.flytap.com or call 0345 601 0932.